Harnessing The Power Of Imposter Syndrome

February 19, 2021

By Stewart Innes OLY

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong? Like you shouldn’t be in the position you are? Have you started a new job since March and are still yet to meet your co-workers face-to-face? Are you worried about not getting enough done while working from home, despite putting in extra hours? Then great news, you may be suffering from imposter syndrome.

How is this good news I hear you ask? Let me explain.

Imposter syndrome takes many guises, but typically it comes from doubting our own talents or skills and internalising the fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. My first experience of being an imposter fits this description perfectly. Being brought into the senior British rowing team in April 2015, I immediately found myself rowing alongside some of my childhood heroes and coached by the most successful coach in Olympic history Jürgen Gröbler. Despite the 10 years of work I had put in to be there I felt completely out of my depth. I had Pete Reed two-time Olympic Gold Medallist (now three) sat right in front of me. With every stroke I took I felt as though I was about to be catapulted out of the boat backwards (known in the sport as ‘catching a crab’, your blade gets stuck under the water and the force of the boat’s continued motion throws you violently out of the boat). In 10 years of rowing this had never happened to me, so why was I worrying about it now? I now recognise that I was suffering from imposter syndrome.

Overcoming our imposter syndrome is no mean feat and common tactics don’t always help. For me “Listing my achievements” seemed somewhat ridiculous given my teammates shared a combined seven Olympic medals and 20 World championship titles. “Embracing my strengths” seemed nonsensical given the massive gap in our times on the rowing machine. “Talking openly” with new team-mates takes time, and having just arrived at the cutting edge of sport, did I really want to show weakness?

How then can imposter syndrome be conquered? My solution was to turn it into a motivator. I had to prove I deserved to be there. I had been motivated to prove people wrong before, of course. In school I had been dropped from rugby teams for being ‘unfit’ and laughed at by my ‘physically fit’ peers. When I took up rowing, I just wanted to prove these people wrong. This time was different though. Instead of proving someone else wrong I was trying to prove something to my harshest critic: Me.

Arguably some of the most significant moments, both in sporting and human history, have been motivated by proving others wrong. Just 8 years before the Wright brothers first flight Lord Kelvin proclaimed “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”. To this day landing a man on the moon in 1969 still provokes conspiracy theories due to the apparent impossibility of the task. The 4-minute mile, the sub 2-hour marathon, and even summiting Everest were all once said to be impossible. During my time as an elite athlete it became clear to me, many of the most successful athletes are driven to prove others wrong.

What then if we apply the same logic to imposter syndrome, and reframe it as an opportunity to prove our greatest critic wrong?

Reframing imposter syndrome not only helped to give me a competitive advantage and the confidence I needed to perform, but also spurred me onto what were arguably my greatest achievements in the sport.

As I move on from my career as an elite athlete, having never spent a single day working in an office I am sure to once again experience imposter syndrome. However, this time I face it with the ability to transform my mindset, shaping it into a driving force, rather than a debilitating burden. I now look forward to the opportunities my imposter syndrome offers.