Recently, we met a woman who told us the story of how she grew up on a Native American reservation and had to drop out of high school to care for her younger siblings. In her early 20s, she went back to school, where she excelled. Eventually, she went to dental school and earned four postsecondary degrees.
“Coming from my very challenging childhood, it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there — like someone had made a mistake in admitting me to dental school, because I didn’t feel as smart as those around me,” she told us. Yet, while completing her degree, one of her professors encouraged her to pursue a specialty — a lucrative opportunity that was well within her capabilities — but she felt it was beyond her reach. Instead, she practiced as a general dentist, working for a government agency that provided care in rural communities (also a respected role, but not her initial career aspiration). Although it took a decade, she eventually overcame her initial self-doubt, developed a specialization in pediatric dentistry, and became an esteemed clinical professor in her field. Today, she helps students achieve their full potential — especially those who, like her younger self, doubt their capabilities and potential despite indications otherwise.
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Many high-achieving people we know describe similar feelings of self-doubt. They’re plagued by a nagging sense that, despite their objective successes, they aren’t as capable as others believe. They have trouble attributing their high performance to their competence, and instead credit luck, tokenism, accident, or the help of others. In her book Lean In, former Meta chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg described the feeling this way: “Every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
In the late 1970s, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who studied high-achieving professional women, gave this feeling the name imposter syndrome and described it as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” unaffected by evidence to the contrary. A KPMG survey of 750 female executives in 2020 found that this feeling persists: Seventy-five percent reported experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Eighty-one percent said they think that compared with men, they put more pressure on themselves not to fail.