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The Benefits (Or Otherwise!) Of Listening and Heeding to Impostor Syndrome:

August, 2023

Courtesy: Elikem Trust for Contemporary Africcan Art. - used with permission.

Ever suffer from Impostor Syndrome? Contrary to popular belief, it may pay off sometimes to listen to what it has to say…
‘Perhaps I was blind to the facts
Will I succeed, I’m just paranoid….
And hocus pocus try to focus but I couldn’t see
And in my mind, I’m a blind man doin’ time
Recollect your thoughts don’t get caught up in the mix.’
- Only God Can Judge Me – 2Pac
This picture above reminded me of the day I embarrassingly fluffed up my lines when I was invited to be a guest for my first UK podcast – one of the UK’s biggest business podcasts.
I had just become a brand-new best-selling author, thought I ruled the world; brimming with confidence.
My dream of becoming a millionaire was finally happening!

The host began by asking me the normal introductory questions - Who I was, What I did for a living, Why I decided to become an author and all that jazz.
That part was easy.
Then came the BIG question:
‘’Can you distil the essence of your book, Pay The Price in 2 minutes for our listeners’’?
That’s when I fluffed up my lines.
The lack of preparation showed. My confidence had exceeded my competence.
I froze.
I mumbled through the rest of the interview, and at the end, the host said to me:
‘’Steven, I am sorry we cannot air this episode. It does not meet our quality standards’’.
I was gutted.
On reflection on this embarrassing event, I realised why I had failed so miserably.
Impostor syndrome had hit me the day before, but I had been told by many mentors to press on despite the fear, that I was qualified, and that I should ignore the butterflies in my stomach.

So, I did, at my peril.
Big opportunity lost.
But I learned my lesson.
Earlier this year, I was invited to be a judge at one of the UK’s most prestigious business award ceremonies.
I felt completely inadequate.
I looked at my fellow judges on the panel, and it felt like I was the least qualified. The familiar impostor syndrome made a grand comeback. I asked to be taken off.
However, the organiser stood his ground. He was convinced I was the right pick. I wasn’t so sure.
It turned out; he was right. 80% of the businesses I recommended went on to win prestigious awards, and the event turned out to be a huge success.
What was the difference between these two scenarios?
I found the answer when I was reading Adam Grant’s newest book, Think Again.
It lay in the balance between competence and confidence.
In the first instance, my confidence exceeded my competence as a public speaker. Instead of listening to the butterflies in my stomach and rethinking my preparedness to be on one of the UK’s top podcasts, I started with pride, which meant I wasn’t open to learning or being curious, which led to failure.
I had climbed ‘Mount Stupid’, as Adam calls it.
In the second instance, however, my competence exceeded my confidence, which meant I needed some external validation, intellectual curiosity, and the humility to learn from seasoned judges, which ultimately, led to success.
Impostor syndrome, by its very nature, involves stepping out of your comfort zone to do something new, something different, something daring.
This brings us to two possible scenarios that Impostor Syndrome asks of us:
Do we ultimately disregard the butterflies in our stomach that it brings and go ahead anyway?
OR do we listen to the voices in our heads and retreat to our zone of safety?
The answer came to me when I was reading Marshall Goldsmith’s latest New York Times Bestseller, The Earned Life, where he introduces the concept of ‘adjacency’.
He says:
‘’ The odds of success favour the people who do not stray too far from their expertise, experience, and relationships. That, however, does not mean we’re restricted to small and incremental changes in our lives. The change can be huge. But it requires the concept of adjacency, some connection, however indirect, to our track record of accomplishment’’.
He goes on to say:
‘’To discover your adjacency, you must find one asset in yourself that is essential for success in the new life you’re trying to create’’.
I, as the founding partner of BlueCloud, was involved in analysing businesses to ascertain their level of readiness for investment. So being asked to be a business judge had adjacency – I already had a track record of analysing businesses – so the leap to become a senior judge at one of the UK’s biggest business award events, (even though it seemed massive), wasn’t such a big deal because I already had the necessary skills and expertise.
So yes, I had the impostor syndrome feeling, but after deep reflection, it was ‘just the fear talking’, so I was able to jettison my worries and go for it.
But what if I was called or invited to play Beethoven for King Charles’ coronation at Buckingham Palace? (A bit of a stretch, but you get the point)
Yes, I would feel impostor syndrome, and yes, this feeling would be justified, because in all my 3 decades of working, I have no adjacency to playing music at that level.
So, we need to listen to the fear impostor syndrome brings and consider if there is any adjacency between your track record and the new thing you’re being called to do.
If there isn’t, then your odds of failure may be very high. Impostor syndrome may be your best friend. You may have to listen to him to save you from failure.

If there is adjacency, then you have a decision to make between two extremes:

  1. Negative (classic) Impostor syndrome: I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m going to be caught out. I best retreat.
  2. Positive (growth mindset) Impostor Syndrome: I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but in time, I’ll figure it out.

So, for subsequent podcasts, I chose the latter. I had to humble myself enough to prepare well – to figure out how to be a good guest – and I did. Success followed and I’ve been a guest on over 25 podcasts and counting.

So, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Impostor syndrome can be a useful tool to have, but only if you play it right.
To share:

  • My new website, which gives more details of all my latest pivots will be out soon. I can’t wait to show it off, watch this space! You can still sign up on the old website:
  • I’ve been accepted by the UK government to be a mentor for small businesses on the Help to Grow Scheme. I’ve already started, and I’m excited to play my small part to move the UK economy forward!
  • Watch out for the next Signature Awards, on 29 September in Mayfair, London, and join us – tickets:!
  • And the hardcover of my book, Pay The Price is still nearly as cheap as the paperback. Bag a copy, and I’d love a review if you can!

I’m rooting for you,