Distance running helped Yahoo’s former CIO get over his imposter syndrome

Standing (or running) in your own shadow.
Standing (or running) in your own shadow.
Image: AP Photo/Don Ryan
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The first rule of imposter syndrome is that you don’t talk about imposter syndrome. For those who suffer from what the Harvard Business Review calls “chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that overrides any feelings of success or external proof of their competence,” to admit you feel that you don’t deserve the accolades bestowed upon you is to make yourself vulnerable. And that’s exactly why us high-achievers rarely do it.

Early on in my career, I felt that I punched above my weight. After being viewed as the Unix expert, I was given an amazing opportunity at Netflix and rose through the proverbial ranks of Silicon Valley, which led to a C-suite role at Yahoo. Yet throughout my interview and the acceptance process, I never felt that I deserved the cards I’d been given. When I accepted the role of CIO and SVP of infrastructure in 2014, I didn’t really think about the magnitude of the position until a couple of weeks into the job. That was when the symptoms of imposter syndrome began to show. I felt like I was dumbest person in the room at every meeting. I was fortunate enough to have inherited a tremendous set of direct reports, but their competency made me start to feel as if they would be better suited for the role than I was.

I’m sure this happens to many executives who take on a large new initiative, but as no one talks about it, you wouldn’t know it. After all, imposter syndrome isn’t a rare phenomenon. According to a recent study, a third of millennials suffer from imposter syndrome at work, and another study estimates 70% of people will experience it at least once in their lives. The likelihood is that many that others around you suffer from the same feelings of inadequacy—but that knowledge only provides cold comfort.

My personal experience with imposter syndrome started at a relatively early age, but I didn’t acknowledge it until much, much later. My youth was spent on a small farm in Iowa where the entire K-12 student body fitted into one school building. I had an innate drive to be one of the top, if not the top, in my class. The same went for sports, especially basketball, and I would shovel snow from our driveway in the winter in order to shoot hoops until my hands went numb from the cold. I felt that I had to outwork others in order to be at the same level, and when I was there, there was some strange feeling that I had gotten lucky or didn’t deserve to be there.

During my final years studying computer science at Iowa State University, I was fortunate enough to land an internship where I was thrown into the deep end with some extremely talented developers. This environment pushed me to learn and consume as much information as I could for fear of falling even further behind. Evidently this approach worked, as the company offered me a job even before I graduated. I accepted, but I was still in disbelief that I was actually good enough.

During my senior year in college, I took up distance running. Though I initially tried my legs at it because of a bet with my college roommate, it turned out I had a knack for it. But in spite of the ease of which running came to me, I felt like I had to train harder and be faster than everyone else—including some who had spent over a decade training for the very thing I had just casually picked up. This was also the first time I actually confronted my imposter syndrome.

My first race was the St. Patrick’s Day 8k in Saint Paul, and despite running approximately a 6:30 mile, I wasn’t even in the same zip code as the top finishers. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I decided to start training more, and at a higher intensity. A few weeks later I raced another 8k and improved by an average of 30 seconds a mile.

Imposter syndrome often paralyzes people and makes them want to quit whatever venture they think they are sub-par at. But in this case, I was able to channel it in a positive manner to not be complacent and push beyond self-imposed mental barriers to improve my physical performance. By doing so, I started to feel more and more like I belonged near the front of pack, and this provided even more positive feedback to my training program. Instead of allowing the negative internal feedback from imposter syndrome to hold me back, I was able to turn it into positive motivation to not only boost my confidence but improve my form as quickly as possible.

Channeling imposter syndrome in the correct way can help you achieve goals that you initially might have believed to be unattainable. I did this through my running practice by, but this channeling theory is also applicable to professional life. Over the past 25 year of my career, I’ve worked a great deal on embracing imposter syndrome and using it to push myself to become a better leader and collaborator. I’ve learned how to turn my weaknesses into my strengths.

Going back to the first rule of imposter syndrome, it is important for business leaders to acknowledge that they aren’t alone. Recognition leads to a higher level of personal acceptance, which means that individuals can start moving forward at a much faster rate without the crippling fear of failure or being found out hampering them.

Imposter syndrome is an internal demon that many of us need to continue to work on keeping in check. What tends to work for me is surrounding myself with close friends and mentors who will provide direct and candid feedback, both positive and character building. I also find it helpful reading about other peoples’ experiences and then trying to relate it back to my feelings. Over the years I’ve read countless articles, and some of my favorites are co-founder and co-CEO of Atlassian Mike Cannon-Brookes’ personal account of his struggle and Kyle Eschenroeder’s list of 21 ways to overcome imposter syndrome.

This is an on-going journey, not a destination; a sprint, not a marathon. There will be moments and days that will be more challenging than others, but over time you will develop techniques to make the rough patches easier to handle and become more resilient. You’ve just got to push through.