How to conquer the imposter syndrome, with Stephen Woessner

Episode 685

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As part of my role as host of Onward Nation…and as CEO of Predictive ROI…I am blessed with this amazing opportunity to meet, talk with, and really get to know business owners as well as the critical skills and strategies they have applied to be successful and the lessons they learned along the way. But these owners have also been kind enough to take me behind the green curtain and share their fears, their insecurities, and the constraints to success that they face each and every day around the Imposter Syndrome.

And the constraints can vary from business owner to business owner…and from industry to industry. But there is one constraint that is universal. There is one constraint that affects all of us. There is one constraint – that no matter who you are – you have faced and have been impacted by it.

So for today’s solocast…I am going to take you on a deep dive into this constraint, and more importantly, how to conquer it and give you a couple of key ingredients so you can push it aside when it begins to impact you and your business.

And the constraint that I am talking about is the Imposter Syndrome.

What Is The Imposter Syndrome?

The Imposter Syndrome isn’t some mystic dark magic voodoo. No, it’s the little voice you hear – a whisper – a question – that asks… “Who do you think you are to attempt something so grand…a goal so big. Who would ever pay for that? What makes you think you can deliver that type of project? Why would that company choose you to work with when they could hire anyone they want?” And the list of bad questions that we ask ourselves each and every day can go on and on.

These questions that we pose to ourselves can cause us to question our competency. The questions might give us pause. The questions – and the ensuing internal dialogue – may cause you to show up to a meeting with an important client in a less confident way. Your employees may wonder if you have what it takes to be the inspiring leader they were hoping for when they joined your team.

And then all of that negative self-talk results in a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is then followed by another round of doubt from the syndrome. “See, aren’t you glad you didn’t get your hopes up? It’s better this way…then there is no disappointment.” And here too…the list can go on and on.

So, the Imposter Syndrome is real. It is unrelenting. It doesn’t get tired. It knows all of your weaknesses and how best to mask your strengths.

The Imposter Syndrome will cheat you out of your destiny. It will cheat you out of the application of your God-given talents. And it will cheat you out of being the owner of the thriving, wonderful, game-changing business you want to lead.

So buckle in Onward Nation. We’re going for a deep dive into the Imposter Syndrome and how you can conquer it…once and for all.

I will share some definitions and some context for when the Imposter Syndrome was discovered, how you can avoid it, as well as several examples of the syndrome hard at work so that you can spot it when it tries to sneak up on you.

My hope is that this discussion will be helpful to you recognizing how the seemingly innocent thoughts, or a minor procrastination, can change the course of your destiny without you even realizing it.


Because your thoughts become your actions — and your actions — become your destiny.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

First, the Imposter Syndrome is something we all face. Everyone on Earth faces it — no matter who they are. It is just that some people have deliberately conditioned themselves to be better than most at pushing themselves past it the fear created by the syndrome.

If you are hearing the term “Imposter Syndrome” for the first time — let’s start us off with some context and background.

The term Imposter Syndrome was first coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne Imes and was used when referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”


The Imposter Syndrome | What It Is & How to Conquer It

Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. In fact, they take their proof of success and pass it off as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Some studies suggest the impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women while other studies indicate that men and women are equally affected.

However, based on my experience over the last 20+ years in business, and having interviewed close to 700 of today’s top business owners — some of the most ambitious super achievers in business today — I can confidently say — that the Imposter Syndrome does not have any such gender bias.

It attacks both men and women equally — so nice of it to do so!

Now let’s take that definition and break it down into its two core ingredients.

Ingredient #1: The Inability To Internalize Accomplishments And A Persistent Fear Of Being Exposed As A “Fraud.”

Have you ever felt walking into a meeting that you weren’t worthy — or that you didn’t belong there? Perhaps someone on the selection committee, the award committee, or board of directors had somehow made a mistake in selecting you.

Heck, maybe even some of your colleagues, family members, or friends looked at you and even validated your own suspicions and asked you the seemingly innocent question of “So why did they pick you?”.

I began to learn about the imposter syndrome back in 2009. My first book had been published while I was an academic staff member at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. My book had become popular with small business owners and several of the UW campuses around the state started asking me to teach a class at their respective campuses. Awesome.

So one day I mentioned the opportunities to a family friend — that I was headed to UW-Green Bay the next day to teach a class based on my SEO book…and my friend looked at me and said, “Well, why are they having you teach the class? Couldn’t they find someone else locally to teach the class?”

