From EA to CEO: How I survived Imposter Syndrome in the Silicon Valley
It's really great to find success and happiness, especially in a dog eat dog place like the Silicon Valley, but if you are like me who struggles with self doubt and insecurities, the other side of the coin is a much darker, much more sinister enemy: your own mind.
I found myself surrounded by money, billionaires, tech celebrities and success in launching my own business. Anyone who was looking in from the outside would say I led a fantastic life, and honestly I made sure to portray it in that exact way. But in reality I was left in a very dark place, feeling completely underwhelmed in my own life not believing that I did enough to deserve any attention.
I believed everything I had accomplished was a fluke, that I somehow managed to scam some of the smartest minds in the world into believing in me. I had a dark cloud hanging over every single happy moment and in the back of my mind I was terrified that one day someone would stand up, point right in my face and scream, "FRAUD!! YOU'RE A FRAUD AND A LIAR AND A SCAM ARTIST!"
It's the exact reason I have written several books and never published them. It is the exact reason it took me forever to actually launch my own company; I was afraid not only to launch, I was embarrassed to announce to family and friends that I started a company let alone admit it in front of the entire world.
I was afraid to be proud of myself...
"Imposter Syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Imposter Syndrome is not an actual disorder, the term was created by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978." (Dalla-Camina)
One of my biggest fears is being proven that I truly have no skill, my success has all been because of dumb luck and any second the carpet will be ripped from underneath me, my fiancé will leave me, my family will disown me and I will be left to pickup the pieces. This is extraordinarily dramatic but unfortunately this is a very common occurrence especially in a place like the Silicon Valley.
You can walk out onto the street throw a rock and it will bounce off at least 20 startups, entrepreneurs, CEOs, geniuses, and people just like me before it hits the ground. It's very difficult to distinguish yourself from a crowd of much more successful people and it can be demoralizing at best.
Innovation is no longer innovative, we scoff at the very mention of it because we see it every single day. Unless something is truly remarkable and life changing about your company or you manage to get Bill Gates to take a meeting with you, it is easy to be looked over.
So how do you stay above it all, persevere and keep chasing your dream when society is screaming in your face that your idea is nothing special and your mind is agreeing with them?
Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
This has been one of hardest lessons I have learned. With social media rearing its ugly head every 10 seconds with the latest influencer post it's nearly impossible to not compare yourself to the success of others. Whether it's a perfect body, perfect hair, perfect company, perfect list of investors, more money, more employees, more accolades every second of every day someone is going to best you in one way or another. The key is using it as inspiration, not as a weapon against yourself.
Admire them, give them props, turn the negative into a positive in your mind and be glad that another woman could do it, another person of color did it, another member of the LGBTQ+ community did it; so why can't I!? Do not copy, but use it as a tool to help advance you. Learn from them.
No one is as perfect as they portray themselves to be and here in the Silicon Valley, we are no different (probably worse actually!)
Stop Being Negative
I was the queen of negativity in my own life. Outwardly I projected positivity, optimism and a very realistic approach making me a great person to vent to when needed. I, however, sucked at taking my own advice.
So I actively monitored my own thoughts and ALWAYS turned it around. For example, I left 6 six figure opportunities to start my own company. My immediate thought was, "I'm so dumb, how did I ever think I could do something like this!??" I panicked for a few minutes and soon realized I was being insane and immediately changed my perception.
I thought of how happy I was building my site, creating plans and designing my own systems. I thought about all of the young girls who I could inspire to one day reach their own goals. I plastered a smile on and literally screamed out loud (much to the dismay of my cats), "I AM SO PROUD OF ME!"
Anytime you catch yourself in a negative head space I challenge you to find one thing you are proud of and shout it louder than your doubts. Write it down, make a list, say it out loud but never allow yourself to fester in self doubt. All it causes is wasted time and the next day once you're back on track you'll laugh at yourself and probably ticked that you wasted such valuable time on something so trivial.
One of the quickest way to blow your credibility is to apologize for anything related to business unless you really screw up. If you take a meeting with a client or an employee and they are late or miss it entirely, never apologize. You were there and it is not your responsibility to wrangle them. Be kind but firm in relaying the message.
Try This: Unfortunately that is the only time I had available today. My next availability is ....
Not This: I'm sorry that is all I had open for today but what other days/times do you have open? I might be able to move some stuff around later if that is better.
