Imposter Syndrome: the self-doubt that (often) comes with success

What do these four celebrities have in common (apart from fame)? And do you know who the guy in the bottom right is?! It might surprise you that these incredibly successful people have all spoken about dealing with Imposter Syndrome.

It seems bizarre that after striving for what you want in your career, putting in more hard yards than you can count, you might come out the other side feeling undeserving of your success.

But that’s how it is for people who suffer from Imposter Syndrome, a feeling of inadequacy and a baseless fear that you’ve faked your way to success. Rather than feeling triumph in reaching their goals, these people feel like they are never good enough.

The effect can be detrimental both professionally and personally and, to at least some degree, most of us can relate to it.

I got to thinking about Imposter Syndrome after reading that many extremely successful people have struggled with it, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author Neil Gaiman and even Neil Armstrong (above, bottom right), the first man to walk on the moon!

Photo of Emma Watson
Emma Watson says her self-doubt has increased alongside her success.

Actress Emma Watson says the feeling increased as she became more successful: “I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved’.”

Are we all Imposter Syndrome sufferers?

I think this imposter feeling is something most people who have experienced some level of career or business success can identify with – that nagging question in the back of your mind: am I good enough?

And, in fact, American educational psychology researcher Dr Kevin Cokely has conducted several studies into Imposter Syndrome and says 70 percent of the population reportedly feel like an imposter.

Chris Martin on stage
Coldplay’s Chris Martin embraces the dose of “paranoia” that has come with his stardom.

A little bit of doubt can be a good thing if it spurs you on to work harder and go that little bit further. I like Chris Martin’s comment on this: “It’s helpful to have some arrogance with paranoia. If we were all paranoia, we’d never leave the house. If we were all arrogance, no one would want us to leave the house.”

But doubt becomes detrimental if it starts eating away at your confidence and affecting your performance.

I’m not an expert like Dr Cokely (or world-renowned actor/author/astronaut for that matter!), but I have developed my own techniques for dealing with doubt.

Reality-check your success

First and foremost, I think it’s important to learn to differentiate between self-doubt and reality. This takes practice.

I’ve found that logically assessing your own achievements is a good way to tackle negative thought and emotions. Do a regular stocktake of your quantifiable, tangible achievements – actually write them down to make them more ‘official’ and so you can see in black and white what you’ve done.

And try not to just focus on the end goal. Even when you’re constantly striving to reach the summit, it’s important to take a moment to enjoy the view on your way up by celebrating the milestones – big and small – along the way. 

Get a fresh perspective on your performance

It’s true that we’re our own harshest critics and it’s easy to get caught up in your own self-doubt so it can help to ask others for their perspective on your abilities and what they see as your achievements.

Talking to people about the “am I good enough?” imposter thoughts can help you recognise that the thoughts are not a true reflection of your abilities, nor are they unusual – you’re likely to find others have felt the same way.

Seek out a supportive environment

Surround yourself with positive people who recognise and build your sense of worth. In a workplace, it can be as simple as having colleagues who give you positive feedback and acknowledge your achievements.

Mentors can also be incredibly effective in this regard. Whether you seek out a mentor through an official programme or opt for a more casual mentoring arrangement – perhaps with a colleague you admire – this type of professional relationship is a great way to get a career and confidence-boosting perspective on your skills and performance. The reverse is also true: becoming a mentor to someone else can benefit their career and give your confidence a boost at the same time.

I’ve discovered that Imposter Syndrome is a more common problem than we might think, but it doesn’t have to be a constant or continuing one. Self-belief is a must in business, so it’s important to acknowledge when doubt creeps in and deal with it so that you’re not dragged down by false thoughts.

Chris Niarchos is a lifelong entrepreneur and founder of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.

 

Why age is no barrier to becoming an entrepreneur

Older man holding a stop sign
Stop thinking age is a barrier to entrepreneurial success!

Think you’re too old to strike out and start your own business? Think again. As long as you’ve got a good idea and the right attitude, age is no barrier to launching a successful company.