My friend was not trying to be hurtful — not in the least. But those comments hit me hard. Never mind that my SEO book was #3 in the United States, I had just been interviewed for Inc Magazine and other credibility indicators.

When he asked me that question — I actually paused and thought about it. “Yeah, why are they hiring me to teach…am I good enough…do I have what it takes…am I the best they could bring in…did I deserve to be there…was I a fraud…did I know what I was talking about?”

Or, there was another instance — with this same family friend — when we were having dinner following a recent trip where I was in Washington DC doing what’s called a “Speaker Visit” at Leading Authorities, one of the speakers bureaus that represent me. They had just started representing me and the visit was an opportunity for me to make a brief presentation to showcase my areas of expertise, answer questions, and just help their sales team get to know me a bit better for when any of their clients might need a professional speaker with my skill set.

And during the Q&A portion of the discussion, some members of the Leading Authorities sales team asked me some questions about how best to promote one of their newest clients online — a very big name — retired military officer — and big headlines at the time. Awesome — I love that kind of Q&A — and it was really fun sharing some strategies and steps they could use to make a big impact.

So when I got home — and had dinner with my friend — I told him about the experience at Leading Authorities and how excited it was. And after I was finished telling the story — he said to me — again not trying to be mean to me — but he asked, “So why did they ask you about how to help?”

A legitimate question…and my answer could have been to share aspects of my experience that were relevant to the conversation in D.C. and specifics about how I helped.

Instead, I let the Imposter Syndrome rise up — destroy my confidence — and the end result was that I even began to question why I had been asked. It was a complete 180 in my confidence — but — it also proved to be a critical lesson in learning how to defeat the Imposter Syndrome — and part of your weaponry needs to be protecting your inner circle — who gets to be inside your circle — and the information you share or don’t share with members outside your circle.

But, there’s nothing unique or different about these stories. We have all had these experiences of the little voice in our heads whispering — or in some cases shouting — “Who do you think you are to do something so amazing?”

That is the Imposter Syndrome, Onward Nation and it is likely holding you back — it is rearing its ugly head in the form of fear — and you need to push it aside so it doesn’t block your progress in moving forward.

Here’s the reality…high-performers work hard to prevent people from discovering they are “impostors.” This hard work often leads to more praise and success, which perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being “found out.” The “impostor” may feel they need to work two or three times as hard, to over-prepare, tinker, and obsess over details. This can lead to burnout and sleep deprivation.

I have felt that way before. With each new interview, success quote, media feature that I received from my books — I would think — goodness — did I deserve to be there? YES — but it took me a long time to believe it — and I still wrestle with it today.

Ingredient #2: the “imposter” takes the proof of success and passes it off as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be

Has your business ever gone through a growth spurt and you wondered why?

Have you ever looked around your office and suddenly realized you have some amazing people working for you, looking to you for leadership, and you cannot figure out what they see in you?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable heading into a presentation with a new client and you wonder why they invited you to the table?

Or, in a personal situation — have you ever felt like you married up — that your husband or wife — was not only your better half — but completely out of your league?

Why do we ask ourselves such losey and unfair questions?

And here’s the important point that I really want you to get, Onward Nation. When you ask yourself “How on earth were we able to hire such amazing employees? Don’t they know that we don’t know what in the world we’re doing?” — your brain does a funny thing…it gives you an answer.

Your brain doesn’t want to make you out to be a liar — so it gives you the answer to fit your story.

You start hearing things like… “Yeah, boy, you really pulled the wool over their eyes on that one. Hope Becky doesn’t figure it out — because if she leaves — then Tom is sure to leave, too.”

Or, “Why did client X invite us here? We don’t really have a shot at winning this pitch, do we?”

And then answer you get back might be something like, “Nope, we have no chance of winning — especially if they knew all about the mistakes we made just last week on Client Z’s account. We are lucky to have kept Client Z — hope X doesn’t ask for references. Maybe we ought to back out of the process now.”

What nonsense. The reality is that you were invited into the evaluation process because you have a stellar network — perhaps stellar credentials — and you deserve to be at the table. The voice on your shoulder — the voice whispering in your ear — is the imposter syndrome.

And we all deal with it.

It doesn’t matter who you are thinking of right now…Tim Ferriss has dealt with it…Joel Osteen has dealt with…all of the incredible business leaders that grace the covers of SUCCESS Magazine, Inc, Fast Company deal with it.

