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What a bold question to ask. However, many people seem to suffer from the imposter syndrome. They feel like anyone else would be better at their job then they are. Very often these are highly proficient people who are comparing themselves continuously to others. They judge others on what they see, which is of course only a façade. Social comparison is the killer of joy. People with the imposter syndrome seem to be unable to put things into perspective and appreciate the qualities and achievements they have.
In the past we paid more attention to people who really are impostors, like Madoff. Those who think they are imposters have been neglected.

Sign of the Time

The question is if some people are not pushed into imposterism? We live in an age of personal branding and are pushed to manage our identity as a brand. And how can we keep that identity genuine? Through social media we get access to audiences that were previously unreachable and we are being flooded with manipulated impressions of perfect lives. Social media enable us to build images of ourselves. Introverts can become extraverted. Everyday media confront us with ideal families, ideal bodies, ideal minds. And people start copying other people or role models, like children do. It takes a strong and independent personality to resist the temptations of imitating people that are  successful, more successful than we are. And when self-doubt starts taking the lead, people might be lost. On the one hand they might try to boost their “personal brand” in order to impress others, and on the other hand they feel an increasing discrepancy between the brand they are creating and the reality. And they might believe they are failing.

You don’t have to be Posh

The ideal state is one of POSHism: being Perfect, Original, Successful and Happy. And the biggest contradiction is that people often try to be POSH by copying others. They run off to Hollister to buy the same T-shirt that thousands of others wear. They are trying to go to the same places and drive the same cars as their successful peers.

The quest for authenticity

But there is another counter tendency. People are looking for authenticity and intimacy. There’s even a market for that. Now you can buy authenticity. There are personal coaches that will tell you what to wear to be authentic. There are travel agencies thar offer unique trips to Antarctica, the middle of the Sahara, the icy slopes of the Himalaya (only to find out that there are traffic jams towards Mount Everest).
The quest for authenticity is in itself not authentic. The moment you ask yourself the question “am I authentic” you stop being authentic. And how authentic can you be? Should we measure that? We are all products of nature-nurture. The only thing we can control are the choices we make as of today. But if we take authenticity as a criterion for these choices, the choices will not be authentic. It’s like happiness. The moment you start thinking about happiness, you risk to become unhappy. So maybe to be authentic, our choices should be based on principles that we apply categorically? But will that get you closer to yourself?

Letting go and appreciation

The only way to even get near your true inner self – let’s take this as the definition of authenticity – is to let go and to appreciate what is. What can you let go? The have to’s, the musts, the ought to’s, the should do’s, … as far as you do not damage others by letting go (you’re not an island).  What can you appreciate? Anything. And accepting the things you cannot do is a part of that. This is far away from a well constructed and mediatized personal brand. You are what you are and you become what you can become, but that’s not a brand.
So should we no longer boast about ourselves? Should we tell only the truth? Should we stop embellishing our CV’s? The answer is probably yes. Life becomes easier when you embrace yourself and you are clear about what you want and don’t want. You do not have to remember what you’ve told during a job interview. You do not have to spend energy on upholding an image of yourself. You cannot get caught lying. Your employer, or partner, will not discover unpleasant things later on. You’re an open book.
And now you’re thinking: OMG, if I tell the truth, nobody will hire me. Or I will never find a partner in Life. The challenge is not to find employment, it is to keep employment. It’s not about finding a partner, it’s about making the relationship last. And that can only be based on trust and truth. On being yourself. Not on some kind of fabricated image of yourself.

Branded and Authentic?

@HeidiWulff asked me the question on twitter why I put personal branding in contrast to authenticity. She mentioned that most literature on personal branding refers to the need to be authentic. This is true. Check e.g. this review. But what I see happening is that personal branding in practice is limited to the engineering of a brand, an image of oneself. Many articles on personal branding are about how to uphold an image on social media in an efficient way. But I agree that this is not what it should be. Personal Branding could be a quest to achieve what we can, be who we can be, live our life at the fullest, … But then I’d suggest not to use the word personal brand. Self-fulfillment will do. So being oneself is not passive. We all have the duty to become more of ourselves. Like Tomasso de Lampedusa wrote in his novel “Il Gattopardo” we have to change in order to be ourselves.

From being an imposter to healthy Self-Doubt and Self-esteem

A healthy doubt about yourself is not wrong. It stimulates evolution. But once you think you’re an imposter, you might need to think about how you want to arrange your life, what you want to do, why you are doing what you are doing. What makes you think you’re a mediocre imposter? What makes you think that all others are better than you are? What about your self-esteem, your personal dignity? To what extent do you enjoy what you are doing? Why do you care so much about what others do (better)? What kind of feedback have you received about what you are doing? And finally be mild on and be kind for yourself. You are probably not an imposter. Similar questions can be asked about personal branding.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Zoet says:

    Met interesse gelezen, en veel herkend…

  • Erik Vande Weijer says:

    Like the question and the answer !
    two powerful antidotes :
    – writing the user manual on you for your personal and professional environment, transparant, not polished, the brutally honest way to connect ( see Adam Bryant’s new book “Quick & Nimble”)
    – being more generous, focussing on who to help in stead of constant self reflection ( see simon sinek’s take on that at 99U : fulfillment = doing something for someone else

  • Hello David: Always a pleasure to read your posts. I enjoyed it, and agree with the content. I also enjoyed reading the references you include in your paper. I wrote in my book that “Fortunately, because you are unique, you are not expected by life to be an impersonator. or worse, an impostor.” (The Path to a Meaningful Purpose: Psychological Foundations of Logoteleology) Good to see that there are a few of us helping people value who they are and their innate uniqueness.

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