The Imposter Syndrome in Entrepreneurship: Understanding its Causes

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The imposter syndrome – the feeling that you don’t belong here – can be a key concern for entrepreneurs. It is easy to look at other successful entrepreneurs and feel out of place, as though you have somehow snuck into their crowd and will soon get caught out. While clearly not all entrepreneurs fall in this category – some exude over-confidence despite having little direct experience – the tendency to feel out of place is not unique to you.

Reasons for imposter syndrome among startup founders

Although all startup journeys are unique, and different founders bring different sets of experiences, there are some commonalities that can lead to the feeling of being out of place.

First time going through the startup process

The first thing you should recognize is that – like all first-time founders – you are going through the entrepreneurship process for the first time. While there may be some individuals who have had experience working for a small company prior to starting their own firm, the majority will be in a similar boat to you – the first-time founder with no direct founding experience.

Entrepreneurship requires developing knowledge in multiple different areas

Coupled with the fact that you will have no direct experience developing a firm, is the challenge that entrepreneurship demands a wide range of skills – the majority of which you are unlikely to initially possess. From marketing, website design, and search engine optimization, to operations, accounting, and finance, the range of skills that you will likely need to develop is long.

No formal pathway - no qualification or specific requirements

The feeling of imposter syndrome in entrepreneurship is further compounded because there are no specific qualifications that you can point to in order to justify your presence as a founder. While engineers can point to their engineering degree, statisticians to their mathematics education, and artistic to the design courses that they have taken, there is no formal qualification to be an entrepreneur.

Although business courses can certainly help, it is typical for entrepreneurs to have no formal business training – no degree that they can use to justify their existence. Again, you are not alone in this regard.

Comparisons to the mega-successful founders

The final issue that can drive the imposter feeling in entrepreneurs is the tendency to make comparisons between yourself and very successful individuals. When we think of entrepreneurs the big names immediately come to mind – Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos, Martha Stewart, Richard Branson, and Sheryl Sandberg to name a few.

Most entrepreneurs however are not the mega-famous. Indeed, the majority of founders – even very successful ones – are not household names. The tendency to make comparisons to the mega-successful can contribute to the imposter syndrome. Such comparisons are never likely to be helpful – most entrepreneurs will never reach the height of the mega-famous, and that is fine. Success as an entrepreneur does not being the most famous individual in the room, nor even launching the next unicorn firm. Rather, your success can be a lot more modest in nature – your ability to develop a business and provides for you and your family, or that allows you to achieve the lifestyle that you desire.

Reducing the tendency: Recognizing everyone was once in similar shoes as you

Possibly the best way of overcoming the imposter syndrome is to recognize that everyone was once in a very similar position to you are in. All company founders were first-time founders once. Everyone experienced with the breadth of areas important to entrepreneurship will have once had a much more limited skill set. The majority of entrepreneurs have no formal training. And no founder was initially successful immediately on setting out.

It is also important to recognize that ultimately, the judgments of others do not define your success. There is no-one who is going to ‘catch you out’ – entrepreneurs come from diverse backgrounds, and your unique experiences may outweigh the lack of formal education or specific skills that you currently don’t possess.

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