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Commentary: Imposter syndrome is a professional superpower – embrace it

People seem to be breaking new paths without all the standard credentials. Bloomberg Opinion's Tyler Cowen says some of his best work was done as an imposter.

Commentary: Imposter syndrome is a professional superpower – embrace it
Imposter syndrome is more common than we think. (Photo: iStock)

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Virginia: I have a new motto: Embrace your inner imposter.

On a recent episode of Lex Fridman’s podcast, Magnus Carlsen, arguably the greatest chess player of all time, confessed to a feeling of “imposter syndrome” - and the topic of discussion, to be clear, was chess, not global politics.

Imposter syndrome is a positively good thing. When searching for talent, I look for people who feel they suffer from imposter syndrome.

If you think you are not qualified to do what you are doing, it is a sign you are setting your sights high and reaching for a new and perhaps unprecedented level of achievement.


More than ever before, people seem to be breaking new paths at very young ages or without all the standard credentials.

Carlsen, for instance, was the world’s top-rated chess player at age 19, the youngest player ever to hold that designation. At times he might have thought, “How did this happen!?”

When Kobe Bryant and LeBron James skipped college basketball and moved directly to the NBA, such career paths were unusual and controversial. They made it work, and pretty quickly they too were no longer considered imposters.

Office worker working late at night. (Photo: iStock/Cecilie_Arcurs)

When I was an undergraduate, I submitted a number of economics papers to refereed journals. I was afraid the editors would notice that I did not have a departmental return address and thus might not take the submissions seriously. Yet the papers were accepted, greatly benefiting my career.

Of course I never mentioned in my cover letter that I was a mere undergraduate, so I actually was a kind of imposter. I’ve done some of my best work as an imposter.

Or consider the teenagers who drop out of college, start tech companies, and become billionaires in their 20s. It is hardly surprising that sometimes they feel like they do not belong.

Closer to home, consider the careers of journalists such as Ezra Klein and my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Matt Yglesias, who two decades ago were just two kids with undergraduate degrees writing on the internet.

They were imposters, pretending they were “official” public intellectuals, whatever that might mean. Now they are “official,” widely read and deservedly so. No one cares that they started as imposters.


Of course not all imposters succeed. So if you perceive yourself as an imposter, it’s OK - rational, even - to have mixed feelings.

Some of your dread reflects a sense that you may be in over your head. But if you really are going to succeed, that bit of fear and doubt may spur you to superior performance.

Another advantage to feeling like an imposter is that it gives you better insight into your fellow humans. Estimates vary, but up to 82 per cent of people may suffer from some form of imposter syndrome. Even if that is on the high side, imposter syndrome is very common.

On a professional level, if you want to be in better touch with your colleagues, maybe it is a good idea for you to try out some new and unfamiliar tasks, and they can too. It will make everyone more understanding and more sympathetic - especially important qualities for being a successful boss.

Evidence suggests that women and women of colour suffer from imposter syndrome to an especially high degree. That presents very real problems of expectations, bias and social perception, which I do not mean to minimise.

But in the meantime I am happy to send the message to those individuals that they are breaking new ground and paving the way for others - and that they should embrace their inner imposters.

If you always feel like you belong, you aren’t trying hard enough or reaching far enough. In the meantime, don’t feel bad about feeling bad about yourself. Embrace your inner imposter.

Source: Bloomberg/ch


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