Suffering from impostor syndrome? The cure is simpler than you think

Marketers are prone to impostor syndrome, but solid training and a more realistic view of your peers’ achievements will show your worries are unfounded.

Imposter syndrome
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Around 50 years ago, two friends started noticing a pattern. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes were accomplished, professional women – both psychologists based in Atlanta, Georgia. And both worked with similarly impressive women in their clinical lives. But across these interactions, whether it was an individual consultation or a group session, Clance and Imes kept seeing the same thing.

Despite their patients enjoying senior positions with impressive educational and professional qualifications, many questioned whether they were worthy of their role and their success.

“Obviously I’m in this position because my abilities have been overestimated,” one female head of a department at a prestigious university told the two psychologists. “I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony when I took my doctoral examination,” another explained, before recounting her shock when told her paper was among the best that the examiner had ever seen.

“Despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardised tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities,” Clance and Imes concluded in their paper, published in a leading psychotherapy journal in the autumn of 1978, “these women do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be ‘impostors’.”

The women assumed they had been lucky, or beneficiaries of an oversight. They believed they did not deserve their status and were convinced that at some point they would finally be revealed as frauds. The pressure and anxiety of feeling like this meant many of the women looked forward to the relief of being found out. All the while, their actual performance and impact remained entirely legitimate and, in many cases, stellar.

Impostor syndrome was born. For several decades it remained a minuscule psychological concept. But gradually, particularly after the turn of the century, the popularity and application of the term became commonplace. While it was originally associated with women, more recent research has shown it to be just as common among male subjects. While women tend to experience the syndrome in terms of their ability to perform, it manifests more in men as a fear of being unsuccessful. But in both cases the impact on confidence can be enormous.

We have always been the third corporate wheel, given that all a company really needs to be in business is a product and a sale.

And that’s especially true in marketing. I am struck by how quickly the concept of impostor syndrome has taken hold across our profession. I must review more than 5,000 exit surveys from the marketers who take my Mini MBA in Marketing each year. Impostor syndrome comes up, a lot, in the verbatims. Perhaps 10% of the total sample describe suffering from it and credit the course with helping to dispel it. We don’t ask about it in the survey, but hundreds of marketers bring it up anyway. Hundreds of successful, senior, award-winning marketers.

And it makes me wonder just why our profession is so vulnerable to impostor syndrome. I’m sure other sectors have their fair share, but there is something about marketing that seems to be making the syndrome increasingly common.

Marketing’s standing

We have to start with the discipline of marketing itself. We have always been the third corporate wheel, given that all a company really needs to be in business is a product and a sale. As a result, marketing does not have a proper seat at the table unless it makes a case for itself.

Microsoft CMO Chris Capossela noted this very point when he was interviewed in Marketing Week in May. He observed that, in order to make marketing more successful at Microsoft, he first had to aggressively promote marketing’s role. “You have to get over the impostor syndrome,” Capossela noted, “and say: ‘No, marketing sits right next to sales. It’s a peer to sales, to engineering, to finance. It’s not second to them.”

Capossela was referring to the discipline of marketing as the impostor, not marketers personally. But I believe marketing’s tenuous position in many companies undermines many marketers and their confidence. When was the last time you met a finance director who doubted herself?

Then we must add training, or the lack thereof. Infamously, around 50% of marketers have no proper training in marketing. And most don’t feel this is an impediment to doing marketing. Indeed, cheered on by Philistines like Gary Vee and Neil Patel to mistrust and undervalue formal learning systems, many modern marketers are proud of their total lack of education in the subject. They consider it a badge of honour that their skill set has not been diminished by old-school and out-of-date thinking from books.

While that makes for wonderfully acerbic social media discussions, it must also cause significant impostor syndrome in those that don’t have proper marketing education. You can learn a lot from YouTube and LinkedIn, but not enough to convince the hardest judge of all – yourself – that you really know your marketing onions.

