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Ever Feel You Are Out of Your Depth?

Mike Cannon-Brookes, one of the co-founders of the hugely successful software company, Atlassian, says he has been dealing with imposter syndrome for many years. In the early days of Atlassian, which launched in 2002, he would often feel out of his depth, unskilled or inadequately experienced to be in his position; and he was afraid someone would find him out.

In 2006, when Atlassian was only four years old, the company won the Ernst and Young Australian Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Cannon-Brookes was so sure they would not win the award, that he didn’t attend the ceremony. Cannon-Brookes and his business partner, Scott Farquhar, then went on to win the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year, in the same year. Two years later, Atlassian won the New South Wales Young Achievers Award.

Fast forward, a few years later at the World Entrepreneur of the Year ceremony, Cannon-Brookes sat next to a highly successful businessman from Portugal, who employed 30,000 people, while Atlassian employed just 70 people at the time. Cannon-Brookes later admitted to feeling undeserving of being there and he felt completely out of his league.

The Portuguese businessman responded that he too felt exactly the same way, but he also suspected all the winners did as well. That is when Cannon-Brookes realised that imposter syndrome doesn’t go away with success.

What is Imposter Syndrome?:

Imposter syndrome is a term used for an internalised belief that involves feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty about your talents and capabilities, despite your level of education, experience and accomplishments. It is the feeling that, for whatever reason, you don’t deserve your success and at any moment somebody is going to catch you out.

Often these feelings drive people to work harder, either to catch up to the standards they believe they are failing to meet, or to preserve an image of effortless success, taking on more responsibility and committing to even higher standards. This pressure can take a toll on your performance and even lead to some pretty serious health problems, including anxiety, depression and burnout.

Research shows that around 70% of adults have experienced imposter syndrome at some stage in their lives, but it disproportionately impacts high-achieving people who are most likely to struggle to accept their accomplishments.

Who does it affect?:

There isn’t any one type of professional most likely to struggle with imposter syndrome, although it can manifest differently for different personality types.

The Expert:

The expert won’t feel satisfied until they are certain they know everything about a subject, but spending an inordinate amount of time researching and preparing can make it hard to actually complete a task.

The Perfectionist:

The perfectionist will focus on areas where they feel they could have done better, rather than celebrating their achievements. This level of self-criticism fuels high levels of anxiety, doubt and worry.

The Soloist:

Preferring to work alone, the soloist fears that asking for help will reveal shortcomings. This person will prefer to avoid reaching out for help, in a quest to prove their self-worth.


The superhero will often excel due to their extreme effort; they could also be called a workaholic. This can lead to burnout, which will negatively impact mental and physical health.

However imposter syndrome manifests, if left to fester, it will negatively impact on both your personal and professional life.

What can we do about imposter syndrome?:

Since imposter syndrome is about your perception, dealing with it involves changing your mindset about your abilities and self-value. Imposters feel like they don’t belong, so acknowledging your abilities and accomplishments is essential to reinforcing that you have earned your place. Working harder to do better, may not help to change your self-image and can even hurt your well-being. Healthy strategies can help us to manage imposter based feelings and thereby become more productive and confident.

Remember what you do well:

Validate your strengths. Everyone has areas in which they excel, and areas in which they don’t. Try to accept that some things will be better left to someone else, so that you can focus on your strengths. Regardless of how you might feel, the success you’ve experienced and work you’ve put in is real and valid.

Consider keeping a daily journal, or finding some other way to acknowledge your strengths and accomplishments, and take the time to stop and celebrate your successes.

Avoid comparing yourself to others:

We all have a strong tendency to compare ourselves to other people. We must remember that we are completely different to one another and have varying talents, attributes and life experiences. Each life is unique and your successes will be unique too. Find comfort in choosing your own path. Practice being confident in your decision making, and don’t compare yourself to others.

Change your perspective:

Sometimes you need to change your perspective. While you can’t change your past, you can change your understanding of it.

Work towards internalising the positive characteristics that show you that you are intelligent, capable and worthy of all that you have accomplished. Resist the belief that you constantly need to work harder, or that you don’t deserve your success.

For Mike Cannon-Brookes, harnessing his imposter syndrome meant resisting his natural urge to freeze, instead he took it as a cue to pursue learning, improving and asking for advice. Adopting a growth mindset means that you can view failure as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than a permanent indictment of your ability and potential.

Don’t pursue perfection:

The imposter syndrome and perfection go hand in hand. Imposters believe that every task has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. Perfectionism can lead to two outcomes. One is procrastination out of fear of not being able to complete the assignment to the necessary high standard. The second is overpreparation, spending more time than is necessary and becoming a victim to the law of diminishing returns.

Acknowledge it and ask for help:

Simply acknowledge the situation and ask for help, there is no shame in acknowledging you are experiencing imposter syndrome, as many high achieving individuals, including Barack Obama, have struggled with it.

Discuss your feelings with a trusted mentor or confidant; especially a person who can provide objectivity and experience, this will help dampen your imposter feelings and help bring the best out of you. Find a trusted person in your life to help you question your ideas, not yourself.

The bottom line:

Many people experience symptoms of imposter syndrome at some time. It is important to remember that perceptions do not always reflect reality. Imposter syndrome can stifle your growth by holding you back from putting your hand up for new opportunities at work, in business and personal pursuits. And it doesn’t go away with success. In fact, it can even increase with success.

Acknowledge it, talk about your fears, ask questions and learn from it. Keeping a record of achievements, small and large, and celebrating successes can be hugely beneficial. Facing imposter syndrome can help you to grow and thrive. Remember that, if Mike Cannon-Brookes, after building a hugely successful company from scratch and now employing thousands of people around the world, still often feels he doesn’t know what he is doing, you aren’t alone in doubting yourself, but that doubt doesn’t mean you aren’t succeeding.

You can hear about Michael Cannon-Brooks experience with imposter syndrome with this TEDx Talk.