You Belong Here: How to Overcome the Impostor Syndrome
“Where did you go to school?” Stanford. I smiled and moved to the next person. “You?” MIT. “That’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no?” No, I mean, yeah, the MIT. I regained my composure and moved on to a different face. “School?” Harvard. Vanderbilt. Carnegie Mellon…I thought that maybe I was in the wrong room before, but now I knew for sure that I must be. Then, alas, I heard a foreign accent…ah, a breath of fresh air. I turned and saw that she was Indian. India, Nigeria—same thing when you are both thousands of miles away from home. I quickly approached her, seeking some solace. Surely she must have attended a no-name school (like me) in the middle of nowhere (also like me). “Nervous?” I asked, trying to diffuse my own nervousness. “No, jet lagged,” she replied, then continued, “I completed my Masters program in Cambridge, UK, last week, then flew to IIT in India to collect my undergrad transcripts before flying here to Houston last night.” My jaw dropped. [Cambridge is one of the best schools in Europe, and IIT, India is even more competitive than MIT,USA].
To run or not to run
I wanted to bolt for the exit, but it was too late. In a few minutes, we all would start a group interview for a chance to work with the biggest energy company in the world. It’s a dream job that is reserved for those that went to the right high schools and the types of colleges named above. The panel of interviewers told us to be friendly with one another, that we weren’t competitors. But no one there—judging by the stifled smiles and strained chuckles—believed that. The reality was that the 12 of us that day were competing for one, maybe two, spots. I knew, leading up to this day, that the day-long interview process would be tough. I also knew I would meet students from other schools. What I was utterly unprepared for was the caliber of graduates I would see. I didn’t know I would be up against literally the best and the brightest. So I did what I normally do when under tension: I went to the bathroom!
You belong there
I paced back and forth in the bathroom, shuffling through my past in my mind to see if there was any personal precedent for what I was going through that could act as a guide of some sort. When had I ever been up against true gladiators and prevailed? To be sure, I had overcome challenges before: my parents’ deaths, third-world poverty, sickness, to name a few. But they were all a test of my endurance, more than anything else. What I currently faced was different. Shortly, I would be asked to pit my wits against the Harvards, Stanfords and MITs in an all-day slugfest. I told myself, under bated breaths, to do my best. I tucked my shirt in, wiped off beads of sweat from my brow, and then, Ding!, a text came in. It was my sister. The SMS read: You belong there, you know that, act like it. That was all I needed.
I got back to the room and heard, “You can now begin.” The next eight hours of that day remains a blur. It was as though a different me walked out of that bathroom. The real me returned when, later that day, I got a call saying that I aced the interview and had been offered the job. “I am not surprised,” Brian—one of my fellow interviewees who finished from UC Berkeley—said. “Judging by the quality of your responses, the maturity of your interactions, and most importantly, your carriage, I knew you would be chosen.” I have no idea what he saw in me that day, but I can tell you this. Before walking out of that bathroom, I looked once more in the mirror and said: Michael, you belong here.
Overcome the impostor syndrome
I would not have named it such then, but I later learned that what I experienced that day was consistent with what psychologists call “impostor syndrome.” An impostor is a fraud. A fraud assumes a character or an identity to perpetrate deception. Why it is a syndrome is that many who aren’t frauds experience feeling like one when they reach a new level of achievement. It is one of the biggest handicaps to success. Because once you think you are a fraud, you begin to doubt your accomplishments. Eventually, you begin to act less than you are capable of and, in the end, achieve much less than you should. In short, the thought that you are not supposed to be where you are can become self-fulfilling. The way I know how to overcome the impostor syndrome is to repeatedly tell yourself: I belong here.
Never stop fighting
The more I reflect on my interview experience, the more I see that it is really not different from other times in my life when I reached a new level. I am first excited, but then I start to feel so unworthy, so undeserving of the achievement. I catch the impostor syndrome again…until I start to notice a dip in my performance. Then I tell myself the same thing my sister reminded me of: you belong here, so act like it! And then, the new level that I’ve reached starts to feel normal, like I have been there all my life.
Henry Ford was credited with saying, “The man who thinks he can and the one who thinks he cannot are both right.” The difference is not in ability but in mindset. I have found that, if you feel like you belong somewhere, people will welcome you as one of theirs. Folks ask me all the time how to prepare for an interview, and my number one advice is “See your interviewers as your colleagues.” If you behave like one of them, you will be one of them. It works in other areas of life too. Impostor syndrome is real, but it has a cure: positive self-talk. You fully deserve to be where you are, and you are destined for even more. You belong here. Act like it.