During my journey as a social innovator, I have experienced the symptoms of imposter syndrome for two reasons I can think of. The first reason speaks to my previous article (read here) which discusses how the personification and perception of success have been socially constructed to leave most of us feeling left out and below average. Naturally we fail to recognise and internalise our successes when success rarely ever looks like, sounds like, or thinks like we do. Unless you’re a white heterosexual able-bodied male, in which case 9 times out of 10 success does look, sound, and think like you do – except that such a high pedestal of expectations can knock you right back down to feeling like an imposter. The lesson being here that the fallacy of stereotypical success is one glass ceiling which we must all systematically smash through.
But I want to approach the issue of imposter syndrome from a different angle – an angle which speaks to the kind of social change-makers we should be cultivating in ourselves as entrepreneurs and innovators and in each other as educators and influencers.
The moral of this story begins many moons ago with my experience as a social startup cofounder. As chief ambassador and advocate of my ventures, I often felt like an imposter championing a cause I had merely stumbled across and felt empathy for. I always felt like I hadn’t done enough research and that I was just kind of making things up as I went along. But I took comfort in the entrepreneurial mantra: ‘Fake it till you Make it’. Some wonderful words of wisdom that preach to us that it’s not about what you know but about what people think you know. These words teach to us that you don’t have to know it all or have it all worked out from day one – just run before you can walk and you’ll pick up the rest on the way. All very true and in the entrepreneurial spirit of ideation, improvisation, and iteration. So I took these wise words and ran with them. But looking back at my fail-forwards, I can see how I lost my way and here’s why.
As 21st century social innovators and entrepreneurs, we are often trying to solve wicked problems which are deeply ingrained, deeply complex, and deeply systemic. So to blindly justify or ignore a lack of knowledge and/or experience of the problem we are trying to solve can lead you (and led me) into a false sense of security that with good intentions, the rest will follow. Well, good intentions are no longer good enough. They never have been. Good intentions are what billions of global currency donated to charity look like and decades later we’re #stillfightingpoverty. By only addressing (and underestimating) the tip of the iceberg in an ocean of interconnected complexity, we end up wasting a titanic amount of time, energy, resources, human potential, and… good intentions. Furthermore, we mustn’t forget that shallow solutions not only leave problems unsolved but can actually compound them with unintended consequences which is even worse than square one.
The question is are we going to be the kind of social innovators that are satisfied with taking one visible or viral step forward but two invisible steps back?
Back to our ‘fake it till we make it’ philosophy. To create real social impact and make real social change, there is no faking it. But the truth is so many of us are ‘faking it’ with shallow and superficial solutions based on one-dimensional assumptions and a desire to be that ‘overnight success’. Socioeconomic problems do not develop overnight and they remain unsolved for a reason that we as social innovators had better investigate enough to really figure out. As a social impact educator, I teach my participants that solving crimes against humanity requires a ‘Oh shit Sherlock!’ (stating the unknown) rather than a ‘No shit Sherlock’ (stating the obvious). Unfortunately not every social issue can be solved with a quirky cafe or a cool app despite what many of us would like to believe. I reflect on my two failed ventures and I see myself not knowing enough or being patient enough. Like this, we need to shift our focus from success to process; from pretending to know everything to taking pride in actually knowing something…really really well. Remember the lifelong struggles of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and Aung San Suu Kyi; all of them dedicating mind, body, and soul to the cause and spending years (in prison) reading and studying to know it all, from all angles and not just their own. This is the message that educators need to be disciplined in delivering rather than the ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra.
We need to teach that the easy way out usually leads straight back into the problem and worse. These are the wise words of systems thinkers that are shifting paradigms, producing disruptive solutions, and leveraging human creativity.
So the moral of this story ends with a call-to-action to not be simplistically good-intentioned and to not be fake or fraudulent about what we know. Remember that impatience leads to ‘impostering’ which will not get you any closer to living that legacy. Leave your ego at the door and respect the enormity and complexity of your problem. Don’t be intimidated, but be intrigued and insightful. And if you’re doubting deep down how much you know about something, it might actually be because you don’t know enough about something.