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The Value of Impostor Syndrome

The relationship between commitment and doubt

is by no means an antagonistic one.

Commitment is healthiest not when it is without doubt

but in spite of doubt.

-Rollo May

What a couple of weeks it's been for Amanda Gorman. Last night, the 22-year-old became the first poet to ever recite a poem for the Superbowl broadcast. This, just over two weeks after being the youngest Inaugural Poet ever. And, of course, she was recently on our Dojo dry erase board!


So it was with great interest that I tucked into her interview with former First Lady Michelle Obama, and with even greater interest that I read as these two remarkable people talked about their constant battle with "Impostor Syndrome".


"Impostor Syndrome", if you're not familiar with the phrase, refers to the feeling one has that they don't deserve the position they occupy, or the respect and admiration that others give them. It's the fear even accomplished people have that at any time, those around them are going to figure out that they really don't know how to run a company, or aren't any good at making movies, or -- I don't know -- don't know jack about teaching Karate.

Many years back, when I first heard this term, it was a revelation to me that I wasn't the only person who felt that way. Slowly then, there was the realization that most people I like personally or admire from a distance are struck by this feeling at least occasionally. These days, after a whole lot of reflection on this subject, I've come to the conclusion that a person who never gets a bout of Impostor Syndrome is a person I should probably give a wide berth.


To be honest, I find people whose confidence is so absolute that they entertain no doubt to be at best boring and at worst dangerous. Definitely not the person I want with me in a fight or a fire (or sitting down for a drink). The best questions we ask ourselves are the ones we ask ourselves, when we kick the tires of our plans, and look for areas we can grow.


My students know the premium that I put on action, and on committing to one's action with everything one has. But commitment does not exist in the absence of doubt any more than courage exists in the absence of fear. It is the doubts we face that make our commitments to ourselves all the more meaningful, and our actions all the more effective.

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