Oxford Calling

A blog about working full time and studying part time

With only a week to go until lectures start I’ve been cracking on with my pre-course assignments, but in the process my own personal Auld Enemy has put in an appearance – that inner voice that stays ‘you’re really not smart enough to do this’, and ‘everyone else is going to be WAY better than you’ , otherwise known as the Imposter Syndrome.

This is not a new experience for me. Entering the finance industry as an arts graduate meant frequently finding myself in rooms full of maths grads, MBAs, and economics whizz-kids, all discussing mind bogglingly complex subject that while I sat there feeling smaller and smaller. Its intimidating, its debilitating, its disheartening. I did eventually find my feet, but that small critical voice has never really left me, and still shows up from time to time to remind me of my shortcomings.

Interestingly, I was part of the hosting team when WIBF ran a workshop on the Imposter Syndrome a while back, and it proved to be one of our most attended events ever. When the facilitator asked the audience who had experienced IS, about 80% of hands shot up – I was astonished! The room was full of accomplished, successful women performing the most complex roles, how can they all have the same chronic self-doubt as I do?

Thankfully, Imposter-ism has become a well studied phenomenon. It affects people at every level of industry, and appears to be linked to perfectionist traits, as well as an inability to really internalise external success. Perhaps this explains why so many of my high flying colleagues have felt it too.

There are a number of articles out there on how to overcome IS, but I’ve found my own way of dealing with it: simply by ‘owning’ the imposter! Finance professionals come under great pressure to be the ‘smartest guys in the room’ (thanks for that Goldman Sachs!), and are terrified to speak up in case they’re unmasked as a ‘fraud’, but I have discovered that being the dumbest person in the room has its own special power!

Firstly, it allows me to ask lots of questions. I don’t pretend to have superior intelligence, so in presentations situations am comfortable prodding and poking away until I get an answer that is clear to me. As a consultant this often led to me exposing flaws in the concepts that the speaker was explaining that he was either not aware of, or was hoping would be overlooked.

Second, I’ve generally found that my ‘stupid’ question was also on the minds of many of the other listeners, but who were unwilling speak up and ‘look stupid’ in front of everyone else.

Finally, even the most complex ideas tend to have a simple logic at their core, and any financial specialists worth their salt should be able to strip their explanations back to this. If they can’t (or won’t) it should ring alarm bells. Asking presenters/lecturers to stop and explain things again in more simple terms may not be particularly comfortable, but it’s helped me enormously over the years, and I’ve never been judged for it (not to my face, at least!). In fact, i’ve often said to graduate trainees ‘explain this to me in a way your grandmother would understand’ to help them become better communicators.

So this is me. An imposter – and proud of it!

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