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Let’s overcome the Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is not a health syndrome, but a social scheme.

Want some motivation?

We were recommended an inspirational talk on Instragram, given by Reshma Saujani, CEO/founder of @MomsFirstUS & founder of @GirlsWhoCode, for the graduating class of Smith College. I continue to think about it …

Wait, what was the “Imposter Syndrome” again?

Let’s look it up on Wikipedia:
Impostor syndrome, sometimes also called impostor syndrome, impostor phenomenon, cheating syndrome, charlatan syndrome, frothing-at-the-mouth syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, is a psychological phenomenon in which sufferers are plagued by massive self-doubt regarding their own abilities, accomplishments, and successes and are unable to internalize their personal successes.

Despite obvious evidence of their abilities, sufferers are convinced that they have faked their success and have not earned it, for example because of the Matthew effect. Achievements regarded as successes by others are explained by sufferers of this syndrome as luck, coincidence or overestimation of their own abilities by others. For some of these people, these self-doubts are so pronounced that they consider themselves impostors and live in constant fear that others might notice their perceived lack of empowerment and expose them as impostors. (…)

Psychological studies from the 1980s estimate that two out of five successful people classify themselves as impostors. According to other studies, 70 percent of all people feel like impostors under certain circumstances or times.

The impostor syndrome was originally considered a phenomenon among successful women. However, a number of studies show that men and women are affected in roughly equal numbers.

Here is the lecture excerpt in the original English, with text transcript below.


People ask me all the time, Reshma, how do I overcome impostor syndrome? The class of 2023? I’m done answering this question, and you can take my word for it. Because impostor syndrome is not my problem to solve, and it is not yours. So I want to squeeze in one last history lesson today before we leave this place, if you’ll indulge me. Let’s go back to the 1890s.

A few decades after Smith’s founding, doctors had discovered an unprecedented medical disease-a disease that threatened to wipe out the entire female population. This condition was called bicycle face. In fact, the original bike had a huge wheel in the front and a tiny little wheel in the back. Imagine a hula hoop on a dinner plate. Not easy to drive. But then came this revolutionary concept with two equally sized wheels. Imagine. The power of equality, baby. And the result: cycling is taking off. And in Europe and North America, and it’s a success for women. But with the rise of women on bikes comes the rise of the bike face. Here are the symptoms of this terrible condition. These are direct quotes, by the way: flushed cheeks, a hard, clenched jaw, bulging eyes, an expression that is either fearful, irritated or, at best, stone-faced. Yes, that is correct. Long before there was the resting bitch face, there was the resting bike face. Well, here’s the thing.

It was not only women who rode bicycles. In fact, the majority of those who had taken up the hobby for themselves were men. But the bicycle face, that was a purely female disease. And why? Because the bike face was invented just to scare women off their bikes. Here’s what was really going on back then. The bicycle became a symbol of a growing feminist movement. Suddenly, women could go farther and faster, and they no longer had to wait for a gentleman to show up with his horse and give them a ride. Suffragists could now meet from town to town, and they took their signs and attached them to the front of their handlebars. Because of the bicycle, women even began to want clothes other than Victorian hoop skirts. For example, last season women wanted airy underpants that were more suitable for cycling.

As a magazine wrote in 1896, the bicycle was just a new toy for men. But for the women, it was the speed at which they drove into the new world. Of course, it wasn’t long before the men also began to see the bicycle as more than just a new toy. For them, bicycles and the behavior they enabled women to engage in were evocative, dangerous, and threatening to the status quo. More than a century later, we can see the face of the bicycle for what it is, or what it was. It is not a medical error, but a deliberate device, a strategy used by powerful men to put women in their place and keep us from cycling.

Aside from the ridiculous name, I think there’s something deeper going on here. I think we can learn a lot about impostor syndrome from bicycle face. Both are strategies used to hold women back, and it’s up to us not to take the bait. The way our culture talks about impostor syndrome, it could be mistaken for a medical condition, but it’s not. Leslie Jaminson wrote about the origins of the term in The New Yorker a few months ago, and she recounted that the two researchers who first talked about impostor syndrome didn’t call it a syndrome at all. Rather, they referred to it as the impostor phenomenon, and it referred to high-achieving white women. It was never meant to be pathologized.

Yet the impostor syndrome, like the bicycle face before it, was rooted in misogyny. It’s no coincidence that the concept first surfaced when Title IX became law and women started going to college, or that it came up just as Roe v. Wade was being decided. And now that women had control over their bodies, they began to enter the workforce in droves. Just like the cycling phase before it, impostor syndrome was a reaction to women’s progress. But this time the backlash was even more insidious. That’s why today I don’t want to tell you how to overcome impostor syndrome, but to question the whole concept.

