The Common Thread of Insecurity: Everyone’s Battle with Impostor Syndrome

Steve Jobs’ Perspective:

Steve Jobs: it’s easy to think the Apple co-founder (did you know there were actually three?) possessed something — intelligence, talent, creativity, connections, etc. — that you don’t.

But here’s the thing. Scratch the surface of even the most successful people and you’ll likely find they suffer from impostor syndrome: the inner belief they’re inadequate and mediocre, despite objective evidence that proves their skills, talents, and achievements.

Jobs summed it up nicely:

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it.

The minute you understand you can change it, you can mold it … that’s maybe the most important thing: to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just going to live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it …

… and make your mark upon it.”

Jobs was a mixed bag. Visionary entrepreneur, and a guy who sometimes ate only carrots or apples for a week. Incredibly influential leader, yet also the antithesis of a warm, empathetic boss.

We’re all mixed bags. At times, we’re all a little insecure. A little uncertain. A little — or a lot — messy. As Avenged Sevenfold guitarist Synyster Gates puts it, “Everyone is some sort of [screwed] up.”

Depressing? Absolutely not; that perspective is actually empowering, especially when you consider other examples.

Richard Branson’s Perspective:

Take Richard Branson. Quintessential entrepreneur. Noted philanthropist and humanitarian. World-class adventurer. Influencer of world leaders. I was nervous the first time I interviewed him, but I shouldn’t have been. He was gracious. Thoughtful. Considerate. (He even gave me half his sandwich.) Even though personal reality rarely lives up to public perception, Branson was exactly what you would hope he would be.

And then there’s this: As I was leaving, I heard him say to the PR rep, “Do you think that went OK? I’m not sure I did some of his questions justice.”

And it hit me: Even though Sir Richard is incredibly successful, intelligent, and accomplished, he’s also insecure. Just as you or I would have been, he was worried he didn’t come off well.

Additional Examples:

A few more examples? After our first interview, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett told me he had been nervous because he “never imagined he would ever be in a magazine like Inc.” Dany Garcia, the Rock’s business partner and CEO of the Garcia Companies, called me back after our interview, not because she wanted to change a few answers but because she was worried they lacked depth. Jack Welch paused after a question and said, “Let me think about that for a minute. I don’t want to sound dumb.”

I can list plenty more examples.

A Common Human Thread:


Because we’re all just people: No matter how talented, how celebrated, how successful or influential someone may appear on the outside, on the inside, people are just people. We all share the same doubts and fears.

That high-powered investor you’re about to pitch? She’s smart. Savvy. Successful. Naturally, you’re nervous. Even intimidated. You’re afraid your vision, your plans, your foresight, and your passion won’t be good enough.

You’re afraid you won’t be good enough.

But so is she. No matter her track record, she’s still insecure about the future: whether she can spot the next group company, the next great entrepreneur, the next great opportunity. Deep inside, she worries that she won’t be good enough.

Underneath the trappings of success is a person just as nervous and insecure as you.

Because, to paraphrase Jobs, we’re all just people — and the playing field is a lot more level than it might appear.

Embracing Our Shared Humanity:

The next time you feel nervous about meeting someone, pitching someone, selling someone, connecting with someone, make sure your nervousness isn’t misplaced. It makes sense to be nervous about how you will perform, especially if you aren’t prepared. (Confidence is all about preparation; the more prepared you are, the more confident you feel.)

But it doesn’t make sense to be nervous about the person. No matter how successful on the outside, on the inside they’re just like you: Scared. Nervous. Insecure. Messy.

Some sort of (screwed) up.

Which means you can be just as successful, in whatever way you choose to define success, as the people you admire. You can be just as successful as the people you think might be smarter, more talented, more skilled, more connected.

Because deep inside, we’re all the same.

In the best way possible.

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