When You Aren't the Smartest Person in the Room—Impostor Syndrome

When You Aren't the Smartest Person in the Room—Impostor Syndrome

By Ted Leonhardt

Read Time: 5 minutes

This week’s Nail It Weekly story was written by a reader who responded to last week’s email on overcoming arrogance. Corry wrote:

“Thank you for showing how once we have a better understanding of our emotional demons, we might actually be able put them to work for us. For me, I’ve noticed that sometimes I freeze and literally forget my core expertise.

“So, I’ve been thinking deeply about my own personal history. Though I’m still untangling things, it’s been clear to me for a few years now that I have an unusual Achilles’ heel. Ninety-five percent of the time, I am incredibly confident in my work: Thrilled to take on new challenges, give clients my all, present my work with confidence, and listen to their feedback with an open heart and mind. Then there’s this freaky five percent of the time, when I momentarily get rattled and either go off track or stay deer-in-the-headlights quiet.

“This happened in a recent meeting and it freaked me out. We were discussing branding and my client asked me the simplest of questions: ‘What kinds of brand names do you admire most?’ I know the answer to that question upside down and inside out. I can geek out for hours on end with laymen and experts alike. But in that moment, for reasons unknown, I came up with a whole lot of stammering. It’s embarrassing. And weird. And I’m working on figuring it all out.”


Corry’s note really hit home with me so I followed up with a few questions:

TL: Tell me more about the person you were meeting with.

Corry: Lynn’s someone I’ve admired for years. A real communications expert. She’s been key to some seriously successful brand launches and worked all over the world.

TL: Would you say that she has more brand knowledge than you do?

Corry: Oh, absolutely!

TL: Is she a bully or interpersonally intimidating?

Corry: No, she’s very nice, considerate of others and so on. I guess it’s just that I feel like she can look right through me.

TL: I know that feeling!


My Advice

Corry, first, you need to know that I’ve experienced your freeze feeling many times myself. That said, here’s what I think: When we are presenting to people who we know have less knowledge in our expertise area than we do, our professionalism gives us all the confidence we need to perform even if the stakes are extremely high. That’s why I always say your power is in your expertise. After all, Corry, you present to CEOs and corporate boards—not quite routinely but often. It’s normal because of the nature of your work.

Here’s the key for you: You rarely run into people who might actually know more about your area of expertise than you do. You’ve got serious chops at this point. But, like all creatives, down deep you always know that your work could be just a little bit better if you had more time, more money, a more agreeable client or maybe a PhD. This phenomenon is called impostor syndrome and it’s common to us creatives.


Here’s what I do and suggest that you consider doing, too.

Prepare by qualifying your credentials. Let’s face it, there is always somebody who is more qualified, faster, smarter or whatever than we are. So, start by listing your credentials relative to the meeting in your notebook or whatever. What’s important here is that you get the list down in a concrete form so that you are keenly aware of your significant credentials prior to the meeting. Also write a qualifying statement, something like:

“Lynn, I’m so happy to be meeting with you about this. I’m looking forward to your insights. Your experience with both regional and global brands will be a huge help in guiding our next steps in the process. In fact, while I was preparing for our discussion today, I hoped that you could share your experience working on ….”

After completing these steps, you’ll feel your anxiety slipping away. Of course, you were nervous. But now you can enlist her expertise. And by being prepared to ask her to help, you’re acknowledging that her experience is greater than yours in a mutually beneficial way.


This Nail It Weekly story originally appeared on TedLeonhardt.com


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