Heck, I struggle with it, too… “I think to myself all the time — I can’t invite that person to be a guest on my show — they’ll for sure say no!”

Good grief! Why do we do this ourselves, Onward Nation?

Every business owner — every political leader — every leader throughout history has dealt with this. George Washington did not feel he was worthy to be this country’s first president. No one is immune from the Imposter Syndrome. But if you know that — you can defeat this secret enemy.

But here’s what is unique — and what is special — is when someone stares into the face of potential rejection — faces their fear and they do it anyway.

And to quote the rock solid awesome words of Dr. Marcie Beigel — a three-time guest of Onward Nation…she said to me in her first encore interview in Episode 144 said to me, “Stephen…be scared, and then do it anyway!”

Wow…I loved that.

Because it is oftentimes fear — which is another way of describing the imposter syndrome — it is fear that gets in your way more than anything else. You — you, Onward Nation…are your business’s biggest constraint.

Not the market, not your lack of customers, not your pricing, not your product quality…no…it is you. You — as the leader — as the business owner — you set the pace and tempo of your company — either fast or slow — you do.

So I asked Dr. Marcie during that special encore interview to share how business owners can reach that elusive next level? She was kind enough to map it out into three simple steps.

  1. Get clear on what the next level is — how will you know when you’re there?
  2. Walk through your fear — make a plan — and just do it
  3. Find a mentor — we learn best from the people who have been there

And let’s look at all three of these.

Overcoming The Imposter Syndrome Step #1: Get Clear On What The Next Level Is

First…get clear on what the next level is. Well, if the imposter syndrome (aka FEAR) is making you believe that you are not even worthy of your current level of success — how could you possibly believe that you are worthy of more? So how could you define what the next level looks like?

Great question, right?

Instead, perhaps you need to spend some time in gratitude being thankful for what you have already accomplished — consciously acknowledging that what you have achieved was deserved because you worked hard to get there and you applied your God-given gifts and talents to get there — and now — to realize your full potential — it is time to leap off your current plateau and move onward to that next level — and you deserve to be at the next level — because you’re an expert.

But the first step is to give yourself permission to define that next level so you know when you and your business have arrived.

Overcoming The Imposter Syndrome Step #2: Be Scared About The Next Level

Second…be scared about the next level…and do it anyway. Set your fear aside — what is the worst that could happen? Prospective customers could say no. You might make a bad decision and lose some money?

An employee or a group of employees may disagree in how you’re redirecting the company and could decide to leave.


Are any of these life-threatening situations? Did anyone die? No. And like Mike Stromsoe taught us in episode 24 of Onward Nation — did anyone die, no? then move on!

Stopping making each decision more — or bigger — than it has to be.

Just make a decision…then move on. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

So, Onward Nation, just be scared — and then do it anyway.

Overcoming The Imposter Syndrome Step #3: Find a Mentor

And lastly…find a mentor to learn from. More specifically — find a mentor or group of mentors who are all moving at a pace and tempo that is faster than you.

I know I say this a lot — but only because it is critically important. It matters who you spend your time with — and if you spend your time with people who are moving at your current pace — or slower — those people may make you feel comfortable to be around — they may not challenge you — they may not push you or ask you tough questions — and it is easy to relax and unwind.

But guard yourself — if you don’t protect your time — you will slow down as a result.


Because as Coach John Wooden once said, you will never outperform your circle. You won’t — it is just human nature.

So you need to make sure the mentors you select are operating at a completely different level than you are currently at — that you reach — that you stretch — that you get yourself into a group of people where you don’t currently belong. And then you work like crazy to not get left behind — and in the process — you will expand and grow — and leap off your current plateau onto that next rung.

And as Scott McKain recently taught me, “Stephen, you cannot reach that next rung, unless you are willing to let go of the current one you are hanging on to.”

Very wise words, Onward Nation.

Please recognize the imposter syndrome for what it is…it is nothing more than fear. Please also know that we all deal with it…you are not different because you feel it…you are not uniquely burdened or yoked.

But what can make you unique and distinctive is your ability to refuse the status quo and to push past your fear — to shove the imposter syndrome aside and to not let yourself be your own limitation.

You were meant for greatness. You are a child of the highest God. You are instilled with an infinite abundance of talent and gifts. Please don’t let something so small as fear limit all you were meant to be.

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