In fact, that extra experience you have could give you an advantage when you’re starting out as an entrepreneur. I may have set up my first business when I was 22, but during my career I’ve met many talented entrepreneurs who launched their companies much later in life.

Be prepared to step outside your comfort zone

The one thing you really need if you want to become an entrepreneur is the bravery to step outside your comfort zone and test yourself in a completely new situation.

There’s no denying this can be a big step, especially if you’re used to working for other people and following their lead. But if you’re passionate about your idea, you’ve done your homework and you’re prepared to put in the hard work and pick up new skills along the way, there’s no reason to let your date of birth stop you from following your dreams.

Rather than seeing your age as a problem, focus on the fact that you’ll have a wealth of skills and life experience to bring to bear in your new role.

Take a look around you

Sure, we all know about Zuckerberg and Musk and Chesky – the entrepreneurs who became incredibly successful at an incredibly young age. But there are just as many examples of successful business people who launched their own companies with a lot more mileage on their career clocks.

Finding out about these entrepreneurs and their stories could give you the inspiration you need to take the next step on your own journey to starting a company.

One of my favourite examples is the late Leo Goodwin. He worked as an accountant in America until the age of 50, when he saw a gap in the insurance market and launched the Government Employee’s Insurance Company (GEICO).

Working with his wife, he quickly grew the business and by the end of his first year, he had employed 12 people and was providing nearly 4,000 insurance policies. Now, GEICO has over 14 million policyholders and employs tens of thousands of workers.

Another inspirational story is that of Carol Gardner. At the age of 52 and newly divorced, she entered a competition to create a Christmas card featuring her dog Zelda. She won, and the positive response she got encouraged her to set up a greeting card company that she called Zelda Wisdom. A few years later, the business was valued at an impressive $50 million.

Wally Blume also arrived in the business world later in life. After a successful 20-year career in the dairy industry, he decided to open his own company in 1995. Called Denali Flavors, it specialises in creating and marketing innovative ice cream flavours. Its most popular product, Moose Tracks, makes around $80 million a year through licensing agreements.

Talented ‘older-preneurs’ like these show just how much can be achieved by going it alone and starting your own business – regardless of your age.

Chris Niarchos is a lifelong entrepreneur and founder of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.

 

What you want to know about running a business (but are afraid to ask)

Picture of question mark icons
Chris Niarchos answers the business questions you may be afraid to ask.

Lots of people like the idea of working for themselves, but there’s no getting around the fact that taking that leap of faith and actually setting up a company can be a daunting prospect.

If you’re thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, here are a few questions you’ll probably want the answers to, but may be too afraid to ask.

What if my business fails?

It’s normal to have some doubts when you establish a business. I was just 22 when I set up my first company and I had anxieties about it at the time. When you’re new to something, it’s completely natural to wonder if you’ve got what it takes to succeed.

However, during my career I’ve learned that you can’t let concerns about potential failure stop you from pursuing your goals. It’s impossible to guarantee success with every business venture, but you can guarantee that you’ll keep going if things don’t go to plan.

It’s important to realise that many of the most highly regarded and successful businesspeople have experienced major setbacks along the way. What these people have in common is the resilience required to pick themselves up and carry on.

Sir James Dyson is a great example. The inventor and entrepreneur, who’s now said to be worth over £3 billion, went through his savings and over 5,000 failed prototypes before he developed the bagless vacuum cleaner that propelled him to fame and fortune. Speaking to Entrepreneur.com, the inventor said that failure helps you to progress. He added: “You never learn from success, but you do learn from failure.”

Will I be able to handle the pressure?

Pressure is an unavoidable part of running a company and you won’t really know if you can cope with the stress until your business is up and running and you’re faced with the challenges this brings.

There are things you can do to lower pressure levels though. For example, try to avoid the temptation to micromanage all aspects of your company. Attempting to control every little detail yourself can mean your workload quickly becomes unmanageable. Alternatively, if you quickly get into the habit of delegating certain tasks to the appropriate people, you should find it easier to keep your to-do list – and consequently your stress levels – in check.

