This newsletter features weekly musings about life, career, identity, and behaviour by a questioning African centennial. To get it in your inbox every week, subscribe here:
The Conversation That Ended My 10-Year Struggle With Impostor Syndrome
This week, I want to open myself up to you a bit.
I want to talk about my struggle with impostor syndrome and share with you the conversation that helped me overcome it.
The fact that I'm writing about this may seem odd to some of you because, in many ways, I've accomplished a lot. But those who know me know how blind I am to many of my accomplishments to the point where one of my friends once screamed at me: "Arinze, are you mad?! You're f*ing amazing! How can you not see it!? What the f*** is wrong with you!?"
As someone who's dealt with his fair share of impostor syndrome, it's only natural that I talk about it a lot. I do so because I've noticed that, too often, we feel like we're the only ones who feel like we don't belong or that we're not worthy. So we keep quiet and wallow alone.
By talking (and writing) about my experience with impostor syndrome, I want to normalise conversations about this and make whoever might be struggling with this to know that they're not alone. If that person is you, I want you to know that you're not alone. There's a way out.
I struggled with impostor syndrome for all of my adolescent years.
Throughout the first four years of secondary school (JS1- SS1), I was a below-average student at best. At the time, I thought I'd simply stopped caring about my academics as much as I did when I was in primary school where I was almost always near the top of my class.
But the truth was that I'd started feeling like I didn't deserve to be at the top because even when I was near the top of my class, I didn't feel any less stupid than I did when I was close to the bottom of the class. There was still so much I didn't know. So I felt like a fraud. The easiest way to resolve that cognitive dissonance was to then perform at a level I thought I deserved—mediocre.
I later went back to being near the top of my class from my fifth year of secondary school (SS2) up until I graduated. The thing that nudged me was my mother's tears. The semester she cried after seeing how bad my grades were (i.e. the end of my fourth year) was the semester I decided to turn things around.
But as my grades improved, my sense of unworthiness heightened in tandem. So I became an average student in my first two years of undergrad. I made sure my grades were just good enough to allow me to not have to retake any paper.
That worked fine until I found myself in a space that lit a fire under me and unearthed all the insecurities I tried so terribly to suppress. That space was Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where I was interning in the summer of 2018.
The fact that I got the internship was already a source of anxiety for me because, during the interview, I didn't know the answer to about two questions. And I told my interviewers the truth: "I don't know." I didn't know it at the time, but that actually helped me get the offer. I wrote a post on LinkedIn about that.
But the point is that during the internship, I felt like I wasn't as finance-y as the other interns. That feeling was only confirmed during as orientation began and other interns were more quickly grasping the finance concepts than me. It was only a matter of time before I'd make a fool of myself and everyone would find me out for the fraud I thought I was.
The fact that I was some random student from an African university while most of them where math, economics, or finance majors at schools like Oxford, UCL, Cambridge, and LSE also added to my feeling like a fraud.
Overwhelmed by everything, I broke into tears. I'd just come back from a long day at work and I just lay in bed staring at the ceiling. I was thinking back to all the concepts I still didn't understand all the acronyms that still went straight over my head. I couldn't stop asking myself: "How the f*** did I even get here?" The tears just started flowing and couldn't stop.
The next day, I decided to talk to Antoinette about it. She was an associate at the bank who was designated to be my 'buddy' for the internship. The fact that she was Black and of African heritage also made me more comfortable having the conversation with her. I felt that she'd understand.
She took me out to the cafe that was on the other side of the bank to provide a more relaxed setting for the conversation. After narrating everything to Antoinette, she took a sip of her drink and gave me a response that both shocked me and transformed me.
I can't remember her words verbatim right now. But to paraphrase, she said:
“Arinze, I understand how you’re feeling cos I was also once I was an intern here at the bank. But I need you to understand that your impostor syndrome is insulting. For you to feel like you do not belong here, you’re not only doubting your competence, you’re also questioning our collective intelligence and the integrity of our selection process. We’re seasoned at selecting top talent, and we voted to select you out of all the people who applied for this role. So when you feel like you don’t belong, you’re implying we made a wrong decision—which we didn’t—, and by extension insulting our intelligence. We don’t make mistakes with hiring junior talent. We just can’t afford to. So you are meant to be here, just as everyone else. Never doubt that for one second. Trust yourself. You're worthy of this opportunity. You just have to decide what you're going to do with it.”
