Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

You Are Probably Better Than You Think

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Image: collage of characters from Strictly Ballroom, Never Been Kissed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Stuart Saves His Family

A lot of really good people I know seem to be having a crisis of confidence lately:

  • A colleague asked to meet me for a drink to discuss whether it would be futile to express interest in a position for which he was clearly well qualified.
  • A super smart and well-regarded work friend revealed her anxiety about submitting an application for my institution’s signature leadership program.
  • A professional associate from another university asked me whether he would be competitive for a role that seems smaller and less complicated than the one he holds now.

These crisis-of-confidence conversations have been occurring at the same time I’ve been hearing search firms, hiring committees, and award-review teams say, “There is nobody good out there.” They all report plenty of applications, but few viable candidates.

All of which has prompted me to do some pondering. How can it be that so many qualified people are interested in new opportunities at the same time that those looking for good people say there is a no one available? I see two likely explanations. One is that decision makers are overlooking obvious talent by insisting on unicorns — perfect-in-every-way candidates who are hard to come by. That happens but I don’t think it’s the real answer. What is more plausible is that especially talented people have convinced themselves they aren’t good enough. Rather than risk rejection, or criticism for being overly ambitious, they hang back and leave the spoils to mediocre people with moxie.

So what is up with these really smart and incredibly insecure people? How can they not recognize their own obvious talents?

By now we are all familiar with what Paul Clance and Suzanne Imes dubbed the “impostor syndrome,” the feeling of phoniness in high-achieving people who doubt their intelligence, creativity, or capability. Not only do people with this syndrome feel secretly unworthy, they worry constantly that their incompetence will be revealed and then life as they know it will come to an ignominious end.

According to varied sources, people like Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, and Sonia Sotomayor have admitted to feeling like impostors, so if you are feeling insecure, you are certainly in good company. But letting insecurity hold you back isn’t helping you or the people who need your talents. So what are some strategies you can employ to strengthen your self-confidence?

Remind yourself that others have recognized your talents. When people come to you for assistance or advice, what are they seeking? What comes easily to you but proves difficult for others? Make note of both your subject matter expertise, but also your ability to translate complex concepts, communicate with difficult people, or see patterns and connections. What are your unusual talents and how can they be applied in the roles you are seeking?

Acknowledge where you fall short and consider the implications. No one is good at everything. You accept that as normal if you have a fair amount of self-confidence, but if you don’t, you see your deficits as proof of your incompetence. People who can splice DNA are not always good at writing poetry, and those who can deliver captivating keynote speeches sometimes struggle to do math in their heads. I struggle with maps, board-game instructions, and furniture assembly, so I have chosen jobs that do not require these skills. It has worked for me so far.

Surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth. The most successful people I know have established a brain trust of friends and colleagues who speak to them honestly. Brain-trust members notice strengths and are willing to point out opportunities for shoring up skills or softening rough edges. If these people think you are competent, believe them.

Ask yourself what is making you afraid. What is the worst thing that could happen if you express interest in an opportunity for which you are actually not competitive? Will the reviewers laugh and mock you? No, they will be too busy wading through the stack of other people who are unqualified. I have served on hundreds of search committees and award-review panels and we never spend much time thinking or talking about the people who move to the “no longer under consideration” category.

Consider the risk of not trying. You will not be rejected, but you will not be further ahead, either. Not trying is basically failing without the possible upside of success.

If you have noticed that marginally impressive people keep getting ahead of you, and are wondering why that is, consider the possibility that they are simply braver than you are.

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