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Learning to Live with Imposter Syndrome

During my business school application process, which was pre-COVID, I visited Stern to learn about the MBA program, take a building tour, and most importantly put my name on whatever list the Admissions department keeps of prospective students who attend events. Something that I still remember from that day over two years ago are the people that I met. Not the then-current Stern students leading the event, but the other potential applicants. Two in particular stuck out to me; I don’t know their names, but I do remember their stories. One was a lawyer from South America who had just arrived in New York and had all of his suitcases with him, and another had started her own fashion company and totally looked the part of someone on the cutting edge of fashion. They were impressive, and compared to people like that, I was feeling inadequate before I had even applied.

As I got into school and progressed through the MBA program, those feelings of inadequacy did not subside. If anything, they grew stronger as I met many more impressive, accomplished classmates. This mindset that I have been dealing with is called imposter syndrome, which is the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck and not because of your talent and qualifications – aka “I don’t belong here”. I’m sure that most b-school students have heard of it. It was Dean Raghu who actually introduced me to the term imposter syndrome when he referenced it in his speech to my class during our virtual Launch. He articulated that it was unfounded and that no one in our class was an imposter. His quote was something like “our admissions department does not make mistakes,” and I laughed a little to myself. It was funny to me that he was so aware of the phenomenon that he was trying to get out ahead of it. As I got to know more of my fellow Sternies, I learned that I was not alone in feeling this way about myself, as Raghu implicitly predicted. It turns out that imposter syndrome and more generally feelings of self-doubt are quite common. And it is not just among b-school students, as there are noted disclosures of imposter syndrome from people as famous and accomplished as Michelle Obama and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

I needed to figure out a way to deal with my imposter syndrome because it was becoming more and more a real problem rather than a benign thought. There are instances where it stifled me by causing inaction or avoidance in activities like group projects or social events.  Fundamentally, I saw two options for my situation. Either my feelings matched reality, and I did not belong in the Stern MBA program. Or my feelings didn’t match reality, and I did belong. If I was actually on par with my classmates and did belong, then great. I am living my life properly, and my thoughts are just thoughts. If I was not on par and I actually did not belong, then that means that somebody screwed up somewhere. In which case, what does that second scenario mean for me?

I decided that my advice to myself would be this: get as much out of grad school as you can. You are trying to enrich your own life. If someone else made a mistake, that is on them, not on me and I’m not going to punish myself for it. Think about that skier who went viral for finishing last in the women’s halfpipe at the 2018 Winter Olympics. She was clearly not good enough to compete in the Olympics – expect that by definition she was, because she did. Do you think she is calling herself an imposter? Nope, she is calling herself an Olympian. (It’s the headline of her LinkedIn profile, I checked.) Maybe I’m like her and maybe I’m not like her. Either way, on paper it says I’m a Sternie, so that’s what I’ll be calling myself.

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