Is Impostor Syndrome Holding You Back?

By Marcella Pires

The thought that I could never be as intelligent, productive and intellectual as some of the people around me has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Recently, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be as intelligent, productive and intellectual as most of the people around me, but probably won’t. This change in perspective was largely a result of my constant attempt to adopt and exercise a growth mindset – those with growth mindsets “view intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort.” Conversely, someone with a fixed mindset “views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time” (“Growth Mindset Vs. Fixed Mindset: What’s the Difference?”).

In recent years, as I’ve come to believe in the power of effort, my impostor syndrome has improved. Success became more about the ability to put in effort than anything else. When you believe that effort can yield powerful results, you feel encouraged to keep putting it in. And whenever I want something badly, I’m thinking that it’s a high amount of effort that will decide whether I get it or not.  

I still compare myself to those around me. But it’s different. Back then, I would have a hard time understanding an equation in my finance class and think I was less capable than the rest of the students. Now, I consider the possibility of it being a lack of effort. I could get that equation just as quickly as everyone else with more effort. Of course, different people will have to put different amounts of effort to get to the same place. But it’s refreshing to know that (a lot of the time) all you need is effort, in varying amounts. 

This mindset felt great for a while. But as I considered the aggravated relevance of this one factor, I decided that I should put maximum effort into everything I do. I tried to notice the effort of those around me. I was comparing myself to the students in the class again. Overwhelmed with thoughts of the amount of “effort” I could be putting into my school work, my personal life, my extracurricular activities, my hobbies even. Is this still impostor syndrome? 

I considered the meaning of effort. To me, it’s the dedication of time and energy. Which you can allocate to your liking. You decide whether to spend more time and energy studying finance, networking in events, or keeping in touch with your friends on the phone. There’s all of these different areas of life that you can choose to put effort into. And everyone is allocating according to their own personal beliefs. You can’t compare your own effort in finance class to someone else’s effort in finance class because you don’t know how much of it is a result of sacrificing time and energy in something else. Maybe they haven’t been going to the gym. Maybe they chose to skip dinner with friends. Meanwhile, you’ve been doing all that. Because you’re not as worried about acing the finance test to the point of missing the gym or not seeing your friends. Effort is time and energy and people are using it in different ways because they have different priorities, values, goals. 

We make several choices every day. Allocating effort is the combination of several personal choices that happen as a result of understanding what you’re prioritizing. It’s realistically impractical to compare your effort to someone else’s since you have no real notion of their personal choices. When I acknowledge my colleagues in finance class now, I consider how little knowledge I have of their personal choices. I can’t compare. I can only focus on aligning my choices and effort to that of the person I want to be, the priorities I want to have and the life I want to live.  

I hope this reflection can make you think and maybe even reconsider your response to impostor syndrome. It’s been more productive to think in this way. I now have placed my effort into different areas of my life with more intention. Here are some perspectives of imposter syndrome and the growth mindset that some fellow NYU students shared. All quotes have been anonymized: 

“I have dealt with impostor syndrome by realizing that there will always be someone who is better than me in whatever area it may be. But I have learned that this does not make me worse. Instead of focusing on what I’m not, I focus instead on what I have and what I want to be.” 

“Feeling inadequate has only increased since I got to Stern… people’s attitudes and goals are more similar… Everyone is studying the same things. ” 

“As a pre-med student, I have felt impostor syndrome more times than I can count. To improve this using a growth mindset, I have gone from seeing my peers as superiors to seeing them as what they are: equals. So even when those thoughts resurface, I try to remember we are all in the same boat, and making an effort in whatever way we can is the only way to keep it moving.”

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