THE BLOG

If They Only Knew: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

05/19/2015 11:00 am ET | Updated May 08, 2016

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"My career just hasn't gone the way I wanted it to," a friend just told me over lunch. He quickly followed up with "but everything seems to be working for you."

He didn't say it to be snide or even envious, just as I don't recount that conversation now to be boastful. He was just stating what was, to him, a fact. I hear it a lot.

  • "I wish I could build my business the way you've built yours."

  • "What do you have to worry about? You're a successful lawyer."
  • "I'm just not as confident as you are."
  • We all think these things of others, don't we? We look at the LinkedIn updates, the leadership advice on Twitter, and all the other posts on social and believe that the façade, for those people, actually represents the whole. Even as accomplished professionals, we sometimes see ourselves as mascots among players. For ourselves, we see the façade for what it is and we think, "if they only knew..."

    I can recall many times standing in small conversational groups hearing someone talk about those unfortunate others - those who didn't have enough cash reserves in their companies, those who held onto underperforming people too long, those who failed to see that this or that was coming. Those who somehow fell short.

    But we...WE in the group, we were different.

    We were smart and capable in all things. We were better than they.

    To my knowledge, I have never been the speaker in that particular scene, but I have nodded knowingly despite the soft and constant self-admission that I was not better - that I had committed each of these sins and more.

    If they only knew.

    Those are bleak times, you know? They have been for me, anyway - those flashes when I am as certain as I could be that if my friends only knew, they would turn away. That if my clients only knew, they would look elsewhere. That if my employees only knew, I would lose them.

    I am here to say, however, that while those are certainly dark moments, they are not pitch black. You see, over the years, I have found and I nurture three true and constant points of light:

    My First Point of Light

    It was 1988, and I was in my first year of practice. I was working with my father, doing a bit of everything, but mostly representing claimants in personal injury claims. We had a settlement come in. Not huge, but certainly nothing to be sneezed at. I asked my secretary to deposit the check into our escrow account so that when it cleared, I could pay the outstanding medical bills, pay our fee and disburse the balance to the client.

    Days later, the client called to ask if the funds had cleared and I called the bank to find out. The money wasn't there. My secretary swore she deposited into our escrow account, but the bank said otherwise.

    The client filed a claim, known as a grievance against my father, myself and our firm. I'm not sure if he really felt we had stolen the money, but the facts remained that we had it in our possession, most of it was his, and we couldn't give it to him. The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission scheduled a hearing on the matter. I was looking squarely at disbarment one year after having been sworn in.

    I didn't take the money, but I couldn't find it either.

    About a month before the hearing, I attended a seminar with my mother. She, too, was an attorney, and we sometimes went to seminars together. Sitting next to her among all those other lawyers, I whispered to her that I felt like my forehead was emblazoned with a scarlet A. I was under investigation. I was less than.

    I felt I shouldn't have even been in the same room with those other people.

    What my mother whispered back was that this: You never know.

    "You never know," she said, "what these other people have been through or are still fighting. The only thing you know for sure, and I can promise you this, is that they have each fought their own private battle."

    That was my first point of light - that no matter what I'm fighting, I still deserve to be in the room. [1]

    My Second Point of Light

    My second point of light came from a casual acquaintance.

    He was the father of a long-time friend. I didn't really know him all that well. In fact, we hadn't passed more than a casual greeting in all the years I had come to his house.

    I was waiting for my friend to get home from work and I had beaten him there. As I sat in his parents' living room waiting, his father sat down next to me. To this day, I don't know what possessed him to ask, but he did.

    He asked how I was and by that I mean that he really asked. Not casually or as a way to break the silence. He asked like he wanted to know. He said I looked tired...worried.

    It was during the same period I referenced in the first story. The Attorney Grievance Commission had just asked, by certified letter, for all my banking records. I thought I was about to be disbarred for a crime I didn't commit but couldn't explain.

    He asked how I was, and I told him.

    He didn't solve my problem. He didn't console me with a worse story from his own life or with an unknowing assurance that it would be OK. He just listened and then, after I admitted my own fear, failing and unworthiness, he continued the conversation exactly as before.

    He knew everything, including my worst image of myself, and it never occurred to him to turn away.

    That conversation serves as my second point of light - that others may not run even if they know.

    My Third Point of Light

    I added my third point of light just recently - decades removed from the appearance of the first two. I was speaking with a professional contact of relatively recent vintage. I know him to be brilliant and accomplished in his field. He is connected, successful, well thought of and deserving of every accolade heaped upon him.

    He told me that everything with him was not necessarily as it seemed.

    He told me about what he was battling, and he told me about how, not too long prior to our conversation, in a private moment, he wept.

    How many social and professional mores did he break with that admission? Men don't weep; they grit their teeth. Successful business people don't weep; they triumph. Hell, they even only face adversity as a literary device to make the story of their eventual triumph all the more compelling. And if, for some reason, they do weep, they sure as hell don't tell anyone about it.

    I don't even know if he considered it an admission; he said it so matter-of-factly. But hearing it, I was startled. I realized something at that exact moment. I realized that my admiration for him had not changed - not even a little.

    He had just told me that the all-conquering image I had of him was all in my head, that he faced a lot of the same battles I had waged and that he, like me, sometimes felt bereft and overwhelmed. Yet I thought and continue to think of him as an incredibly successful person well worthy of admiration.

    It was in this conversation that I found my third point of light - that knowing the battles of others diminishes their standing not one whit. Perhaps the knowledge even raises it some.

    So there they are, three points of light.

    It is an admittedly small constellation to show for an almost 30 year professional career, but perhaps they're more valuable because they're so few.

    Besides, one thing's for sure: Even a little light can be a lot when you need it.

    [1] The end of the grievance story, in case you were wondering, was that my secretary had deposited the money in an old escrow account which my father had thought he closed. She grabbed the wrong deposit slip and neither I nor my father knew there was an old deposit slip to be grabbed. The money was found and disbursed. The grievance was dismissed. The scar on my psyche from all those years ago is now just barely visible.