An Open Letter To Financial Advisors With Imposter Syndrome

If you’re a financial advisor struggling with imposter syndrome, you’re not alone. 

A recent Inner Circle member asked me this question:

“James, in part thanks to your newsletter, my business has grown substantially over the past year. However, I sometimes feel like I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve done some research into this feeling and it seems like imposter syndrome. Do you have any resources for helping advisors in this area?” 

His experience is a common one. According to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science (titled “The Imposter Phenomenon”), 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. So, let’s start by getting clear on the definition…

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by social psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanna Imes at Georgia State University. Here’s their original definition: 

“The internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” 

Symptoms of the imposter syndrome include: 

  • Lack of confidence 
  • Feelings of inadequacy 
  • Anxiety
  • Self-doubt
  • Negative self-talk

And more. Imposter syndrome causes us to leave the possibility of success to others because we don’t see ourselves to be anything like the sort of people we see lauded around us. Therefore, when we achieve a certain level of prestige or success, we view ourselves as imposters. 

The root cause of imposter syndrome is a distorted view of what other people are really like. We tend to ascribe mystical qualities to billionaires, professional athletes, and celebrities that we don’t have. In reality, they’re people just like us. 

Here’s the truth: EVERYONE is flawed.

Unfortunately, while we can view ourselves from the inside, we view everyone else from the outside. We’re constantly aware of our own doubts and negative self-talk, yet all we know of others is what they happen to tell or show us. 

Most people never let you see the raw, unfiltered side of their lives. They only show you what they want you to see. In my opinion, social media has made this worse. When we scroll through our favorite social media site, we only see the highlight reel of people’s lives. We don’t see their troubled childhoods, their substance abuse problems, or their deep-rooted insecurities. 

Imposter syndrome is also common in the financial services industry because there’s so much to know. There are so many financial topics. It’s easy to get intimidated by everything you don’t know and all the “experts” out there who seem to have a solid grip on complex financial topics. 

(This is one reason why I recommend having a niche because it allows you to specialize in one area and become the go-to person for your specialty.) 

In my experience, imposter syndrome in financial advisors is a close cousin of social self-consciousness call reluctance. This is characterized by hesitation to initiate contact with wealthy and/or powerful people. Financial advisors with this form of call reluctance typically view themselves as unworthy of high net worth and ultra high net worth people’s time. 

One solution to the imposter syndrome requires making the leap of faith that other people’s minds must work similarly to yours. Other people have similar thoughts and feelings. For example, here are…

Famous People Who've Suffered From Imposter Syndrome...

Maya Angelou once quipped: 

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’”

Fortunately, she never let her fear of being “found out” stop her from writing beautiful literature that has enriched millions of lives. And, as a financial advisor, you should never let imposter syndrome prevent you from sharing your gifts with the world. 

Another person who struggled with imposter syndrome is Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame. In an interview with Vogue, she shared: “Now when I receive recognition for my acting, I feel incredibly uncomfortable. I tend to turn in on myself. I feel like an imposter.” 

Say it ain’t so, Hermione! 

David Bowie once said, “I had enormous self-image problems and very low self-esteem, which I hid behind obsessive writing and performing… I was driven to get through life very quickly. I really felt so utterly inadequate. I thought the work was the only thing of value.” 
In an interview with The New York Times, Howard Schultz (former CEO of Starbucks) said, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”
There you have it. A literal billionaire - the man who grew Starbucks to the giant it is today - is telling you that even HE didn’t feel qualified to lead the charge. Okay, one more… 
In her HBO special, Lady Gaga revealed, “I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I’m a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need me to be.” 
So, let me emphasize: if you’re struggling with imposter syndrome right now, you are not alone.

How To Overcome Imposter Syndrome..

There is no step-by-step sequence for overcoming imposter syndrome. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either stupid or lying to you. 

Overcoming imposter syndrome will likely be a combination of things tailored to your unique situation and how you feel. That’s why I’d like to share several of the things that have helped financial advisors…

Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” - Theodore Roosevelt 

I saw a LOT of comparison back when I was doing one-on-one coaching. I was amazed at the advisors who were making seven figures and staying humble, while the low six figure earners thought they were hot stuff. To this day, I wonder if the low earners were overcompensating for their own insecurities due to imposter syndrome. 

