Why The Impostor Syndrome Breeds Genius

The Self-Limiting Narrative Behind The Impostor Syndrome

It was dark outside.

We were meeting as an advisory board.

A good friend was riding his bike across America to raise money for kids dying of malnutrition.

We were meeting to discuss progress, logistics, and collaborate.

At some point, I found myself distracted.

Instead of focusing on the similarities between a group of men focused on supporting a mutual friend to put his career on hold, leave his home behind, and put his family in an RV, I was focused on differences.

I was focused on differences in age between the group (I was the youngest).

I was focused on how much more life experience and accomplishments the other men had.

I was focused on differences in social status.

My focus on differences stole me from the present.

On that night a long time ago, I wouldn’t say I identified as being an impostor. I would say I identified as not being enough for that moment. But the rooted narrative is similar to the impostor syndrome.

Many briefly describe how they feel like an impostor but few go deep. It can be easy to identify a challenge. It’s difficult to move beyond it.

Keep reading if you want the deepest reason behind this. Keep reading if you want to understand why it can breed genius, and also how it can get in your way.

The impostor syndrome

I hear about this a lot. Many entrepreneurs/CEOs have written about it who have experienced rapid growth.

Here’s a snippet from Joel Gascoigne’s post on him feeling like a fraud:

“I remember often feeling like a fraud, standing up there and telling others what to do when I had no success myself.”

I have a great amount of respect for Joel and I’ve written about him and Buffer before.

Julie Zhuo, the product design director at Facebook wrote about the impostor syndrome.

She nails it with this line: “You do the disguise long enough, and you can’t even recognize that you are acting. That you are behaving inauthentically, from a place of fear and insecurity. That you can’t figure out how to reconcile the real you with the pretend you."

What exactly is the impostor syndrome?

Also referred to as the impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, the impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalize their accomplishments (according to Wikipedia).

That is, certain life experiences trigger this response that prevents someone from accepting their accomplishments so they feel like an impostor.

Research from Georgia State University states that the impostor syndrome is specifically common with high-achieving men and women.

The reason for genius

Let me say that last line again...

“The impostor syndrome is specifically common with high-achieving men and women.”


You experience life as you are, not as it is. You are the subjective variable.

How does the impostor syndrome with high-achieving people relate to experiencing life as they are?

If unexamined, high achievers are usually driven by a low sense of self-esteem and self-worth. This force is powerful. 

What else causes them to perform so highly?

Because of a deep rooted (often subconscious and/or unexamined) feeling of lack, or inadequacy, or low sense of self-esteem, high achievers fight for their worth.

The impostor's internalized level of identity is not what they think it should be. This force separates someone from who they are and who they want to become. 

High achievers perform highly because they’re constantly trying to validate and prove their worth.

Imagine a dog chasing a car that it can never reach because the car is too fast.

Sometimes, the dog is like the high achiever... chasing something external that is unattainable.

If you identify as a high achiever and if you are open-minded to this truth, it may shake your foundation.

I speak these words with conviction because I've examined my patterns.

Poor health.

Poor relationships.

Poor execution in life.


When a dog chases a car, what are they focused on?

Yes, you’re right, the dog chasing the car is focused on what they’re chasing and nothing else.

The high achiever is not focused on their health, or the relationships around them, or how they’re executing in life... they’re only focused on the car, or their worth, or the identity they strive to have, which they have placed outside of them.

And like the heightened awareness you have when buying a new car, you get what you focus on.

Focus on chasing the car, or your worth, and you end up being dragged forward on your face in fear.

Are you starting to see how this can breed genius? 

Great, now, can you see how it might get in someone's way?

It limits vision.

It prevents clarity. 

If you’re walking through life with binoculars trying to find the magical carrot (eg. ideal identity), you will end up tripping over the rocks in front of you.

Extreme obesity, divorce and broken relationships, hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars wasted on poor execution. None of this is desirable for any human being (despite how it is justified). It’s rooted in lack of awareness of the carrot. (And other things, of course)

Let us go deeper

Above I said Julie Zhuo nailed it. Again, here’s what she said: “You do the disguise long enough, and you can’t even recognize that you are acting. That you are behaving inauthentically, from a place of fear and insecurity. That you can’t figure out how to reconcile the real you with the pretend you."

Fear and insecurity.

Insecurity is uncertainty or anxiety about oneself; lack of confidence.

(Add stress to the list)

Guess what?

Insecurity is rooted in fear. Anxiety is the overstimulated fight or flight mechanism in the brain, or the amygdala.

Guess what can overstimulate the amygdala? Yes, all the fear we experience.

Fear used to help us survive. Now, it prevents us from living.

Fear, insecurity, and anxiety, prevent us from truly living.

Where does this come from?

The trigger is when the external growth happens quicker than internal growth can reconcile. A fast-growth environment at a business is one condition that can create this, for example.

Or, this comes from internal separation between who we are being and who we think we should be (or desire to be). Vision is not bad, unless it is so strong it creates the source of our pain.

Some of it is biological and related to brain health.

News companies that get paid with eye balls make money on fear-provoking unimaginable stories.

Such inner narratives are instilled by society, movies, reality TV shows, sometimes unknowingly by parents.

People who live with fear are contagious.

If you’ve ever had ants in your house, you’ll notice that when you attack one ant they all scatter. Why? It’s called alarm pheromones. It’s a built-in animal instinct where animals in the same species are notified when there is a nearby threat.

Fear breeds more fear. Fear enables survival. Trust empowers living.

The evolved inner narrative required to transcend fear and strengthen genius

No, it’s not what the world says it is.

It’s not “fake it until you make it.” That’s a foolish narrative.

The evolved inner narrative to transcend fear lies in acceptance of our objective perspective.


For you to accept the external world, you must first accept your internal world.

Remember, you experience life not as it is, you experience life as you are.

The inner narrative is every thought that you create in your mind.

Accept your inner world.

Accept that life is progress. Progress takes effort.

Accept that progress has various levels of connections created in the mind.

Accept that this isn’t about being a fake, or a fraud, or an impostor.

This isn’t about right or wrong or what you should be to be credible.

All of this is man-made language to describe something. Stop hiding behind the words.

Accept that you are just like everyone else: another human being on this planet, in the human species, doing the best you can, with what you have, with what you've been given, chasing what you think is meaningful.

Accept that your unique life experiences and the way you connect the dots with ideas (regardless of firsthand experience) can still create impact.

Accept what is real.

Accept all of the small wins and small accomplishments. Acknowledge them. Celebrate them.

The more you learn to use your two eyes, and the more you learn to see objectively, the less resistance you create for yourself.

The less resistance you create for your own personal growth.

Focus on trust (you get what you focus on).

Deeply embrace the objective perspective.

By Matthew Gallizzi. Consultant. Thinking Partner. Strategic Advisor. He believes our language creates our world. He equips business leaders as they live into their future vision.

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