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This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review

By Dr. Amantha Imber

May 17, 2021

Almost 20 years ago, I received a phone call that changed my life.

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the Doctorate of Organizational Psychology program at Monash University.”

“There must have been an administrative error,” I thought to myself. Surely, I was too young, inexperienced, and unknowledgeable to be accepted. Or was I?

Turns out, there wasn’t an error. I really did get in, and a little under three years later, I went on to become the youngest graduate from the program. Today, I’m an organizational psychologist, and I run Inventium, a behavioral science consultancy that aims to help people perform better and be happier at work. I also host the podcast “How I Work,” where I interview CEOs, entrepreneurs, writers, and performers to unpack what that has led them to success.

Through the many conversations I’ve had with people from all walks of life, I’ve learned that I’m not alone in my experience with imposter syndrome — the persistent, nagging thought that tells us that we are undeserving of our achievements. Scientific research has found that up to 82% of people experience imposter syndrome. The other 18% are probably too scared to admit it.

The guests I’ve interviewed for my podcast back me up. No matter how competent or successful they are, I’m often shocked at how many of them continue to feel the same insecurities and fears I felt the day I got my acceptance letter to Monash (even when they become CEOs and land deals). But unlike many of us, they have figured out ways to channel their emotions into something productive. And that means we can do it, too.

Here are four things I’ve learned about how to use imposter syndrome as a force for good.

Interpret self-doubt as a positive emotion.

When I interviewed Broad City creator, writer, and star Abbi Jacobson, my stomach was doing summersaults. I’ve been a fan of Abbi’s work for years and have seen every episode of her sitcom that ran for five seasons on Comedy Central. At some point, I’d read that she had a severe case of imposter syndrome during the earlier seasons of her show, and I was curious whether she still experienced it.

In short, her answer was yes. Abbi described her experiences with speaking at events or being on panels and feeling entirely cloaked in self-doubt.

“‘What am I doing here? Why does anyone care what I have to say about this topic?’ I’d think to myself. I get very nervous before performances or new things. Like I’m going to be exposed for not being good,” she told me.

But here’s the thing. Unlike most of us who interpret nerves and self-doubt as a bad thing, for Abbi, it’s positive.

“I’m happy that I still get very nervous, even if I maybe shouldn’t be. … I want to always be looking at myself and questioning where I am in my career. I want to be measuring how far I’ve come and know that there’s still so much farther to go. Even if I’m really confident in what I’m doing right now and the projects I’m working on, I still can be so much better.”

Hearing Abbi’s perspective made me interpret my feelings of imposter syndrome in a different light. What if I started to think of my nerves as positive things? What if I reinterpreted them as energy boosters, or proof of how much I care? Now I tell myself that I’m nervous, not because I shouldn’t be here, but because I’m excited to share whatever it is that I am about to say.

Pro tip: The next time you experience self-doubt, try to interpret the feelings as a motivating force. Think of your nerves as reminders that there will always be room to grow. Instead of shying away from experiences that trigger your doubt, deliberately embrace them and remember it that it’s only through challenges that we can improve.

Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room.

Cyan Ta’eed spent many years feeling like she wasn’t as intelligent, as capable, and as good as everyone thought she was. This was despite the fact that she co-founded Envato, a Melbourne-based technology firm that is worth more than $1 billion.

To overcome her imposter syndrome, Cyan looked for role models — people who oozed an effortless confidence. She deliberately sought these people out, spoke to them, and closely observed what they did differently than herself when faced with doubt. One of the qualities they had in common is that they never seemed to worry about asking questions that might make them look stupid. “And I always worried about that,” Cyan confessed.

“I needed to shift my thinking from wanting to seem like the smartest person in the room to wanting to leave the room being the smartest person. And it meant that I needed to ask questions constantly. I needed to not care whether it made me look like an idiot.”

