​Impostor Syndrome: a Vicious or Virtuous Cycle?

by Leah Potkin, E&W 2018

I have impostor syndrome—both as the youngest member of SpotHero‘s Executive Team, and as an English major sitting in my business classes at Kellogg. If you haven’t heard of impostor syndrome, it’s quite the hot topic in the business world at the moment, and is defined as feelings of inadequacy or fraud, despite proven success. I’ve been told my “IS” is something I need to beat, like a cold or the flu. But I believe IS drives me to work harder, pushing me to always strive for more.

I first became acquainted with IS at work, where I went from working an entry level service role to leading a 50-person department before age 25. Despite having earned my seat, self-doubt enveloped me daily. It was as if I had a devil on my shoulder, constantly prodding me with his fiery pitchfork of self-doubt. Some of my mentors encouraged me to just “get over it.” Once again, IS was treated like a sickness I needed to overcome. But instead, I channeled and embraced my IS, using it as a constant reminder that I had to continue to earn my stripes. In this instance, my IS led me to take the GMAT, apply to a top business school and begin my journey at Kellogg.

What I first understood as a vicious cycle of negative thinking, I soon came to see as a virtuous cycle of motivation. I’m now quite familiar with this cycle, and often seek out opportunities that I know will make me feel a bit uncomfortable at the start. It goes a little something like this. Phase 1: Find myself in a situation where I doubt my ability to succeed. I’m a complete fraud, after all. Phase 2: Channel my self-doubt into fuel that pushes me to go the extra mile. YouTube tutorials and coffee meetings aplenty. Phase 3: Succeed in activity or accomplish initial goal. Rinse, wash, repeat.

For the athletes out there, I’ve found it helpful to view these stages as parallel to those of a hard workout session. You start off slow, unsure if your body will actually be able to pull this off. You break a small sweat, and before long, endorphins kick in and you hit your stride. By the end, you’ve crushed your workout and have the sweat to prove it. Rinse, shower, repeat.

So, is impostor syndrome really something we need to beat and overcome? Or is it instead a motivational tool that drives us to be our best selves? For me, IS has become one of the most important tools in my kit. I’m closing in on Phase 3 of my Kellogg journey, and I’m beginning to feel that familiar IS tickle in my throat as I embark on my next challenge post-MBA. No antibiotics for me, thank you, I’ll let the IS run its course.