Whew! That conversation gave me a new pair of eyes to see how I could finally overcome my impostor syndrome. I always found it easier believing that others were more skilled and more deserving than me. I could extend that thinking in a way that could help me believe in myself.
Since I found it hard to trust myself and believe in my own talent, I could definitely trust and believe in the intelligence and integrity of others—the people who select me for internships and opportunities, the people who mark my paper and give me a score they think I deserve, the people who see my work and say 'Wow! This is amazing.'
Because I believed in them, I could believe them. Believing them would therefore mean believing in myself.
The Status Quo
It's been almost three years since that conversation with Antoinette. I'm now a lot more confident in myself than I was in 2018. And Antoinette has continued to mentor me.
I've had way more significant achievements since 2018 and whenever I find myself doubting them, my brain conjures Antoinette's words and balances me.
Building on Antoinette's words, I've been able to do my fair share of thinking around how anyone, including you, can overcome impostor syndrome. I'd love to share it with you.
My Thoughts on Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
Realise that so many people feel the way you do.
As you deal with your own impostor syndrome, realise that even the most accomplished people deal with impostor syndrome. Great people like Lady Gaga, Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks, and Maya Angelou have spoken about their struggle with impostor syndrome even though they were among the best in the world at their craft. You're not alone. When I spoke to a couple of interns from my Bank of America internship, it turned out that a lot of them were actually feeling the same way that I was. I wasn't alone, I just felt that I was.
Acknowledge it, but don't let it stop you from moving forward
The first step towards overcoming impostor syndrome is acknowledging it. Identify it, name it, but don't let it stop you. Treat it like how Harry Potter treated Lord Voldemort. While others were scared of even mentioning his name, Harry called Voldemort by all his names with reckless abandon and wasn't afraid to face him head-on when the time came.
Be confident in your unique talents and experiences
Trust that you're as good as people say you are. Don't grow a big head, but be confident in your many talents. You deserve to be where you're at. You worked for it. You earned it. So, allow yourself to enjoy it. If you feel like you've been given responsibilities that are greater than you think you're skilled enough to handle, trust in your ability to learn and grow. Those are the skills that have gotten you thus far. They'll certainly carry you even further.
Give yourself permission to be great
Sometimes, we diminish ourselves because we feel like we're unworthy of the greatness that lies at our feet. But everyone loses when talented people like you aim low and play small. Allow yourself to maximise your talent and live out your fullest potential. You owe it yourself to become the very best version of yourself. But that won't happen if you don't permit yourself to.
Feeling unworthy of the opportunities we are blessed with hinders us from appreciating them fully. It doesn't allow us to be thoroughly grateful for them because we're too busy obsessing over how we don't deserve them. Taking a moment to express gratitude to yourself and to others for everything you achieve will allow you to reconcile the fact that (1) it was given specifically to you and (2) that you deserve it. If you're Christian, think about the concept of grace—unmerited favour. Channel that towards appreciating every win.
I was hesitant to write about this topic because I felt like I'd be sharing too much, but I'm happy I did. It allowed me to revisit some memories. Most of which I shared with you, some I kept to myself.
I hope this piece helped show you that you're not alone in your struggle with impostor syndrome. It's more normal than you think. And, yes! There is a way out.
If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them in the comments. I'll respond as soon as I can.
I hope you have a great week ahead! 🖤
PS. From February, my newsletters will contain my favourite quote of the week and links to an article that got me thinking during the week, what I'm reading, and my song of the week. I'm excited to let you into my head and my life a bit more.
Thank you so much for this Arinze!!
I had subconsciously began to avoid opportunities that I knew where right for because I kept telling myself I didn't deserve my past successes and I'd be foolish to strive for more.
Reading this article is having the same effect your conversation with Antoinette had on you.
And now I feel more confident to pursue larger opportunities!
This happened to me with Facebook 🥺. I didn’t think I deserved my first offer and I felt even more surprised when I got a return offer. I have 4 months before my internship starts again and I think that’s enough time to shift my mentality.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. Hearing imposter syndrome experiences from people I have met (online or in-person) and how they overcame it makes me a lot more confident that I can too can do it.