I could relate. There have been many times in my own career when I have shied away from asking questions for the fear of being judged. But shortly after we spoke, I began a new practice: simply asking others what is truly on my mind. In meetings now, when I look around the room and see people nodding in agreement or smiling, I’m reassured that my instincts were right — and asking not only helps me grow, it also helps the person who is still too nervous to raise their hand and speak out.

Pro tip: Instead of obsessing about how others will view you, try to remove your self-censorship. It will only get in the way of your learning. And chances are, other people in that room you’re trying so hard to impress probably want to ask the same question. Remember, you’re doing everyone else a favor by asking whatever you are unclear on or want more information about. Ironically, you’ll probably appear more confident in your abilities and competency because you had the courage to ask what you didn’t know. 

Don’t shy away from failure, even if it scares you. 

Cyan also found that her imposter syndrome often caused her to shy away from opportunities that seemed intimidating. “For a long time, all I was doing was avoiding failing,” she said. “But then I realized that I needed to start saying yes to opportunities, even when they were scary.”

She realized that by saying “yes” she was increasing the risk of potential failure, but at the same time, dramatically improving her personal rate of growth. After all, it’s hard to grow from opportunities that easy or safe.

With practice, Cyan forced herself to get comfortable failing, and coping with that failure, on both large and small scales. “When you try to do really hard things that someone’s never done before, oftentimes you fail. I’ve launched about 10 start-ups. There’s a lot you haven’t heard about and don’t know about because [those startups] didn’t succeed, and I closed them down.”

When speaking on panels where she didn’t know the answer to a question, instead of pretending, she would simply admit that she didn’t know. Listening Cyan, I realized that becoming comfortable with the idea of failure and accepting that not knowing all the answers is okay. When I do that, weighing opportunities becomes less about my running away from self-doubt and more embracing new challenges.

Pro tip: When reviewing opportunities to throw yourself into, ask yourself why you’re afraid of them. Are you hesitating to take something on because you are worried about failure? If the answer is yes, it’s probably a good sign that you should say “yes” because it will be a great growth opportunity. Just be careful to not overload yourself — prioritize experiences that will stretch you the furthest and help you get closer to your goals.

Don’t run away from negative feedback. Embrace it.

If you saw Dom Price speak at a conference, you would assume he’s the most confident person in the room. He is very tall, has a booming voice, and leads research and development for Atlassian, one of the biggest technology companies on the planet. Yet Dom told me that he experiences imposter syndrome every single day. And for him, it’s a massive motivator to listen deeply to feedback.

“It’s ironic that a lot of people see impostor syndrome as a reason to stop listening to negativity. I actually go seeking it out,” Dom said. “I got some feedback this morning from an event I spoke at in the U.S. recently. I ignored all the praise and went straight to the criticism, because I wanted to know what people hated about it. I can’t learn much from [praise]. But I can learn a lot from [critical feedback].

“The minute I shut down and stop listening or get so arrogant and caught up in my own story that I don’t actually take others into account, that’s when all the wheels fall off,” he added.

It’s taken some time, but I, too, have learned to embrace critical feedback. I try to avoid taking it personally (it’s rarely intended to be), and instead and see each piece of constructive feedback as a strategy I can implement to improve my own performance. If someone is taking the time to give me critical feedback, it means they believe I can improve, and that’s a good sign.

Pro tip: Start to become aware of when you shut down in the face of negative feedback. Remind yourself that it’s only negative feedback — not positive – that helps you figure out how to grow and improve. It can also be useful to assume positive intent from the feedback giver: They are giving you the feedback because they want to see you get better and they believe you can do it. After receiving the feedback, take some time to plan out how you will apply it — you might even do this in conjunction with the person who gave it to you.

The big idea? Make friends with your imposter syndrome and stop seeing it as a weakness. The most successful people in the world embrace self-doubt and are not afraid to look stupid. And if you’re avoiding doing something because it makes you nervous, remind yourself that these experiences are the richest ones for helping you learn.