My friend Amanda gives talks about imposter syndrome. If you aren’t familiar, imposter (or impostor with an “o”) syndrome is a psychological state where one is plagued with persistent self-doubt and fear of being publicly embarrassed as a fraud, despite having the “required” expertise. Amanda and another friend of ours saw this syndrome in themselves and decided to “lean into” the issue by giving talks and reaching out to others.
When Amanda and I were texting about researcher Adam Grant’s book, Think Again, I made a typo, calling it “Winpostor Syndrome.” I immediately loved the term. It seemed so apropos. Let me tell you why.
In his book, Dr. Grant reminds us of the benefits of what Buddhists call the “Beginner’s Mind.” The Beginners Mind, or “Shoshin,” is the state of being eager to learn a new subject. Shoshin is when we are observing keenly and are ready to challenge our preconceived notions. It is approaching a subject as if we are new to it. Even when we are at an advanced level of expertise in a subject, a beginner’s mind helps us to always be surprised and be able to learn something new in that area. It is keeping an open mind instead of harboring a closed one.
A curious, intelligent person will always maintain a beginner’s mind. This isn’t to say that you go back to square one and pretend you know nothing. It is to say that as we learn more, we also learn how much we don’t know. Isn’t this always true? The more you know about a subject, the more you begin to understand how much you don’t know.
Going deeper into physics, for example, just continues to blow one’s mind more and more. Quantum physicists are all like, “Listen we don’t know wtf is going on.” They are not impostors. They do not think they are lacking in expertise. They are world class intelligencia. And here they are saying, “Fuck if we know!” They have the Beginners Mind.
Winposter syndrome is being an expert in your field. It is getting so advanced in the subject that you are confident you can sort out what is knowable AND what has yet to be discovered. It is concentrating on what you want to do instead of what outside forces pressure you to do. It’s starting out where you feel comfortable and venturing into new spaces at your leisure.
Back to our example of physicists. Quantum physicists are OK with not being high school physics teachers, even if the local school wants to hire them. They like being in labs all day, not classrooms, and they don’t feel bad saying “I don’t know how to teach and I’m not going to try that at this time. Maybe later.” And guess what happens? They retire from the lab and start teaching, because they are ready to take on that new challenge that is related to their expertise.
If a person wants to venture into a new aspect that is related to their current skillset, the Beginner’s Mind is all they need to do so and to do it well. If they remain curious and intelligent, they will succeed. With a solid grasp on what the related skillsets are and the industry as a whole, an expert can add to her repertoire.
Winposter syndrome should be a litmus test. If you don’t feel at least a little bit of an “imposter” then you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing. Things are stagnant and the work is getting rote. This is ok for a bit, in order to rest, make money, etc., but it is not the natural state of curious people.
As our expertise grows, we discover more and more areas where one could learn more. This is the nature of expertise. It is like science: Science is always changing its answer to questions; As we get more evidence, our understanding of a phenomenon improves. As we get deeper into experience and expertise, our understanding of our field widens. We see branches where we could expand. Impostor syndrome would scream “You’re a fraud” when you attempt to learn about and do tasks that may fall under those branches. Winpostor syndrome says “I don’t know but I have enough expertise and curiosity to try.”
A beginner’s mind is a great thing. If you feel impostor syndrome creeping in, let it be a reminder that you’ve just leveled up, that you are trying something new, that you are expanding your horizons based on all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained so far, and that you already have more than enough expertise to let you in that door.