Wikipedia defines ‘imposter syndrome’ as ‘a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.’
For those who work in areas where there is a relatively smooth, easy journey to celebrity status – models, TV presenters, interviewers, lead singers (who don’t do the song writing) and natural disaster survivors, it’s not hard to see why they might have such feelings.
Apparently many people of both genders have feelings of imposter syndrome from time to time. But because it makes people feel more anxious and vulnerable, it’s not something we’re likely to share freely. The trick is to see imposter syndrome as a choice we make. Not a mantle given to us.
Just as some people amplify their achievements to gain advantage, others take an opposite approach (under promise and over deliver). Merit takes time to form. And reputations are built on a string of milestones (but lost after a single adverse event).
Every day, people encounter novel situations, testing their leadership skills, imagination and adaptability. Therefore, if we can’t shake the monkey sitting on one shoulder whispering ‘you’re an imposter at this’, it’s up to us to encourage another monkey to sit on our other shoulder. One that says, ‘so what if you’re new to this. Flexibility rules. Do your best and see where that takes you!’
Friends are there so you can laugh and cry over the same things. They help you glam up the mundane. Friends gloss over, or agree with your biases.
A soulmate charms you, completes your sentences and pushes your patience. Perhaps in equal measure. A soulmate helps you face the mundane head on.
Soulmates make you a little bit crazy. Friends are a little bit crazy. That’s why you like them.
Family sit in the pockmarked no man’s land, between your soulmate and your friends. They might put up some barbed wire. Or simply sunbathe and call out to you from time to time, when the shelling gets intense.
Whether you hang out in the bunker with your friends, man the front line with your soulmate, or search out your family in no man’s land, depends on your agility, your resilience and the orders you give yourself.
Strong squash players dominate the central zone of the court. This helps them in several ways. It helps them handle uncertainty i.e. where the next shot from their opponent will come from. And it helps them with ‘growth’ i.e. shortening the average time to hit the ball and maximising the time they have to set up their own future shots.
So what is the relevance of squash strategy to personal flexibility?
Firstly, imagine a two-dimensional matrix with columns for personal planning (strong or weak). And rows for direction (clear or unclear). There are 4 quadrants in the matrix.
Those whose natural inclination is strong planning and clear direction forward are thought of as strategic and focussed. And unkindly, as ‘control freaks’. For the control freaks, if operating in a turbulent or increasingly uncertain environment, their supporters (employers, sports coaches, parents, teachers or tutors) can help them become more comfortable with uncertainty and more agile under turbulent conditions – become dynamic planners and become tolerant of multiple versions of the truth, perhaps caused by some versions being out of date faster than others. Football goalies are perhaps a sports example of control freaks.
Those whose natural inclination is strong planning but weak direction forward are the long suffering, ‘steady eddies’. For the steady eddies, their supporters can reassure them on direction and encourage them to rely on more dynamic planning approaches – less detailed and less complex plans, more empowerment and more self-belief. Civil servants serving politicians (especially under UK Brexit) are perhaps a workplace example of steady eddies.
Those whose natural inclination is weak planning and unclear direction, are the go with the flow, ‘fatalists’. People who are fatalistic in their home life probably need supporter encouragement to build some hopes and aspirations. Anything that gets them to experience the taste of success is a good start. Supporters can help them to become better planners, project members or team players. Spectators at a sports game are perhaps an example of fatalists in the sense not of supporting their team, but of being an onlooker.
Finally, those whose natural inclination is weak planning but clear direction forward are ‘opportunists’, making their own luck. For the opportunists, their supporters need to encourage them to create more control for more benefit. With control coming from teamwork, planning and quicker influence. Football strikers are perhaps a sports example of opportunists.
Now imagine a world of constant and accelerating change – not change in everything. But change as a rhythm or backbeat to everyday life. In such conditions, a medium level of both planning and direction is desirable, like the central zone for playing squash. But requires personal flexibility from those in all four quadrants to achieve i.e. travel a similar distance towards the centre zone, but from a unique direction, with a unique rationalisation.
Families, voters, groups of volunteers and groups of friends rarely encounter the structure and rules that simple games prescribe. Therefore, all could benefit from seeking out the ‘central zone’ of the matrix to achieve good progress. It’s not just about tolerance. But appreciation of the merits of opposing outlooks too. Work is needed to seek out commonality and win-wins. But not achieve the extreme of groupthink. All that remains is to forge some cultural pathways towards the central zone for each social group concerned…
Options Flexibility is having one master plan, but deliberately developing a number of tactics to achieve it, not just relying on one tactic. Sports teams often win games by changing their tactics during the game. Under dynamic competitive conditions, so do companies.
A student who wanted to enrol at a university but not incur a high student debt (tuition and accommodation debt) might consider each of the following tactics;
- Work first and save to pay their fees.
- Study and work part time together.
- Get their employer to sponsor them while they study (cadetship/apprenticeship).
- Start a small side-business to partly fund their studies.
