Imposter syndrome, the feeling like you're faking it at work and someone will soon figure it out, doesn't feel good. But it actually says something good about you and your professional abilities, according to star Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant.
"Imposter syndrome isn't a disease," he recently wrote on LinkedIn. "It's a normal response to internalizing impossibly high standards" and "usually means you're facing a new challenge and you're going to learn."
And he's not the only-well regarded professor who feels that imposter syndrome, unpleasant as it may be, is actually a good sign. Grant's post is targeted at employees worried about their own imposter syndrome. A recent Bloomberg column by Tyler Cowen, a George Mason economist, blogger, super reader, and co-author of the book Talent, about spotting those with undervalued potential, speaks directly to those doing the hiring.
Its message is simple: Imposter syndrome is actually a professional superpower and you should strongly consider hiring those who admit to experiencing it. Cowen's complete column is well worth a read but his argument boils down to three points.
1. Imposter syndrome signals ambition and competence.
You might think feeling dumb or inadequate is a sign someone may be dumb or inadequate. Not so. As the famous Dunning-Kruger effect tells us, it's the hopelessly incompetent who are generally the most confident (as they lack the skills to understand how unskilled they are). The more expert and knowledgeable you get, the more likely you're to be plagued with self-doubt.
Basically, imposter syndrome means you are likely to both understand what high standards look like and hold yourself to them. "If you think you are not qualified to do what you are doing, it is a sign you are setting your sights high and reaching for a new and perhaps unprecedented level of achievement," Cowen writes.
2. Imposter syndrome can be a sign of precocious talent.
Sometimes, people experience imposter syndrome because they really do lack the usual qualifications for a role. That's often not a bad thing, Cowen points out.
"Consider the teenagers who drop out of college, start tech companies, and become billionaires in their 20s. It is hardly surprising that sometimes they feel like they do not belong," notes Cowen. He also points to journalists Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, "who two decades ago were just two kids with undergraduate degrees writing on the internet. They were impostors, pretending they were 'official' public intellectuals, whatever that might mean. Now they are 'official,' widely read and deservedly so."
Imposter syndrome is particularly common in those on accelerated or non-traditional career paths, and these folks are often among the most passionate and gifted in any given field. So while not every kid trying to fake it until they make it is a budding savant, it probably makes sense for hiring managers to give the young and bold extra consideration.
3. Imposter syndrome makes you more empathetic.
Imposter syndrome is hugely common, and even the world's top performers are not immune. Everyone from pop star Lady Gaga to tennis star Serena Williams to chess champion Magnus Carlsen has admitted to feeling like a fraud. Which means when you experience imposter syndrome you're actually experiencing a near universal human challenge, which just might help you understand your fellow human beings a bit better.
"On a professional level, if you want to be in better touch with your colleagues, maybe it is a good idea for you to try out some new and unfamiliar tasks, and they can too. It will make everyone more understanding and more sympathetic -- especially important qualities for being a successful boss," suggests Cowen.
All of which adds up to a convincing case that, as Cowen puts it, imposter syndrome is actually "a professional superpower." If a job candidate admits to being a sufferer in an interview, consider that a major green flag.