Imposter Syndrome: "CEO, Leader, Business builder" vs "Young female African, lots to learn
“Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” - Google
Enter a room full of successful people and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll hear this phrase come up. In fact, over 70% of us have felt this at some point in time. As women, African ones at that, we have it particularly bad!
I can’t quite pin-point the first time I felt like an imposter. I think I’ve always experienced this - for starters, our education system thrives on the idea that you can always do better. The 8-4-4 system (the mainstream education system in Kenya) even refuses to acknowledge the idea of a perfect score, and so the highest grade you could get is 99%.
As I’ve achieved more; worked at world-class companies and attended world class programs, these feelings seem to get more intense, rather than get squashed by these achievements.
When I started working on Wall Street, there was always a little voice saying I was there because I was black or a woman or lucky, despite maintaining a 3.5 GPA through most of uni. When I joined Centum to manage a division, I doubted being there fair & square because of my personal relationships despite passing all of the psychometric tests, interviews and consistently achieving the goals set in the strategy. When I got into Oxford, I wondered why Harvard & Stanford rejected me. Now I’m building Africa’s Pocket & there’s still a little voice asking if I’m the right person to take it global.
So I decided to dig a little deeper and become friends with this little voice, understand it so I can overcome it. I looked to Google for some inspiration on how to do this and found a few articles that spoke to me. I used them to come up with a plan.
When did I feel uneasy and what caused it? This came from this HBR Article on tackling imposter syndrome. I ‘journaled’ on my phone for about 3 weeks and made some interesting discoveries; a lot of my imposter syndrome came from social media and relatives.
Many of my (well meaning) relatives still ask me, “So what are you doing now?” despite me having been running Africa’s Pocket full time for 2 years now. The other day, someone - let’s call him Craig - who had no context on our traction or scale told me,‘that’s a great side hustle’ - and the funny thing is that Craig meant it as a compliment. This business that employs 7 people and serves hundreds of customers across 33 countries; a side hustle in someone’s eyes, how could I not doubt myself?
On social media, I constantly get news of different startups raising huge amounts of money and the immediate next thought is ‘Will this ever be me?”.
Once I started to understand where the imposter syndrome comes from and what triggers it the most, I wanted to take responsibility for believing in myself (no matter what articles I read or what Craig says). So, I started to do a remapping exercise. This is a live project, ever improving & ever changing. Here’s what I’m doing so far:
When I’m catching up with people, I start with the parts of my life that cause me to feel most imposter-ish. Currently, this is my career. First, I’ve had to start by calling it a career (It was only recently that I started thinking about my entrepreneurship journey as part of my career). Second, I’m intentional about starting my updates with the things that are going well, then following with those that aren’t going well. I tend to talk in more detail at the beginning of conversations then I get tired as the conversation goes on. So just by creating this system, I talk less about the things that aren’t going well, thus reinforcing in my mind that I have accomplished these things and I deserve the recognition and success that comes with this. Finally, I’m also working to change my response to compliments from “Oh, it was nothing…” to some version of “Yeah, it’s actually a solid achievement - thank you!” The impact here has been tremendous.
I’m using the spaces that would trigger imposter syndrome to overcome it. For example when Craig mentioned that Africa’s Pocket was a great side hustle, I used it as an opportunity to share our progress in the last quarter. This was a great space to practice pitching my company - something I’ll need to do a lot as we go on this journey of building a global African company. I’m using social media to connect with people who’ve achieved the things I aspire to - this humanizes the people behind the accomplishments, and I’ve come to learn that we all go through the same things. A tweet announcing a $3.5M raise can change from a news article that made me feel inadequate, to a Twitter conversation about the journey, the challenges and most times, a pretty achievable plan of how to get there. A bonus is that I’ve made some great new friends along the way!
I’m visualizing the future so my accomplishments don’t surprise me. I remember when I set a goal to reach 10K paying users on our platform, I could barely say the number to myself let alone inspire other people to reach it. Now I have it everywhere, it’s on our company dashboard, my whiteboard, laptop, phone, notebook. I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the journey there. When I enter a space, I do a mental exercise where I try to figure out if I could fit ten thousand people in there. I know how many pages I’d need to scroll on our dashboard to view all 10K users. Visualizing like this has been both intimidating and fun - when the goal shifts to 100K or 1M or more, I’ll keep experimenting with how to visualize, but this, I must keep doing!
I’m saying “I” more often. My default setting was to speak about every accomplishment as “We did XYZ”. Sometimes this is warranted, but most times it’s not. Where the achievement belongs to me, I’m more intentional about saying “I did ABC”. This helps me own my accomplishments more and feel less like it was because of ‘luck’ or anything other than my own hard work. That 5th paragraph up there ☝🏽 is a testament of this!
The thing about imposter syndrome though is that a lot of the time, it’s caused by external factors. It can be a narrative you’ve heard enough times to believe, or someone who is putting their own limitations on your goals & achievements.
Whoever your ‘versus’ is, keep your head up and keep working towards those big hairy audacious goals - there’s a whole squad of us rooting for you!
I’ll leave you with the words of a great poet, Jay Z,
“Three-fifths of a man, I believe's the phrase
I'm 50% of D'USSÉ and it's debt free (Yeah)
100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B (Uh)
Roc Nation, half of that, that's my piece.”
Your dreams are valid!
Excuse me while I build a global African company.
Still taking over the world,