Fakin’ it while makin’ it

By Alana Cox

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me!” Al Franken got a big laugh as Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live when he made his daily affirmation in the mirror. But sometimes I need to hear those words. And I specifically need to hear them from myself.

Stuart Smalley. Any resemblance to a certain U.S. senator is purely coincidental.

During law school, I was convinced that every moment we weren’t in class, all of my fellow students were studying. Especially when I was sitting in front of the TV. When I got good scores on tests, I felt like it was as much good luck as my preparation or skill. Despite my grades and hard work, I was convinced I wasn’t going to pass the bar. When I did, I was much quicker to attribute my success to unexpected failure by others, rather than to my own preparation.

Now in the working world, I have struggled to convince myself that I am not the only one who doesn’t have all the answers all the time. I didn’t get my job through a trumped up resume or nepotism, but I still felt a little like a fraud. When I received a positive review of my performance, I assumed everyone got good reviews. When I made a mistake, I felt like I had been unmasked.

What I’m experiencing is something Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes dubbed “impostor syndrome.” And I am not the only one.

Many incredibly successful people, and especially women and minorities, have spoken about their experience feeling as though they were faking it, while everyone else had things figured out. Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Tina Fey are only a few of the many accomplished women who struggle to accept that they deserve their own success.

For me, understanding and accepting my place in the world, especially the working world, has involved recognizing that everyone, to one extent or another, is faking it while making it. Tina Fey put it this way: “I’ve just realised that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

Strangely, finding that the people that I respect, in the workplace and elsewhere, make mistakes and don’t always feel confident, is comforting. Part of the core of impostor syndrome is feeling like everyone else has things figured out, and I am faking it.

I have not always felt like a fraud. And research tends to show that impostor syndrome may be more of a response to external circumstances than a personality trait. In high school and college, I felt confident that my accomplishments were deserved. It was when I hit the hard curve of law school that I suddenly felt like I was missing something. And recently, this feeling has been waning. I have been getting my groove back. I have been in my position almost 5 years, and I have had time to realize that no one, from the bottom to the top of the organization, has all the answers.

Alana Cox

Alana Cox

I also realized the moment I was waiting for- the moment when I would realize I am a grown up and I deserve to be working among my peers- will never come. There is no moment in time when everything falls into place and you say “I’ve made it- I deserve to have what I have.”

I truly appreciate the people who have been willing to say that despite all their outward appearances of success, they felt they were frauds. Realizing that I was not alone  helped me get past some of the self doubt and allowed me to celebrate my accomplishments.

The impostor syndrome left in me makes me feel I am unqualified to say this, but I am going to say it anyway: if you ever feel like you are a fraud among accomplished peers, realize many of them feel the same way. Give yourself a little credit. You are good enough, you are smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.

Alana Cox is an attorney living in Salem, Oregon. She enjoys road trips to Lakeview with her husband Jason.


Editor’s note: I’ve known Alana since before she came into the world. Her parents, Tom and Elsa Guiney, date back to pre-parenthood college days with Lori and me. She and our daughter Simone are the same age and have followed somewhat parallel tracks, attending college on the East Coast and returning to Oregon to work in the same state agency.

Tomorrow: “Sarah Grimké‘s moral courage” by Rachel Lippolis


11 thoughts on “Fakin’ it while makin’ it

  1. Wow … the essay I tried to write for this year’s VOA was titled “An Imposter” and echoed much of what you wrote, Alana. When I read the last words — “You are good enough, you are smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” — tears welled up in my eyes. Thank you for articulating what I feel … and, based on Nike’s comment and what you wrote, what so many others feel. It’s nice to be among friends! 🙂

  2. Ohhhh, you have got my number. I especially have felt that way this week after coming off a 10 day vacation. I’m a step behind and making mistakes on everything. I think if you’ve made it through law school you’re probably smart enough 🙂

  3. I have only been a school administrator (assistant principal) for 2 years, going on my third this fall. I have often felt inadequate, in spite of my organizational stature–an imposter, if you will. But there’s tremendous power that comes with this feeling of insecurity. It’s called humility. When you are open with colleagues (especially those that might be subordinate to you in an organizational structure) about your own sense of inadequacy, you earn tremendous respect. I am an open book with my school staff, and they respect me tremendously for that. There’s nothing more obnoxious than an imposter who carries on as an imposter. Please join me in advocating for a restoration of Humility (and its sibling Modesty) to their rightful places in our hierarchy of cultural values!

  4. “Please join me in advocating for a restoration of Humility (and its sibling Modesty) to their rightful places in our hierarchy of cultural values!” Well said, Aki. I’ve seen enough Arrogance and Condescension to last me a lifetime.

  5. Thanks so much for the comments! I think finding the balance between humility and confidence is the challenge. But I certainly hope that as I build my confidence that I am not an impostor, I will remember that I need to be as genuine in my humility as I am in my belief in myself. Some of the lack of humility in others (ahem, law school students) is what made it so hard to believe I belonged with them, and I certainly don’t want to be part of the problem for anyone else going through self doubt.

  6. Word. I am a fellow IS contender. And while I wholeheartedly agree with the humility is dope faction, I also think confidence(not arrogance) is where it’s at. Sharing our insecurities and celebrating our strengths should be equally important. At least IMHO.

    And, for what it’s worth, I think you’re all that and a bag of chips. Doggone it.

  7. Cheers to Smalley, and cheers to you. This fraud issue has sometimes existed in my professional life, now it is bleeding over into the personal one. As a person meeting new people in her life, I always think there must be something wrong with someone if they think I’m “all that:” I start analyzing whether the person has done his research or isn’t smart enough to know any better, etc. It cracks me up that I sometimes think I’m so smart that I know better what someone else should think and feel. Can’t wait to get so many of us together in the same room! HA!

  8. Alana – I thought of your post when I read this in George’s blog post today: “You get into West Point because you’re good academically, you’re a good leader, you’re the team captain or whatever,” Arianna Efaw says. “Then you get here and realize that everybody’s exactly like you, only better.”

    The story of me is this: “you realize that everybody’s exactly like you, only better.” The imposter syndrome in spades!

    Clearly your post resonated with me since a month later I return to it in my mind when I read something unrelated. Again, good job.

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