The tendency to compare ourselves is a human trait. Everybody does it. However, constantly comparing yourself to others is a habit with negative shortcomings: 

  • Comparisons are almost always unfair. We typically compare the worst we know of ourselves to the best we presume about others. 
  • Comparisons require metrics. Most comparisons are based on assumptions, not metrics. You can see people’s houses, cars, jewelry, etc. and assume they’re doing well. Yet, you don’t see the metric that matters, which is the fact that they’re up to their eyeballs in debt. 
  • Comparisons place focus on the wrong person. You can’t control other people. You can only control yourself. When you compare yourself to others, you’re wasting time and energy that could be used to better your life. 

There will always be someone smarter, healthier, happier, and/or richer than you. However, you’re the only person in the world with your unique combination of skills and traits.

Document Your Accomplishments

One of the things I do to increase my productivity is use a planner to map out my day. In my planner, I have a section where I write down several “successes” from my day. I suggest you do the same. 
You can even take some time to think about your past accomplishments. What have you done so far? Do you have any certifications? If so, you know more than the average person. Even if financial planning seems old hat to you, your clients view the stuff you do as magic. They don’t have the same knowledge and experience as you do, which is why they use your services. In addition, the financial services industry makes sure you’re constantly learning and improving through Continuing Education. Becoming aware of everything you’ve accomplished thus far can ease the symptoms of imposter syndrome. 

From a psychological perspective, thinking and writing are different. Thinking can be unstructured, disorganized, and chaotic. In contrast, writing forces you to solidify your thoughts and make sense of what’s happening. That’s why it’s important to write down reasons why you’re intelligent, capable, and deserving of success.\

Change Your Self-Talk

People with imposter syndrome think things such as: 
  • “I’m a fake and I’m going to be found out.” They don’t believe they deserve success and they have this irrational fear that they’ll be “exposed”. 
  • “I’m just lucky.” They attribute their accomplishments to external forces. They may think they were in the right place at the right time. These thoughts signal a fear that they won’t be able to repeat their success in the future. 

This type of self-talk is damaging because you tend to become what you think about most by creating a confirmation bias. If you think you’re lucky, you will look for evidence to confirm that belief. If you think you’re stupid, you will interpret everyday events as evidence supporting your so-called stupidity. 

Positive self-talk is a way to override these negative thoughts by replacing them with conscious, positive new directions. Is it easy to replace these negative thoughts? No. Will you change your life overnight? Absolutely not. But little by little, changing the way you talk to yourself will have a positive cumulative effect on your life. 

A coach can help you with this. I no longer do coaching (the closest I come to coaching these days is through my monthly paper-and-ink newsletter) but a good coach can help you identify defeatist patterns and replace them with patterns that serve you. 

Banish Perfection

On paper, perfectionism seems like a good thing to have. Who wouldn’t want someone working to make everything just right? Unfortunately, perfectionism is a form of procrastination and self-sabotage due to the imposter syndrome. 

In business, the goal should be “good enough”. If you’re a perfectionist, you will struggle with hiring employees and delegating because you’ll believe nobody can do a task as well as you. (Which is why you want defined systems and processes, such as this financial services onboarding system.) 

Perfectionists also tend to set unreasonably high goals and feel shame or disappointment when they fail. They’re never satisfied with their achievements and tend to focus on their mistakes and failures. These small mistakes can make them question their own competence.

Realize That Imposter Syndrome Can Be A Good Thing...

Imposter syndrome isn’t all bad. There are many benefits to feeling this way. 

For example, self-criticism can fuel extraordinary achievements. After all, what else is ambition but an inability to be satisfied with one’s accomplishments? The world’s outstanding achievers are driven to work hard and close the gap between where they want to be and where they think they are. 

People also tend to perform at higher levels when they’re worried about seeming incompetent. This means if you care about your reputation and want to impress your clients and prospective clients, imposter syndrome can be a good thing because it will incentivize you to perform well. 

Finally, a sense of insecurity about your own accomplishments can drive to do more, be more, and have more. So, embrace your inner imposter and strive toward new challenges that, in the beginning, feel beyond your abilities. 

You’ll be happy you did. 

Related: 5 Tips For Financial Advisors Who Want A "Lifestyle" Practice