Focus on core principles

And then there is the mercurial nature of our discipline to contend with. We are constantly being told that marketing is different now from how it once was. That marketing has changed more in the last five years than in the previous 50. We are a profession that sucks deep from the cigarette of change and exhales large clouds of noxious bullshit to obscure what marketing is still all about.

A year in the trenches, exposed to the bullshit at most marketing conferences and the garbage often written about in the marketing press, is often enough to make even the most strident marketer doubt their worth. Whatever concepts you might believe to be important – from research to loyalty to funnels to differentiation to pricing – some bozo is always standing in the wings ready to explain why none of these concepts matter anymore and should be replaced by a nefarious term borrowed from growth hacking, or an app called thwacko that was invented by a 12-year-old in their basement on Tuesday. Maybe most marketers don’t feel like impostors to begin with but end up that way after being told, for the thousandth time, that they have to get with the new programme?

Combine the precarious place that marketing has in most companies with the lack of training endemic across our profession, and then shake everything to its core with overstated predictions of change and revolution, and you have the perfect recipe for impostor syndrome among all too many marketers.

So how do you fight back as a marketer? The literature on impostor syndrome is useful and psychologists recommend a number of techniques to manage the condition.

First and foremost, recognise that you are not alone. Especially in marketing. If I had to put a number on it, I would estimate 30% to 40% of marketers have struggled with impostor syndrome in their roles. That enormity has double value. First, it shows that your feelings are very common. It’s not just you. Second, it also suggests there are many other marketers you can talk to about your experiences and who will know exactly what you are going through. Admitting to feeling like an impostor might be the single simplest way to dispel much of its negativity. Especially when someone you know confirms they have had exactly the same feelings.

It’s at this point I probably need to share a story about my own feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in a marketing situation. Alas, I have to be honest and confess to never having experienced anything like that. I am too much of a fucker. But the reasons for my lack of impostor syndrome might help you too.

I really do not have an exaggerated sense of self-worth and ability when it comes to marketing. But what I do have is a very clear insight into the sorry, shithouse state of marketing in many companies. Many of you currently struggling with impostor syndrome are labouring under the assumption that elsewhere marketing is being practiced by extraordinarily gifted people. Trust me, nothing could be further from the truth.
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You can cure your impostor syndrome with an injection of personal confidence and self-worth but, in marketing at least, you can also cure it by realising just how bad most marketers are and how much money they are being paid to be this bad. The bar is so low I defy anyone to look about and maintain their feelings of inadequacy. Sure, there are some amazingly good marketers out there. But there is a huge army of overrated plonkers too, and you are probably significantly better than most of them. I’m not saying you are great, I’m saying everyone else is much worse.

It’s a self-serving point, but also get some proper training under your belt. There are a number of noted, advanced marketing programs out there that can improve your performance and marketing skill set but also help destroy your impostor syndrome once and for all.

I find marketing education usually offers a triple whammy to anyone suffering from the syndrome. First, they get to hang with classmates with similar experiences. Second, they get to learn hot new shit that makes them feel more useful because they are more useful. But third, and most important, they often learn that the stuff they thought they knew has a fancy name and some extra arguments in its favour but is basically exactly what they thought it was. This confirmatory moment that ‘I do know this’ is a killer for impostor syndrome.

Finally, just be kinder to yourself. One of my many issues with the idea of ‘marketing science’ is that it suggests you should be getting your slide rule and protractor out, and working out the perfect answer to every marketing challenge. We work in a very imprecise field. So go easy on yourself. And remember that, by just doing basic marketing, you can add enormous value. I am pretty sure most plumbers don’t get impostor syndrome because at the end of the day they do the basics well and clock off at 5pm.

Marketing isn’t rocket science. Hell, its not even science. Do the best you can. Work hard. And don’t be so hard on yourself.

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  1. Ken Jones 16 Jun 2022

    Excellent piece Mark, and some down-to-earth, helpful observations and advice on the subject.

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