Revenge of the imposters
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
In this episode:
- How to be authentic
- How to speak up and speak out
- How to develop your sense of legitimacy
- How to destroy robots from your past
Did you ever sing into your hairbrush as a child and dream of becoming Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran? Or did you play air guitar to Smoke on the Water? I didn’t do either of these things but what I can say is that, for about a year, from roughly 1981 to 1982, my mate Simon and I genuinely believed we could make an impact on the robotic dancing scene.
Now I’ll be honest and admit that I actually only remembered the robotic dancing period of my life this very week.
You know how a piece of music can send you hurtling back in memory to the time you last heard it, or to a time you associate with it?
Well, one such song came on and I was instantly transported, in Proustian detail, to my brief time as an aspiring robotic dancer. Of course, this seemed ridiculous to me although back then I was totally into it. And I suddenly had an epiphany.
I used to have ambitions.
But my ambitions turned out to be inappropriate distractions from my true purpose.
Now, I’m going to take the rest of the episode to explain that statement. But first I want to bring you with me into another little vignette from my recent history.
Some years ago, I quit working for a toxic online diet guru and cashed in some professional training credits that I had earned there. That’s how I ended up sitting in a nice office in central Paris with a business tutor: the kind of person who coaches you in launching your own business.
After we got the initial formalities done with I told her what business I was trying to launch. She asked me this?
“And what gives you the right to bill people for that?”
I did a double-take, after all it was quite rude, but the twinkle in her eye told me it was part of her schtick.
“Don’t answer me now,” she said, waving the vulgar idea away, as only the French can do. Go away and list what gives you the right. Next week come back and pitch your business to me, with your sense of legitimacy front and centre.”
I asked why I should go through this theatre. She shrugged.
“So many people try to convince me they can run a business when they haven’t even convinced themselves yet. If you can’t convince yourself you’re worth the price you charge, how will you persuade a prospect to pay anything?”
“And that is the main reason why so many new businesses fail. You can’t succeed at something you have not yet convinced yourself you deserve.”
There was great wisdom in this and not just about business.
Do you ever find yourself in a situation, like asking for a refund in a shop, or pitching an idea to a boss or a client, and even as you utter the words your insides are secretly telling you: “you”re not going to get this”? And sure enough, you don’t get it.
Sometimes, someone else will march up and ask for the same thing, whether it’s better service, more money or more respect and it will be granted without question.
How do they get the respect they deserve, while you hardly dare ask?
The answer is in the question. You hardly dare ask. At the root, you don’t feel legitimate in your request, because somewhere, whether it’s close to the surface or deeply buried, you don’t feel legitimate in the shoes you walk in. You don’t feel legitimate in your skin.
Imposter syndrome is just this, isn’t it. We think we don’t belong in a situation that is presenting itself. Of course we feel that way. We didn’t want to wake up, so we did not wake up. We sent the cypher out instead of our true, authentic selves.
Let’s leave why for a later episode. We’ll deal with it later, when we have a deeper vocabulary for inquiry and a more robust set of tools for staying positive.
In this episode I want to focus on giving you a roadmap to rocking that true self on a daily basis with an authentic sense of legitimacy.
1. Accept your flaws
We all want to walk tall in the world. As we learned in episode five — when we talked about divas — the route to this is not achieving notions of perfection, but accepting our flaws. Only when you accept your own flaws will you feel comfortable enough to present yourself well.
The better we know our flaws, the better we can avoid hurting ourselves and others with them. In the last episode, we heard the story of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion accepts he’s not perfect and asks for help in getting across the river. In the final scene he even accepts that he is deeply flawed and that stinging his friends is just his nature.
But he lied about who he was to the frog. He even lied to himself, I think. When the scorpion tells the frog, hey, you can trust me not to sting you as it wouldn’t be in my interest, I get the sense that he’s trying to convince himself as much as he is the frog. Either way, clarity came a little too late. Don’t lie. Or at least, don’t make a habit of it. Sometimes we need to tell a little white lie to shield people or prevent the nosy from prying. But authentic people don’t lie habitually about who they are, what they do and what they’ve done. They accept their truth and speak it, in full knowledge that others may judge.
