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Discover the imposter within

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Trudi Gwillim is the Associate Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She has a background in senior leadership and has studied positive psychology with the Langley Group Institute. Earlier this year she was asked to speak on the topic of Imposter Syndrome at the University of Auckland’s professional staff conference ASPIRE.

My imposter voice says I shouldn’t be here.  I grew up in a small rural community, known as the kumara capital of the north.   I remember being told that Universities were for elite, talented over-achieving students with plans to become lawyers, doctors or teachers….and that was not me.

Working in an academic rich environment without a degree can be confronting. In the early days I struggled to see people like me.  I wondered since I was not an “expert” in any particular subject, if I really belonged.  The intensity of these feelings led to my own research where I stumbled upon a syndrome known as “Imposter Syndrome”.  

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally recognised expert on the topic and has spent decades studying fraudulent feelings.  She describes imposter syndrome as an unrealistic, distorted view of one’s competence.  She further categorizes imposter syndrome into 5 main sub-groups.

Perfectionists –believe unless their performance is perfect, they are an imposter
Superheros –are addicted to the validation that comes from working.  If they are not working the hardest, they feel like an imposter
Natural genius – feel shame if they take a long time to master something
Soloists –try to accomplish everything on their own.  They believe asking for help is a weakness, and so they don’t ask 
Experts – measure their competence based on “how much” they know. They believe they will never know enough so constantly seek out trainings or further study

At the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we work closely with students from every discipline.  From those studying Business, to Human Health and Medicine, Scientists, Lawyers, Artists, Engineers or Educators, our role is to ignite the entrepreneur within all students and to teach the essential skills needed to turn ideas into business ventures.

During my time at CIE, I have noticed the description “entrepreneur” can evoke a strong response amid our student community.  This means the concept of feeling like an imposter in our programmes can be a reality for many.   Whether we are supporting a student with the beginnings of an idea, or somebody working on a more developed venture, the questions of ‘do I really belong’ or ‘is my idea good enough’ or ‘is it too early to call myself an entrepreneur’ are very real. 

The truth is entrepreneurship is a mindset, not an activity.   Not all students will choose to start their own business and that’s ok.  Instead, what we aim to instil in our programmes and workshops is the ability for students to learn how to think like an entrepreneur.   There are key attributes associated with having an entrepreneurial mindset that can be learned by doing.  These include risk taking, creative problem solving, persistence, motivation, working in teams and self-belief.

Our role is to foster confidence and improve knowledge for all those who are curious about the development of ideas and how they may effectively solve problems.  We treat students like entrepreneurs the minute they walk in the door.  The change in mindset we see pre and post programme is remarkable.   This year alone, our more in-depth programmes have shown an average 32% growth in the ability to develop entrepreneurial ideas.

We know that imposter syndrome is a universal challenge that affects a large portion of the population.  We also know it is not a disease or abnormality, nor is it linked to depression or even low self-esteem.  Situations can be vastly different between individuals and the reasons behind are deeply personal. 

For those who experience imposter syndrome, know you are not alone.   Here are 5 tips which may help.

Acknowledge feelings but challenge thoughts.  All feelings are real but not all thoughts are true. 

Share with trusted mentors.  You will be surprised to hear that many others have experienced similar feelings.  That could be in the development of business ideas, research undertaken or careers in general.   

Be authentic.   Showing up exactly as you are really helps, rather than trying to be someone that you are not.  There is a saying ‘be yourself because everybody else is taken!’.    

Focus on strengths.  It’s ok to admit to your weaknesses (we all have them) but more importantly to own and develop your strengths.

Do the very thing that scares you.   If your obstacle is the feeling of not being an ‘expert’, pretend you are one.  If you are a ‘soloist’ struggling to develop a venture on your own, try something new and ask for help!

James Hutchinson
James Hutchinson

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Trudi Gwillim is the Associate Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She has a background in senior leadership and has studied positive psychology with the Langley Group Institute. Earlier this year she was asked to speak on the topic of Imposter Syndrome at the University of Auckland’s professional staff conference ASPIRE.

My imposter voice says I shouldn’t be here.  I grew up in a small rural community, known as the kumara capital of the north.   I remember being told that Universities were for elite, talented over-achieving students with plans to become lawyers, doctors or teachers….and that was not me.

Working in an academic rich environment without a degree can be confronting. In the early days I struggled to see people like me.  I wondered since I was not an “expert” in any particular subject, if I really belonged.  The intensity of these feelings led to my own research where I stumbled upon a syndrome known as “Imposter Syndrome”.  

Dr. Valerie Young is an internationally recognised expert on the topic and has spent decades studying fraudulent feelings.  She describes imposter syndrome as an unrealistic, distorted view of one’s competence.  She further categorizes imposter syndrome into 5 main sub-groups.

Perfectionists –believe unless their performance is perfect, they are an imposter
Superheros –are addicted to the validation that comes from working.  If they are not working the hardest, they feel like an imposter
Natural genius – feel shame if they take a long time to master something
Soloists –try to accomplish everything on their own.  They believe asking for help is a weakness, and so they don’t ask 
Experts – measure their competence based on “how much” they know. They believe they will never know enough so constantly seek out trainings or further study

At the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we work closely with students from every discipline.  From those studying Business, to Human Health and Medicine, Scientists, Lawyers, Artists, Engineers or Educators, our role is to ignite the entrepreneur within all students and to teach the essential skills needed to turn ideas into business ventures.

During my time at CIE, I have noticed the description “entrepreneur” can evoke a strong response amid our student community.  This means the concept of feeling like an imposter in our programmes can be a reality for many.   Whether we are supporting a student with the beginnings of an idea, or somebody working on a more developed venture, the questions of ‘do I really belong’ or ‘is my idea good enough’ or ‘is it too early to call myself an entrepreneur’ are very real. 

The truth is entrepreneurship is a mindset, not an activity.   Not all students will choose to start their own business and that’s ok.  Instead, what we aim to instil in our programmes and workshops is the ability for students to learn how to think like an entrepreneur.   There are key attributes associated with having an entrepreneurial mindset that can be learned by doing.  These include risk taking, creative problem solving, persistence, motivation, working in teams and self-belief.

Our role is to foster confidence and improve knowledge for all those who are curious about the development of ideas and how they may effectively solve problems.  We treat students like entrepreneurs the minute they walk in the door.  The change in mindset we see pre and post programme is remarkable.   This year alone, our more in-depth programmes have shown an average 32% growth in the ability to develop entrepreneurial ideas.

We know that imposter syndrome is a universal challenge that affects a large portion of the population.  We also know it is not a disease or abnormality, nor is it linked to depression or even low self-esteem.  Situations can be vastly different between individuals and the reasons behind are deeply personal. 

For those who experience imposter syndrome, know you are not alone.   Here are 5 tips which may help.

Acknowledge feelings but challenge thoughts.  All feelings are real but not all thoughts are true. 

Share with trusted mentors.  You will be surprised to hear that many others have experienced similar feelings.  That could be in the development of business ideas, research undertaken or careers in general.   

Be authentic.   Showing up exactly as you are really helps, rather than trying to be someone that you are not.  There is a saying ‘be yourself because everybody else is taken!’.    

Focus on strengths.  It’s ok to admit to your weaknesses (we all have them) but more importantly to own and develop your strengths.

Do the very thing that scares you.   If your obstacle is the feeling of not being an ‘expert’, pretend you are one.  If you are a ‘soloist’ struggling to develop a venture on your own, try something new and ask for help!


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