To do this, I want to expose some of the lies we are told about impostor syndrome, starting with the big lie that maybe there is something wrong with you, that impostor syndrome is based on an actual deficiency. Imagine you are riding your bike up a hill, and as you pedal, you fixate on your destination and clench your jaw. This does not mean that you have a bike face. It means that you ride a bike. Impostor syndrome is based on the premise that we are the problem. If we feel underqualified, it’s because we are. If we worry that we don’t have what it takes, it’s because we don’t have it. But in my experience, this discomfort, this fear, is a very natural human reaction. You know, when I first showed up at this fancy law firm, I had not one, but two college degrees from the Ivy League, and yet I felt like everyone was speaking a different language. And that was because they did. So many people there had unearned privileges that I didn’t have – big law firms were built by four people who didn’t look like me. So it’s normal to feel like you don’t belong when you don’t belong. As much as I love Taylor Swift, it’s about me. Hi.

I am not the problem. It’s not up to me, and it’s not up to me to solve the problem. This is our second lie. That’s your job, to fix yourself. If your face is red at the end of a bike ride, I wouldn’t tell you to powder your nose. But that’s pretty much what we do when it comes to imposter syndrome. That’s the message we’re sending to all of you, that it’s your job to make it go away, or at least cover it up.

I’m sure you know all the tips and tricks. Get a mentor. Learn how to say no and put yourself first. There are countless books and articles, and yes, I count my own on that list. For years, I too have been telling women how to overcome imposter syndrome.

And look, none of this is bad advice per se. I really believe we should focus less on being perfect and more on being brave. But all this “should” advice ends up being just another burden we put on women that doesn’t solve the problem. A good example of this is the gender pay gap. You know, in the United, the gender wage gap hasn’t changed in two decades. Two decades. And yet, we keep telling women that you should all, one by one, recognize your value, complete your negotiations, and demand more.

When all we should be doing is telling companies to pay women fairly, right?

Provide salary transparency, offer paid leave for childcare – both have been proven to reduce the pay gap. Companies, not individual women, have it in their power to eliminate inequalities overnight. Similarly, when it comes to Imposter Syndrome, the unspoken assumption is that if you don’t stand up for yourself and feel like an imposter, it’s your own fault. That is extraordinarily unfair, and it is not helpful. If we are truly concerned with closing the gender gap, the problem, the solution, is simply bigger than any one of us. And that brings me to my third and final lie, which is that Impostor Syndrome is inevitable. So if we don’t fix ourselves, what do we do? We turn to the source. The concept of bicycle face has been debunked by Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson. She was the first woman in the American Medical Association. She didn’t tell the women to fix their bike face, and she certainly didn’t tell them to stop pedaling. She questioned the entire premise. When so many 82% of women report suffering from Imposter Syndrome, it is hard to believe that these are just individuals. The impostor syndrome is the result of structural inequality, not individual inadequacy. Listen, I have sat across from some powerful men. CEOs, presidents, senators, and so on. And this experience was really a gift. Not because they are smarter than me, but because they are not.

I told you about the hundreds of thousands of girls I taught to program. Any one of them could outshine these guys. But it took me 30 years to learn that lesson. And that’s why I’m sharing it with you today. Because right here, right now, I want you to know that. It was never about whether we were qualified enough, smart enough, prepared enough. If you are here today, it is because you are. Instead, it has always been about the political, financial, and cultural barriers that are designed to keep us out of these spaces in the first place. It’s leaders looking around and telling women that the biggest problem you face is not childcare or paid leave or misogyny. The biggest problem is yourselves.

By this I mean that Imposter Syndrome is a distraction, it is a strategy. It’s a way to redirect our focus to our own alleged shortcomings. So we don’t focus our attention on the sexism, the racism, the classism, the homophobia, the transphobia that are embedded in the system by design.

That means we need to focus on fixing less ourselves and more those of a broken world. I know that this work is not new to many of you. Marginalized people, women of color. We have been leading the fight against systematic injustice for generations. And your generation has been fighting the status quo all their lives. So here is the task that lies ahead of you. Class of 2023, you should know that you are more than good enough so that you can devote your precious, limited time to things that are not. My great hope is that you will take on this task, this work. That you want to build a better world than the one you inherited. And I am absolutely certain that you are up to the task, because your Smith training has prepared you for this moment.
This is a special place. For the past four years, you have been part of a community where no team captain, no club president, no valedictorian has ever been held back because of their gender. And I know it’s bittersweet to leave that behind.

But consider this. You got a tiny glimpse of what the world could be, what it should be. Now bring that boldness, that action, that authenticity to the world beyond Northampton. Because you are uniquely qualified to make this world a reality. Impostor syndrome is the bicycle face of the modern era.
I hope that one day the Smithy’s of the future will see both as equally ridiculous. Just two more failed attempts to hold us back. To get there, however, requires the work of a lifetime. But I believe there is one thing you can do today on this first day of the new chapter of your life and every day ahead. Just ride a bike.

And what I mean by that is, pursue what you want to pursue. As if Imposter Syndrome is just two made up words on a page. Because they are. Do your job. Make your case. Lead your movement. Because there is nothing wrong with you. It is not your job to fix yourself, but it is your job to fix the system. And from what I’ve heard about this course, you’re going to do pretty darn well.

Because you have what it takes to be a leader. And you have a whole community. Because if you fall, they’re right here to catch you. So pedal to the metal. Feel the sun on your face. Feel the wind in your hair. Feel the joy. Feel the freedom. Feel the love. Congratulations!

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