2. Work out what your own beliefs and values are
Here’s something that can happen to all of us. We adopt the values system of someone close to us or someone equally influential, such as a parent, a partner or an overweening friend, a spiritual teacher or a newspaper, without analysing it too much ourselves. When we voice such acquired values, they can sound hollow coming from our own voices. Or we can feel dissonance when they do not chime with what we really feel deep down.
Did you ever go out as a kid with a friend who egged you on to steal apples from next door’s tree — or something similar — and you sort of went along with it, even though you disagreed? Such acts create cognitive dissonance — remember that feeling? It can come at any time: your boss tells you to fire a colleague who think doesn’t deserve it, your newspaper tells you immigrants are to blame for your redundancy but you don’t feel that can be right.
Legitimately authentic people understand their own moral compass and act accordingly. The authentic person tells their apple-stealing friend: hey you know what, that’s not for me but don’t let me stop you.
There’s nothing worse than being judged harshly because you espoused a view that, on reflection, isn’t who you are at all.
3. Find your truth
A few years ago a semi-pro musician friend in Paris told me his partner was pregnant. Congratulations, I said. That’s great, you’re going to be a dad.
“Meh. It’s not a good time,” he replied. “We don’t live in a great neighbourhood and I was just thinking about doing a new album and going on tour. Now I’m going to have to take a promotion at work and move.”
I responded the way I always do: you know circus performers have kids too right? You know the nomads of the Mongolian savannahs have kids, right?
He was living a life in which a desire to live the musician’s life was in conflict with a sense of obligation to “hold down” a proper job. As a result, neither aspect of his life got the attention it deserved.
There’s a classic trope in story-telling about the mid-life crisis. The mild-mannered middle manager in the suburban house suddenly tries to be a rock singer, has an affair with a younger coworker, or runs away. We all know that story very well and I think it resonates with all of us because all of us to a greater or lesser extent, spent portions of our lives fulfilling roles that have been assigned to us, doing what we feel obligated to do, rather than doing what comes naturally and intuitively. I introduced this idea in Episode 2, about finding your sea glass.
Did the mild-mannered middle manager in the suburban house get married because that’s what her partner wanted. Did she have kids because that’s what parents and friends expected. Did she take that middle management job because people expected her to “progress”.
Was she pressured into it? Friends, family, society, the media: all of these pressure us into acting in ways that are not intuitively where we want to go. Some of these things may lead to situations that are hard to back out of.
That’s where the idea of the mid-life crisis comes from: the sudden realisation that you’re in the wrong life, not the one you would have chosen. And it crops up in our fantasy fiction and television drama so much because … well … you can do the math on that one.
When you start to feel uncomfortable about something you’re about to do, you need to ask yourself: “Am I being pressured to do this, directly or indirectly, or I am I doing it because it is where my intuition and my own personal moral compass tell me to go?”
Authentic people follow their own North star.
4. Review situations that make you unhappy
Having a job you actively love all the time is actually pretty rare. That’s because people with businesses rarely delegate the really fun bits. They delegate the bits that are hard or boring or time-consuming or unpleasant. And launching your own business won’t protect you, since you’ll now have to do all kinds of things you hate, until you can afford to hire someone to do them for you.
I don’t like preparing invoices and filing receipts for expenses, but unless I do it I won’t get paid or make a profit.
So setting a goal to have a job you love every minute of the day is unrealistic. But if your job is making you really unhappy all the time then you need to review, as this is going to make you ill in the long term.
It may be that you are asked to do things that compromise your own ethics. For example, selling something that you know isn’t of good quality, or routinely overcharging customers. It may be simply that you find the work itself soul destroying. My musician friend in Paris longed to be on stage and in the studio, but instead he spent his time in excruciatingly dull middle management meetings for an online retailer — and not a successful one. The word soul destroying came about for a reason.
He was trapped in a situation where he was forced to act differently to how his core told him to. But he was only trapped there because he chose to be.
Obviously the same applies to your living arrangements and your relationships.
5. Describe yourself properly
I’m a writer. And here’s the thing. I would still be a writer, even if I had to get a job in a call centre to pay the rent. Because: I did the work that entitles me to, well, the title. I typed all the millions of words and had them published, not just once but thousands of times, year in year out for 20 years. And here’s the bottom line: I would still write even if I did have to work in the call centre to make rent.
