Imposter Syndrome: A contrarian take

Almost three decades ago, on my very first day as a restaurant owner, I opened the oven to put some bread in. The pilot light had gone out, and the oven blew up in my face, catching my hair on fire. Up until that point, my naivete was hiding just below the surface, but by the next morning, it was written all over my scabbed face and shaved head. I was sure all my customers were thinking, “This knucklehead does not know what he’s doing.”

The reality was, I really had no clue at that early stage. But my own fear of being found out to be a fraud would continue for years throughout my career, way past the point it should have. I would attribute almost all of my success to luck and good fortune—a classic characteristic of the imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern first identified in 1978. Studies have shown that almost 70% of high-functioning leaders experience this insecurity in determining their own self-worth.

While imposter syndrome is widely believed to hurt personal and professional self-esteem—and can be especially detrimental to women and people of color in the workplace—my own experience is proof that “IS” can be harnessed and transformed into a powerful driver for self-improvement.

As a young owner managing other managers, often older than myself, I developed a way of training, based on a deck of cards. I created a 13-card set of handwritten playing cards, each labeled with a quality needed to master in order to become the ultimate leader in hospitality: financial acumen, table dialogue with guests, executing pre-shift (the 30-minute briefing before a service), running a front door, conflict resolution, administrative, responsibility and punctuality, energy and spirit, food knowledge, beverage knowledge, empathy and people management, service skills, and attention to detail.

I would issue each manager a deck with exactly as many cards of qualities as I thought they had mastered. Once they had educated themselves to a high level in any category, they would receive a new card. What they didn’t know during this process was that I was desperately trying to fill my own deck at the same time. It always felt like a race to me. A race I couldn’t let anyone else know I was running.

Mottos like, Fake it ’til you make it, and 90% of success is just showing up, were catchy little phrases I liked to use; but in reality, they were just effective ways of hiding an uncomfortable amount of insecurity. My internal voice often whispered my personal self-doubt track: Do I deserve the position I’ve achieved, or am I just good at playing a character I created? Perhaps the better inner-voice question would have been, Is this whole imposter syndrome actually such a bad thing?

Maybe, just maybe, a sprinkling of IS allows us all to keep the chase alive, keep our ego in check, and encourages us to collaborate with our teams. The beauty of it, in its most adolescent form, is that hunger + ignorance + desperation drive us to do whatever it takes to not be exposed. Usually this leads us to education and becoming better in our field or endeavor. I’ve sat through tax seminars and wine classes, read books on management, studied the choreographed movements of Michelin 3-Star restaurants from my dining seat, learned new technology, and had one-on-ones with the people I most admired. As my fear drove my learning, my foundation eventually shifted from sand to stone.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve worked with more than 25,000 people. I have seen so many of these fine humans move through the stages of IS. Most people in their given field start out as actual frauds. Whether you’re a first year financial analyst at William Blair, a walk-on defensive tackle learning the playbook, a first-term president sitting in the Oval Office, or a new restaurateur learning how important the pilot light is . . . we are all frauds at some point. We were hired or elected based more on potential than our fully honed expertise. So, take the anxiety that IS gives, and instead of allowing it to debilitate you, let it be your fuel. Like a rush of adrenaline, it can help you go from fraud to student to master. In fact, I think the Peter principle and the imposter syndrome may actually walk hand and hand. If you don’t want to rise to your level of incompetence, as per the Peter principle, then keep comparing yourself to that person you want to be, that person you want to chase, until ultimately you’re able to overcome feeling like a fraud.

The other night, I walked into Alla Vita, my company’s  Italian restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop. The vestibule was flooded with customers, and I told the host that I could seat the next table to help with the sudden mob spilling out the door. I walked the guests to the table in the same deliberate way I always did, carefully watching my steps, and slowly extending menus to each of them so that I didn’t accidentally hit a candle or a glass.

I chatted with them about the design of the restaurant and gave them some background on Lee, our executive chef.

At some point in the conversation, the couple recognized me and jokingly asked if it was my first day as a host.

“It is!” I said. “I have no idea what I’m doing. Please don’t tell anyone.”

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