Plan Flexibility is having several master plans at once. That way if one fails, you can activate another one quite quickly, because the options you’ve built up already, work well for each of your master plans.
The master plans might be to be the best ‘you’ that you can be & be the best partner you can be. By building up a strong personal network of trusted friends, generating goodwill with your partner’s family, taking some personal development courses and/or doing some activities outside your comfort zone, you’ll build confidence, insight and skills. These things give you options to help you achieve both or either master plan.
Someone might reach a ‘watershed moment’ where they need to move from Options Flexibility to Plan Flexibility. For example, becoming a refugee and having to flee their native country. Deciding whether to come out, or finding they need to change career.
In any case, when conditions are especially uncertain, or likely to change rapidly, why not boost your personal flexibility by using both Options and Plan Flexibility together?
Maybe those of us in a position of privilege (baby boomer white males like myself especially) can learn the most about personal flexibility from the people that society discriminates against the most. How they cope on a daily basis and their stories of struggle are probably the best examples of flexibility and the strength of the human spirit both.
I recently watched the first TV series ‘Pose’ – largely about the LGBT community in New York in the late 1980s. A review by the Guardian newspaper of the series is as follows:
The hit series has lots of great lines, colourful characters, irony and great acting too. It’s also sparked some interesting post-series interviews and discussion with the main actors – refer You Tube interviews with Angelica Ross, Dominique Jackson and Indya Moore, to name a few.
The series shows how the trans-gender community, particularly black trans-gender women were effectively at the bottom of the status pecking order and it’s an open question whether they still are. For the characters in the series, attending costume balls hosted by their LGBT community and running fashion houses to support the models attending those balls was about celebrating human expression, their identity and defining humanity on their own terms.
Often for many of us, giving feels like a one-way street. We might choose to work in Not for Profit roles, favouring mission over reward. Do some community volunteering. And/or reach out to family and friends in various ways. The Blanca character in Pose effectively sets herself up as a house mother and one person charity to those in the New York LGBT community. Yet has few resources and quite a bit of discrimination of her own to deal with. Her giving contribution is eventually validated by all concerned, but her leadership along the way is inspiring, for those of us walking the one way street.
What we can all do is discriminate and judge a bit less. The World will be a better place for it. There won’t be so much work for litigation lawyers, therapists, social workers, hospitals or the companies who make weapons. Like one of the characters in the series said ‘kindness doesn’t cost you anything.’
As our lives become more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), personal flexibility can be helpful as a coping mechanism. It gives us piece of mind and options.
Eventually, many of us will encounter certain life events like; retirement, moving countries, or ‘empty nest’ down-sizing. Such events might help us shed cost and excess physical capacity. But not necessarily the life complexity we’d like to simplify. How so? We can anticipate that downsizing will likely be undermined, when complexity compliance acts as a brake. One simple example is that empty nest parents don’t stop being parents (or offspring of their own, perhaps ailing parents), just by downsizing their house, after the kids leave home.
So how can we achieve matching, so that downsizing and simplifying the complexity of our lives go together?
Using personal flexibility as a tool to alter the complexity before downsizing is one avenue to explore. On this, we can take inspiration from our own brains. Each night, our brains exhibit personal flexibility, in relaxing the body (reducing the complexity of physical activity) in preparation for sleep.
Another personal flexibility example is time flexibility – buying time to reduce complexity before we downsize. For example, hiring specialists to help us ‘get our affairs in order’ and simplify the maintenance time required.
Reducing complexity and downsizing together is another option. For example, we can build up a passive income portfolio, to replace the need for us having to work a 40 hour week, therefore downsizing the number of hours worked. And the complexity of handling a full-time job.
Regarding complexity, in the same way that households and wage earners have fixed & variable costs to pay for, (think of rent/mortgage payments and food bills respectively), complexity can also be described as fixed or variable. There is however no direct relationship between cost type and complexity type – you can have any mix of both. But in a VUCA environment, some combinations are likely to be more troublesome than others. For example, high fixed cost, high life complexity.
Some examples of fixed complexity in our personal life are as follows;
- the number of family members in our immediate family group,
- the number of places we can physically be at any one time,
- regular bill paying tasks each month e.g. utilities and rent/mortgage.
Some examples of variable complexity in our personal life are as follows;
- the number of key relationships and purchases we manage each month,
- the range of improvements we try to make each month,
- the range of disagreements or arguments we have each month,
- the number of crises we face each month.
Personal flexibility thinking is about designing both costs & complexity to be as variable as possible, regardless of our (own perceived) level of expertise, other people’s dependency on us, our career success, or our bank account balance.
Why is variable complexity in our lives desirable? Fixed complexity doesn’t stay fixed forever, so by coping with variable, we can cope with fixed complexity (inevitably) becoming variable. Assuming fixed complexity may lead to complacency and stop us looking for improvements i.e. personal growth opportunities. Some types of fixed complexity in our lives may be an illusion. When the unexpected occurs, for example our teen or adult children bring home a partner and behave differently in the partner’s presence, this reminds us not to make assumptions.