Every Entrepreneur Has Imposter Syndrome. Here's Why We Need to Talk About It.
Early this fall, I was having lunch with the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company called IAC. You may not know its name, but you definitely know its brands: Match.com, Tinder, CollegeHumor, Vimeo, The Daily Beast and more. It’s a digital behemoth, and Joey Levin, its CEO, is as sharp as they come.
When I first started covering business, lunches like these intimidated me. I was keenly aware of how much more knowledgeable these executives were than I was, and I felt the need to hide my deficiencies. But these days, I understand that the opposite is actually true: When you’re confident in your foundation, you’re able to admit shortcomings. My conversations with CEOs now tend to be about what we’re learning, and what we still want to figure out. So as Levin and I talked about management, I told him about my own leadership hang-ups. “I was a writer or an editor for most of my career,” I told him, “so when I became a manager, I felt like I had to make it up as I went.”
“Everyone does,” he replied.
Pause on that. Last year, IAC reported annual revenue of $3.3 billion. Its CEO runs a company with more than 150 brands and 7,000 employees. And here he is, telling me that everyone, in some way or another, makes it up as they go.
Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t -- but I understand why it might.
Here’s why it doesn’t surprise me: I hear some version of this from entrepreneurs all the time, and especially those at the very top. These are smart people -- they’ve learned a lot, through both their experiences and the mentorship of others. But they weren’t born with some intuitive leadership ability. They didn’t belong to a special club that prepared them for every outcome. They had nothing more than the guts to go into the unknown, and the wisdom to appreciate what they didn’t know. They learned, and they continue to learn. They are always accumulating, never stopping.
And here’s why I can understand that Levin’s admission sounds surprising: We don’t talk about this enough. Everyone feels outmatched at times; everyone grapples with some version of impostor syndrome. But we tend to suffer silently, hiding it like an embarrassing secret. Of course we don’t know we’re in good company -- nobody’s saying what they feel, even though everyone’s feeling the same thing!
So let’s say it. I did. Joey Levin from IAC did. You can, too. You won’t be looked down upon for it; you’ll be thanked for it by anyone who feels the same. And let’s not forget, “anyone who feels the same” is actually everyone. That was Levin’s word: everyone. You’ll be thanked by everyone. Everyone is making it up as they go. If they won’t admit it, we should have no patience for them. The strongest among us let their guard down.
And, most important, let’s remember this truth. Let’s internalize it -- we are not alone! -- as deeply as we’d internalized our feelings of not belonging. At times when we feel intimidated, or worry we’re not up to the task, or feel at a loss for the right answer, this is our guide. It’s knowing that in actuality, nobody inherently belongs. Nobody is ready from the start. Nobody has the answer already prepared. And nobody sees you as an impostor any more than they see themselves that way.
The best anyone can do is appreciate these feelings, share them, and then have the courage to step into the arena anyway. We learn as we go.