Imposter syndrome: What if you didn’t have to fake it till you make it

6-minute read

Everyone can feel inadequate at times. As entrepreneurs we’ve all been there — wracked with worries and full of doubt over our own abilities and competence.

“Am I good enough for this?”

“Am I the right person for the job?”

“Will I be able to raise money? Can I land large contracts?”

There is no job description for building something from the ground up. Most entrepreneur is doing something that’s never been done before. The truth is that there is no preset mold for what an entrepreneur does or is.

Yet still, our irrational thoughts continue: persistent doubts, feelings of inadequacy, the suspicions that we’re only successful because of luck.

The current climate only makes it worse. For many founders, the isolation created by the COVID pandemic has amplified the feeling that we don’t deserve our success. This can be especially hard for women entrepreneurs who don’t have the same depth of network and role models as do their male counterparts.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the internalized and irrational feeling that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. It affects people who set very high expectations for themselves, such as “perfectionists” who have always achieved their goals, experts who want to know everything about a subject before speaking about it, or overachievers who always push themselves harder than everyone else.

Working in an environment where people don’t look and sound like you can play a major role in fostering imposter feelings. Minority groups as well as women working in STEM fields are often deeply impacted by stereotypes about what competence looks like. It can be hard to picture yourself as the founder of a successful tech company when the image that conjures up looks nothing like you.

This is unfortunate because our experience in the Women in Technology (WIT) Venture Fund has shown us, to no one’s surprise, that ethnicity and gender play absolutely no role in competence. If anything, seeking out companies with women founders has been our competitive advantage in building a successful VC fund.

I’ve accepted that I see things differently than do my male colleagues, and that it’s a strength, not a weakness. I’ve learned not to apologize for my success or for who I am.

Lean into it

I’ve felt like an imposter my whole career. At every point along the way I’ve felt like saying: “You want me to do what? I have no idea how we will get there.” Yet I haven’t let that feeling stop me from doing things and being confident in my ability to succeed.

I’ve learned to trust myself and to lean into my leadership roles—the roles I built for myself. I’ve learned that I’m often better prepared for meetings than most people in the room. I’ve accepted that I see things differently than do my male colleagues, and that it’s a strength, not a weakness. I’ve learned not to apologize for my success or for who I am.

I’ve learned that it’s ok to have moments of doubt, to be intimidated by the tasks ahead of me and to question my ability to succeed. But I’ve also learned to shed the doubt and to lean into, to turn the negative into a positive, to accept that I’m a founder and a boss.

I’ve learned to surround myself with people who are who complement me and are smarter than me in areas where I have less expertise or experience. People who are skilled at doing things I don’t know how to do. I have a good team, and I trust them to do their work. I trust the process.

I have accepted that things are never going to be perfect and that I won’t get everything right all the time. But if I can get it right 80% to 90% of the time—that’s pretty darn good.

This attitude has allowed me to build several companies and technology investment funds. I didn’t always know exactly what needed to be done; it wasn’t always smooth, but I didn’t let that stop me from getting things done.

You don’t need to fake anything

As part of my work with the WIT Fund, I’ve met many founders and CEOs who are unsure of themselves.

The advice they often heard was to “fake it till you make it.” The idea is that you could hide your insecurities to succeed in business and grow into your role. People are told to put on an air of confidence to go pitch in person, because personality and charisma are key factors of success. While those things help, the truth is that you don’t need to fake anything.

My advice is for everyone who wants to start a business, though it applies especially to female founders: you don’t need to hide who you are. It’s ok to admit that you don’t have all the answers. That you feel doubt. Nobody will penalize you for speaking the truth. From our point of view as investors, admitting to what you don’t know but expressing that you’ll figure it out can be one of the best ways to build a sustainable relationship.

And this goes both ways. VCs don’t have all the answers either. We also need to admit that. We are relying on founders and management to find answers to very hard problems. This is why we are investing in your company.

Focus on self-awareness

If you feel doubt, that’s normal and healthy. Doubt doesn’t worry me. Most founders will feel like imposters at some point, but not everyone is self-aware enough to recognize it.

Self-aware founders will realize what their strengths are, develop those core competencies and bring in people to fill the gap where they are weaker.

What’s more important is whether you recognize that feeling in yourself. It’s a lot easier to work with someone who is aware of their own doubts and limitations. It allows us to help them work through those issues. Self-aware founders will realize what their strengths are, develop those core competencies and bring in people to fill the gap where they are weaker.

Successful founders are the ones who can relax into being themselves instead of trying to be someone they’re not.

We’ve all been there

Having doubts about your ability to create a company is normal. Building a start-up is incredibly hard. It’s healthy to question your ability to do it.

Almost every successful founder will tell you that they’ve felt like a fraud at one point or another. We’ve all been there and it’s ok to feel that way.

As women, we must stop apologizing for our success, for being in the room, for being different. Lean into it. Don’t “fake it until till you make it”, because remember: you don’t have to fake anything.

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