Honest Success isn’t Fraud (DE Wave)

I received an email from a reader regarding a recent column where I wrote that a fear of success could be a fear of being ‘found out’ as a fraud — whether you earned the success or not.

The writer says that when she’s wrong about something or when there are smarter people around her, this feeling of insecurity and inadequacy creeps in.

We are trained at an early age by misguided parents and other authorities that we shouldn’t be ‘arrogant’ or ‘confident’ or, as the old saying goes, ‘too big for your britches.’ In some kids, this (mercifully!) doesn’t stick, but I find that with most people it does. And it all comes out in my office after they grow up.

This ill-advised ‘advice’ results in a grownup who feels guilty for his or her accomplishments. The emotional ‘logic’ goes something like this: ‘I really have no business thinking that I have accomplished so much. And sooner or later, others are going to figure this out and I’ll be exposed.’ A rational approach is needed to counter this emotion: Specifically, to judge yourself objectively the same way you would a stranger. You might write down all your accomplishments and rate them in the same way you would another’s. If emotions start to contradict a positive self-assessment, then ask yourself, ‘Why the double standard? Why deny myself the praise and recognition I would give to somebody else?’

The writer says she feels like a fraud when she’s wrong. But being wrong doesn’t make you incompetent. Everybody is wrong sometimes. Obviously, the fewer errors you make, the better. But an error does not make you incompetent or less competent than your peers. Incompetence requires a lot more than that!

These feelings often arise from a flawed idea about certainty. Many people feel that capable and confident people never make errors. It doesn’t work that way. Errors are not a catastrophe. It’s all in how you handle them. If you have confidence in your power of objective reasoning to figure things out — despite occasional errors and corrections required — then you’ll have greater trust and confidence both in yourself and others. When you have confidence in yourself, you love your own mind and what it’s capable of. And to love your mind you have to love the human mind at its best, i.e., when it’s thinking, creating and producing.

People with this feeling of incompetence tend to view others as smarter or less vulnerable than they really are. ‘I have this weakness, but others do not.’ But how do you know that? How can you make such a generalization? If you overemphasize your weaknesses and limitations, you’re going to feel like a fraud when you’re applauded or recognized in some way. You’ll suspect, ‘They don’t know how I really am.’ But there’s no basis in fact. As long as you’re being applauded, complimented or recognized for something that you actually and honestly did, then there’s no fraud.

Just because you’re not good at every possible thing doesn’t take away from the goodness or greatness in your accomplishment. If you did it, then you did it. Accept the applause with quiet satisfaction. Know that you earned it. And move on to your next goal, confident in the knowledge that you can.

If you accomplished the thing for which you’re granted recognition despite some flaws that others don’t know about, then that’s all the more credit to you for rising above whatever problems you might have. It isn’t flawlessness that makes people great at something. Infallibility is a myth, and it’s not necessary. Look at all that human beings have accomplished to date — from the cave to the microchip, from illiteracy to quantum physics — and ask yourself if infallibility is required for people to achieve greatness.

It’s your strengths that make you potentially great. And achieving success in spite of your weaknesses is an even greater strength.