Also, try to understand that all entrepreneurs feel the pressure. This isn’t a sign of weakness, but it is something you have to learn to control. Many of the best businesspeople use pressure as a driving force to make them stronger and better in their roles. 

Who can I turn to if I don’t have the answers?

You can’t expect to be the full package when you first start out as an entrepreneur. There will be things you need to learn and you’re bound to make the occasional mistake. This is where a business mentor can help. A trusted and experienced advisor can provide you with invaluable advice and give you added reassurance and confidence when you need it most.

Businessman and author Zig Ziglar summed up this idea when he said: “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.”

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.

3 entrepreneurs who refused to take no for an answer

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, never submit to failure. Do not be fobbed off with mere personal success or acceptance.”

Nicknamed the British Bulldog and known for his tenacious spirit and unrelenting bravery, it was clear that Churchill adhered to this motto in his political life. In my opinion, he demonstrated the kind of persistence and courage that entrepreneurs need if they’re going to be successful.

After decades of experience in business, I am well acquainted with the word ‘no’, but I haven’t let it stop me from pursuing my dreams. I know, however, that when you’re faced with apparent dead-ends time and again and your goals seem unattainable, it’s tempting to throw in the towel. If you’re in this position right now, you might be inspired by the experiences of these entrepreneurs.

Brian Chesky, Airbnb

Picture of Brian Chesky on an ipad
Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky initially struggled to find investors but his company is now worth $24billion. (aradaphotography / Shutterstock.com)

CEO and co-founder of peer-to-peer accommodation rental company Airbnb Brian Chesky is worth £2.9 billion today and was named a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship by the Obama Administration in 2015. However, at the start of his career, the now 35-year-old was also familiar with the word ‘no’.

Early on, Chesky and his Airbnb co-founders were introduced to seven eminent investors in Silicon Valley and pitched them in an attempt to raise $150,000 in exchange for 10% of the business. They received rejections from five of the investors, and the other two never replied! However, Chesky and his associates were undeterred and continued to pursue their goals. Today Airbnb is valued at £24 billion and has been used by more than 60 million people.

Kavita Shukla, Fenugreen

Kavita Shukla is the founder and CEO of Fenugreen, a social enterprise tackling global food waste with her own invention, FreshPaper, which keeps food fresh. The young entrepreneur has been awarded the INDEX: Design to Improve Life Award – the world’s greatest prize for design – and has been named in TIME Magazine’s ‘5 Most Innovative Women in Food’, but her success grew from humble origins.

Shukla started out mixing spices in pond water in her garage when she was 12 years old in an attempt to reproduce the benefits of a homebrewed spice tea her grandmother gave her in India. She eventually came up with the idea of creating a spice-infused paper that prevents bacterial and fungal growth, and worked on the product all through high school and university.

Despite failing to get the interest she needed from potential donors to create a large-scale non-profit, and being told repeatedly that she “needed more experience, more degrees, more money”, she persisted.

Shukla believed in her idea and invested $150 in spices and paper-making materials to create a local non-profit. The product became a huge success and is now sold in supermarkets in more than 35 countries worldwide.

Joy Mangano, Miracle Mop

Picture of Joy Mangano
Joy Mangano created the Miracle Mop to make her own household chores easier. (Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com)

The story of Joy Mangano is the stuff of Hollywood movies – quite literally. Joy, a film loosely based on the American inventor and entrepreneur’s life, was released in 2015.

As a divorced mother of three struggling to make ends meet in the 1980s, Mangano found inspiration in the drudgery of household chores. Frustrated with mops that didn’t last long and required the user to bend down to wring them out, she created what would become known as the Miracle Mop.

She borrowed money to make 100 prototypes and started selling them locally. In 1992, a TV shopping channel bought 1,000 of the mops, but the executives asked her to take them all back when they failed to sell.

Believing strongly in her idea, Mangano refused to take the mops back and demanded the chance to sell them herself. In her first appearance, more than 18,000 units were sold. Within 10 years, her company was selling more than US$8 million worth of mops every year.

In 1999, she joined the Home Shopping Network, where she now generates in excess of £110 million in annual sales. Today, Mangano is said to be worth £38 million.

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.