Tag Archives: impostor syndrome

Are experts overrated?

In my work with young people who are thinking about setting up their own business, I constantly stress the importance of honesty. I mean honesty with themselves as much as with anything else. Being self-aware and having the confidence to share personal weaknesses, as well as strengths, can be very powerful in our famous-for-15-minutes-for-doing-nothing society.

Of course, we’re taught to ‘present our best side’ at job interviews and on CVs and a certain amount of ‘embellishment of the facts’ is almost expected. But I tell young entrepreneurs when it comes to business plans, it’s best to be realistic but positive. Business pitches with sky-high sales expectations and false claims about relevant skills (‘extensive experience in market gardening’ was how one young man described his two-week work placement) will be found out and can ruin reputations.

Which is not to say we have to spend all our time telling others why we’re a liability rather than an asset – that’s not the way to make friends and influence people.

In a previous advisory role I worked with charities and social enterprises and, at a first meeting, I’d say “tell me a bit about your organisation”. I still remember the Chief Officer who said “we’re good at this, this and this, we need to get better at this, this and this”. Here was someone I could work with – he knew what he didn’t know (if that doesn’t sound too Donald Rumsfeld). Not surprisingly I’ve forgotten those who, at that first meeting, denied they had any areas for improvement (in which case, why was I being brought in to support them?)

Readers of earlier blogs will know of my love of language and my loathing of carelessly used abbreviations, jargon, and red-rag words such as ‘deliver’ and ‘engage’ which are so vague as to be meaningless. It’s a lexicon for self-styled experts, so insecure in their knowledge and status that they feel the need to dispense wheelbarrow loads of bullshit.

Whenever I doubt my own knowledge (more often than not!) I tell myself that a real expert is prepared to admit their ignorance. Many years ago I was at a public meeting with the then Chairman of the Forestry Commission. He was asked an apparently very straight forward questions by a lad in his early teens. Lord Taylor (the ‘tree expert’) paused for a moment then said, “you won’t believe this, but I don’t know the answer to that… but I’ll find out and let you know.

And even if you are an expert – with certificates, letters after your name, and all the associated bells and whistles to prove it – don’t think you can sit back and bask in the glory. There’s something else to keep you awake at night – the ‘impostor syndrome’. Also known as the fraud syndrome, the term was coined as recently as 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It afflicts high-achieving individuals who are unable to acknowledge and accept their accomplishments and, as a result, they have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud’.

So maybe bullshitting has its appeal after all…

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