8/26/21: Using attribution theory to combat Impostor Syndrome

Sent 8/26/21


  • We had an inspiring conversation with the youngest member of the US Paralympic track and field team, Ezra Frech, on Fueling the Pursuit. He's 16 and competing in the high jump and long jump! Learn about his journey and his organization, Angel City Sports, which is providing opportunities for adaptive athletes to improve their lives through sports.
  • I received a couple more reviews for my book! If you've read the book but haven't left me a review, please do!

This week's Think Better Newsletter is about using attribution theory to deal with impostor syndrome. 

The Idea

I just started a new job, and I'm experiencing the full range of emotions that comes with it. To be fair, it's mostly excitement and curiosity, as I get the chance to meet new people and learn a new set of skills.

But there's also that nagging feeling that I'm in over my head, that what everyone is doing is too advanced for me, or that I'm going to get "found out" when I can't live up to expectations.

There's actually a word for this collection of feelings: impostor syndrome. According to Wikipedia, 70% of people will experience this feeling at least once in their lives. I think that's off by about 29%. (I imagine reality TV stars and Kanye make up that remaining 1%.)

The reality is that even the highest achievers frequently experience impostor syndrome. It's situational, and no matter how much success you've had in one area, you can find yourself doing something new and feeling unprepared.

The difference is, high achievers have better tools to overcome it. Knowing about and applying attribution theory can be one of those tools.

The System

As we covered in my previous two newsletters, we attribute all outcomes to four factors and we get better outcomes when we focus on controllable factors (i.e. effort, preparation, and focus). This gives us a framework for thinking about impostor syndrome.

Why do we feel like a fraud in new and unfamiliar settings? Because of how we're attributing our success or how we're justifying being there. We are almost always starting from one of these statements:

  • I'm not as talented as everyone else here.
  • This task is too difficult for me. / This is too big a reach.
  • I'm only here by chance. I wouldn't be here if they knew the truth.

These are statements focusing on talent, task difficulty, and luck. The three factors we can't control.

But we can flip this around if we choose to, by simply reframing how we attribute our ability to do the job.

  • It's not about talent. My colleagues had to work hard to learn this job, too.
  • If everyone on this team can do it, I'm sure I can, too. I'll just have to dig in.
  • My skills and background may not be in this field, but they prepared me to be successful. I'm here because I'm ready to be here.

Impostor syndrome is both normal and predictable. That means you can prepare for it, and you can develop habits and mindset to overcome it. Attributing better is one of those habits.

The Question

What would you say to someone with your skills and background who was experiencing impostor syndrome? 


Go Be More,

Bryan Green
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.
— Maya Angelou on impostor syndrome (note: she never stopped writing)



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