You can’t take that basic identity away by forcing me to change my day job. That focus and that manifestation is what makes me a writer and it has nothing to do with external measures of success. And anyway, I control my identity, not others.
I’m also a musician and I’m a musician even though I didn’t take my music study to degree level and even though I have never tried to make it my full-time job. I’m a musician because I have dedicated half my life to it, I’m a musician because I’m passionate about it and because I’ve amassed a body of work, both for art and for clients, that attest to it.
I’m also an optimist and I’m especially happy to share that fact because if you’d known me as a young man you probably would have described me as a pessimist. I’ve changed my outlook over time, in part due to a deliberate effort on my part to become, well, happier and in part due to facing up to the clear evidence that the worst almost never happens and when it does, you survive.
Having said all this, in the month I’m writing this about 80% of my revenue will have come from writing, recording and presenting videos in accountancy tuition. But if I met you and said “Hi, I’m Richard and I teach accountancy,” well … let’s just say you wouldn’t be getting an authentic picture of who I am. It would be very skewed and very narrow.
So what I’m saying here is that you want to figure out who you are and start describing yourself that way. The amount of times I hear people describe themselves by their job! Turn on Pointless in the afternoon and you’ll see a parade of people who are happy to reduce themselves to one employer’s job title for the benefit of TV. “I’m a systems analyst Alexander.” “I’m a project manager Alexander.” This tells me nothing.
Or by their state of parenthood: could there ever be a more misleading statement than “I’m a stay-at-home Mum.” Or even, “I’m a proud house-husband.” What, did you completely erase yourself from that picture? That tells me nothing about who you are.
People will take you at your own estimation so you might as well take the time to appraise yourself properly. And get your messaging clear.
6. Take time to grow
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
So wrote the American writer Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, in the conclusion to his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad.
Certainly, living in Paris for a decade changed my outlook. I was forced to come face to face every day with people who not only spoke differently to me, but thought differently, acted differently, held different things up as important. You can’t live in that situation and maintain that yours is the only way because it soon becomes clear it is not and, when the whole population of a nation gets by without whatever you think is important, you soon get a sense of perspective.
My work in France actually took me across the world and so I got to visit some far-flung places. Each time, my view of the world changed.
We don’t all get a chance to physically travel in that way but you can still broaden your horizons through classes, groups and hobbies. It’s a great way to armchair-travel in knowledge and culture, mix with people from different backgrounds and get a broader sense of what makes us happy.
7. Trust yourself
Are you an analyst or do you feel your way? For example, when you have a tough choice to make do you way up the pros and cons of each choice or do you go with your gut?
Analysis allows us to get to a more accurate picture of things when we can’t trust our intuition to deliver the truth. For example, let’s imagine you have two job offers and don’t know which one to take.
Analysis can help you visualise and select the right path: this one pays better and you’re instinctively drawn to more money. But that one is closer to home and you’ll spend less time travelling. This one has a more prestigious title but that one offers more autonomy. And so on.
Sometimes, however, you get a strong sense of what you should do and what you should say. Your intuition speaks to you.
Very often people will try to get you to second-guess your gut feeling. But authenticity lives in the confidence you develop to trust yourself and your own judgement rather than outside counsel.
8. Speak your truth
Authentic people speak up and speak out. They don’t pretend to espouse ideas that conflict with them, hiding who they are. If someone wants you to do something and you don’t want to do it, you need to speak up and politely decline.
I would prefer not to. I would rather not. No thank you.
That doesn’t mean being abrasive or offensive, you don’t have to antagonise people to put forward a differing view. You don’t have to abandon your social skills or your empathy to be yourself. But you can politely state your truth. And here’s the thing: someone calmly speaking their truth is like a force of nature. You can’t knock them down. Think about politicians: there are those who lie incessantly and answer questions evasively, who flip-flip on policy because they have no moral compass of their own and they are afraid to speak their truth in case the popuar tide turns against them. They have no worth as leaders.
And then you get those rare political figures who have a clear moral compass and calmly speak their truth: Ghandi, Mandela, Obama …
These are the people who are in touch with their moral compass, who analysed situations they were not happy with and decided to take action, people who took the time to grow themselves, to travel, to learn, people who learned how to describe themselves to themselves and to others and then trusted themselves enough to speak up and speak out, even when people told them not to, or tried to shut them down.