Try This: It seems there was a misunderstanding on time and while I am not available for the rest of the day, my next available day/time is ...
Not This: No, it is no problem at all. I have the following days/times... let me know what works best for you!
There is no need to be thanking them for their time, telling them that it is ok or working around their schedule after they disregarded yours whether it was intentional or not. Here in the Valley everything moves at lightning speed and no one has time to babysit so it is not ok to ever miss a meeting or reschedule at the last second.
By enforcing your professional boundaries it sets the tone for your interactions and forces others to respect your time without you even trying. It soon becomes standard operating procedures for everyone, sets the groundwork for new contacts and employees and it resets your own mindset about your self worth.
The hard truth is that here, no one is your friend and no one will do you favors, so being kind and courteous without sacrificing your power is a game changing practice, confidence booster and gives a strong kick in the teeth to the Imposter Monster.
Stop Stressing Over Things You Can't Control
People here thrive on stress, some will wear it as a badge of honor, the crazed look and overwhelming schedule seems to be a standard people like to achieve and then brag about how insane their days are.
I believed this was a symbol of success and I strived to be so overwhelmed, so overbooked and project a perfect businesswoman image that it became debilitating. Every single thing that went wrong was an insurmountable failure and I would work myself to the bone to prevent it from ever happening again. I was so focused on not messing up and continuing to strive for this picture perfect SV woman that I criticized myself into depression over nothing.
It caused misery, burnout and an overall self depreciating attitude that fed into my imposter monster.
Keep your schedule challenging but manageable. Sacrificing mental health to make one more sale is not the answer and I promise you, that email can wait until the morning.
I am a certified control freak so being able to let go of unnecessary worry and stress was one of the hardest obstacles to get over but the immense relief and peace I have found because of it is absolutely exhilarating. I find myself able to enjoy life, focus on the good and most importantly be present in the moment.
My two key tricks to manage stress:
- Refocus. Read a book, do some yoga, workout, sit in the sun. Do not sit and fester. Refocus the negative energy into a positive outlet.
- Ask out loud, if I have done all that I can do yet still worry right now, will my problem/worry/task go away? 99.9% of the time it will not. So why bother.
Be Honest with Yourself
Honesty is a double edge sword, but turning the sword on myself when humans are selfish creatures by nature, was like looking into a mirror only to have someone slam it over you head and it shattered into a million pieces.
I like to portray that I'm this uber-successful entrepreneur who doesn't have a worry in the world and everything is perfect, and while I have had success, I'm not a millionaire nor is my life perfect in any way. I just market myself to look that way, similar to every other person in the SV.
I fully support hyping one self outwardly, but falling for your own delusion can be devastating when you actually realize things really aren't so glamorous.
So be honest. Just because you think you have a multi-million dollar idea doesn't mean the world will. Set realistic goals and stay in a realistic mindset while building your business internally and still portraying a strong positive head space externally. Talk about what you will do if something doesn't work out so instead of being blindsided and broken you have a realistic come back plan.
So many of us believe that negative self talk and realistic self talk are one in the same, but they are two totally different ends of the spectrum.
- Negative Self Talk: No one is going to be interested in my blog, my ideas aren't unique enough. This was such a waste of time. (End result, quits halfway through first article, no passion)
- Realistic Self Talk: My ideas may not translate with everyone but I am so passionate about these topics I am going to come up with my own unique perspective. (End result, outlines ideas, come up with multiple passion points and works towards each small goal to create amazing unique blog posts)
The difference is realizing your market and being open and honest about what you are up against. Instead of fantasizing about all of this unearned success, you focus your energy into honest obstacles and an honest plan on how to overcome these obstacles.
It is so easy to lose hope when you build up this big beautiful dream only to realize it will be months if not years for this dream to come to fruition, but by being honest with yourself, your goals and your plans, you will feel more accomplished and everything will not only feel more attainable but will actually be attainable.
I don't pretend to know all the answers or to be an expert on business but if there is one thing I do know, it's surviving when the odds are stacked against you. It is not easy starting a business anywhere let alone the Silicon Valley, but having the right mindset and plays in your personal play book truly does make all the difference.
Be kind to yourself, have faith in your skills and most importantly have fun with whatever you choose to do. If you don't love it, why will anyone else?
1) Dalla-Camina, Megan. "The Reality of Imposter Symdrome" Psychology Today, 3, Sep, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome. Accessed 8 September 2020