Managing the Epidemic … of the Imposter Syndrome

Author: Michelle Russell       

imposter sundrome

Far more people struggle with the imposter syndrome — the feeling you’re a fraud on the verge of being found out — today because of profound social change since the 1970s, when the phenomenon was coined.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell

As we were putting the final touches on this issue, I came across an article in the The Economist’s 1843 magazine by philosophy professor Clancy Martin.

It’s about what he calls “the modern epidemic of the imposter syndrome” — a constant, nagging feeling that you’re a fraud on the verge of being found out. The phenomenon was coined by two psychologists in the late 1970s, so it’s hardly a new concept. But what’s different today, Martin says, is that far more people struggle with the imposter syndrome because of profound social change.

“In the past most people were employed to make things,” he writes, “and it’s fairly easy to distinguish an expert chairmaker or bricklayer from a novice.” Now, however, many of us work in the service economy and “our lives are spent creating impressions rather than tangible items. There is no objective standard for providing a ‘great customer experience.’ … At every level of every field, the number of roles where achievement is neither entirely measurable nor objective has grown.”

Most of the time I manage to quash the nagging sense that someone’s going to find out that I don’t have the goods to do this job. I think that’s the curse of many writers and editors who’ve never done the actual work of the professionals they produce content for — and means, more than anything else, that we recognize that.

No doubt the 1843 article caught my eye because I was in the thick of trying to come up with a through line for this year’s Annual Meetings Market Survey — fraud alarm time. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been hashing out this survey for the past 17 years. I have no background in statistics. I spend my days working with words and not figures for very good reason.

This survey produces a lot of data for anyone to get their arms around — luckily, our longtime market research company partner, Lewis&Clark, does the heavy lifting, so I don’t have to pass myself off as a statistician. But if the numbers don’t change dramatically from one annual survey to the next, it’s harder for me to find a story angle.

As I write this, the coronavirus is dominating the headlines and its impact is being felt in the business events industry. So that became my conversation point: How event organizers said they expected their 2020 events to perform may end up looking quite different — this epidemic wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the survey went out last October.

And if I had to wager a bet as to whether the imposter syndrome is common among event organizers — even if your days are spent creating “impressions rather than tangible items,” which Martin would say puts you at greater risk to feel like a fraud — I’d say no. Your open-ended comments reflect that you know your stuff. Many of you said that you just wish others in your organizations — particularly your bosses — would recognize the hard-won skills and value you bring to the table.


Not Faking It

I think we’re more likely to feel like an imposter when our work requires us to make things up as we go along — to try to master new skillsets. But that’s just the reality and the future of work. One thing I noticed that cropped up more often in our Meetings Market Survey comments this year were concerns about the environment. Maybe we’re recognizing that one skill that needs to be cultivated is to be better stewards of the planet and more intentional about contributing to the social good. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals offer a framework, which we share in our March CMP Series story. Plus, we found a nonprofit, #Meet4Impact, that’s dedicated to measuring events’ social impact.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.