Now everything is relative — we don’t all need to have an ambition to change the lot of a whole people. Sometimes it’s enough just to speak up and stop that manipulative family member or co-worker from imposing and taking advantage yet again. We all have our own situations in which we need to speak up and speak out. It might just be a case of saying to that friend: you know what — I don’t want to steal apples, I’m going to follow my own agenda.
9. Be clear about your mission
So, remember where we came in. I’ve gone away to think about what gives me legitimacy so I can come back and pitch my enterprise idea to this business consultant. Once I’ve thought about what gives me a legitimate right to go out and tout for business in this field, I need to ask myself why I am doing this. Just because I can is not good enough.
Most organisations create a mission statement. In many cases they are done badly and written by committees. As a result, their statements end up being timorous, box-ticking exercises, full of the kind of meaningless business language that the risk-averse find comforting. Such as:
Our mission is to drive excellence in all deliverables creating new organisational paradigms with passion.
Sadly, because such vapid statements are so widespread, the true value of a mission statement can get lost. For many years I dismissed them completely as corporate fluff.
But they do have value. When done properly, they help to establish why the organisation exists and for whom it operates; to set out a broad vision of where they are going and by which route they expect to get there. Such statements help the organisation to communicate what the organisation is about and therefore set expectations. They also help to crystallise efforts within the organisation, so that everyone ends up rowing in the same direction.
So where am I going with this? Well I think it can sometimes be beneficial to create personal mission statements. I don’t think we necessarily need to communicate these statements to others, but I think sitting down and reflecting on them long enough to create them can be a very positive and affirming exercise.
We are the robots
For example, when you sit with a pen and paper and try to answer the questions: what is my purpose and for whom do I exist? I think it unlikely that you will be satisfied by committing to paper the kind of designations that minimise or limit you.
For example, I think it unlikely that you will be satisfied with a mission statement that reads “I’m a house husband” or “I’m a project manager”. You are going to get a better view of who you really believe yourself to be and it may be quite instructive.
Of course there is nothing wrong with deciding that your mission on this planet is to to be a parent and serve your children. No mission is invalid, is it. But I think the process of writing down and affirming this to yourself can be quite cathartic. Because once we decide: I exist to provide a safe place for my children to grow, to help them learn and discover themselves, to provide them with the tools and inner resourcefulness to manage life’s challenges, we can cross out that thing that says “And also be Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran.” We don’t need these weird hangovers from adolescence complicating our thinking, distracting us from our mission.
10. Dream harder
I’m not saying that being a parent is the mature decision and being a pop star the childish thing. I’d be the last to advocate killing off your childhood fantasies and the reverse situation may very well be the case for you. What I’m trying to get at is that one of these may be your true calling and purpose and the other merely a projection from an earlier self, or from society around you. One you can safely cross off your mission statement, allowing you to proceed without the excess baggage. Without the nagging voice telling you: “Hey, you failed to become a robotic dancer.”
Now becoming a robotic dancer was not the only ambition I once held. It’s simply the most comical. I’ve used it because it’s easy to imagine how far removed it is from what I would regard as my purpose today.
Had I spent my life pursuing this goal, perhaps, with time and training and dedication I could have achieved it. But at what cost to my true purpose?
It’s my belief that we all carry around a whole set of semi-articulated obligations, the vast majority of which are wholly spurious. As children we are like sponges and we absorb all kinds of projected ambition: the sporty father who wants us to be on the football team, the career-minded mum who wants us to be a doctor, the academic teacher who thinks we should become an expert in linguistics. Or the teenage version of us who wants to become Simon Le Bon.
I was lucky in that when I became a dad, I very quickly realised that this was pretty much the pinnacle of my own ambition achieved.
The way I saw it, this was now my primary purpose and anything else was a support activity to that. This enabled me to completely change my outlook regarding my career, lifestyle, choice of location and dwelling. And most importantly, It allowed me to cut away all those spurious semi-ambitions that were never authentically part of who I was and focus on what really mattered. It was liberating to walk so lightly into a completely new world in which my purpose was clear to me.
I think you can do the same.