About one year ago, while sitting down with a friend over coffee at Credo, I learned about the term “impostor syndrome,” which takes place when individuals wonder “Why me? Why is it that I’m the one accomplishing this or leading that?” In many cases, those with the impostor syndrome are uber-successful people, who despite their many successes wonder why the world has yet to “figure them out.” I suspect that the impostor syndrome affects many of us, leading to a self-restraint that limits expectations and encourages us to shoot lower than what we’re actually capable of. Although this feeling comes and goes, I can certainly say that the impostor syndrome has affected me, with September-January being one such example.
Over the last four years, I’ve found that despite how well one does in life, it is quite easy to fall into these feelings of inadequacy. During these states, one wonders what they will do next in life and how they will continue to make valuable contributions to the world. In these cases, it is easy to limit expectations and hedge one’s bets, striving for certainty rather than personal excellence. For example, following a successful “Stand Up for Edmonton” conference in late June 2013, which brought together over 100 Edmontonians (in one month and on a shoestring budget) in order to discuss the University of Alberta’s roles in Edmonton’s social, economic and cultural fabric, I became deeply worried about where my “life path” would lead. Rather than continue to think big and take risks, I spent much of my time preparing for interviews with prestigious management consulting firms across Alberta. At the same time, I continued to build Gen Y Inc. along with several peers; however, it took some time to fully commit to the company, jumping fully into the pool in January.
My case is not unlike those that I see around me. In many situations, I have seen highly-talented peers succeed during their university and young professional lives, and then opt for security over audacity. Rather than continue on their upward trend and fulfill their potential, they seem to settle. In short, these individuals seem to stop “asking.” Rather than take chances and explore new opportunities, they are happier with safe lives. Often times, these lives bring wealth and prestige. But they are not particularly original or exciting lives; they are the life paths that others view as “successful.” Because of this, they are limiting, since one’s success is placed in the opinions of others.
I have trouble seeing how living this safe kind of life can be a “happy” life, where happiness is viewed as being the best life possible for that particular person. Moreover, as I have written in previous articles, I think that this mentality bodes poorly for Alberta. We need our talented and creative leaders, both young and old, to be continuously pushing themselves and striving to do better – for both themselves and others. We need our young scientists pursuing PhDs in subjects that consume their thoughts; our political leaders striving for a more democratic and vibrant Canadian political system and our entrepreneurs building the most creative and ambitious companies at home.
One of the common factors in each of the positive examples listed above is the ask. Indeed, the process of asking is among the most important things that one can do in life. Asking certainly involves ambition, but it is much more than ambition alone. When we ask for more out of ourselves and take chances in the world, reaching out to new individuals and exploring ideas, we engage in a process that is deeply personal and vulnerable. In many cases, we will be rejected and face “failure,” but the successes then become all the more powerful. For instance, with Gen Y Inc. only 10 out of 100 cold calls to potential clients are successful. With those 10 responses, perhaps five of them will lead to follow-up meetings. However, several of those follow-ups will become clients. In these cases, the one or two successes far outweigh the 98 asks that went unanswered. These successes build momentum and lead to previously unanticipated opportunities.
I have been fortunate to meet many friends who ask the world for what they want. One of these individuals recently left a lucrative job in investment banking in order to build a medical startup, and over the last weeks has reached out into the unknown in order to find technology companies with the expertise required to build the medical device. Another friend applied for the prestigious Gates Cambridge, not thinking that he would receive it, and won. Two others pitched Canada’s leading national newspaper on an article idea, and several days later saw their bylines in a controversial Globe and Mail piece on entrepreneurship. Another wanted adventure, and so departed on a seven-month backpacking trip across Europe and Asia. Four peers in the Alberta School of Business took on young business leaders across the world, emerging second in a prestigious Spanish case competition. And in Edmonton, we have our Mayor, Edmonton Economic Development President and many others hammering home the message that Edmonton is a global destination, at the same time as our city leaders develop relationships with Chengdu in China, Reykjavik in Iceland and so on. Each of these examples is admirable; however, not one is glamorous. In the words of Pascal Finette, they all require “boring consistency.”
We tend to view “happiness” as an airy-fairy word not worthy of discussion. Moreover, happiness is (regrettably) now viewed as something subjective, where we should not judge others’ approaches to life. However, I firmly believe that those with the most fulfilling, worthwhile, admirable and happy lives are those who continuously ask – who push their own limits and seek to explore and understand in places that they care about. These individuals are absorbed, replete with intellectual and spiritual energy. These lives require continuous exertion and the ability to push through the voice in one’s head saying “You’re not good enough; this is for someone else.” But the persistence is well worth holding onto. If there is one thing that my last five years as a student and entrepreneur has taught me, it is that one should continuously ask – for oneself and the community. This, to me, is the active life that we should all strive for – and that we are all capable of.
This post is inspired by Pascal Finette of ten|x, who wrote this piece here. It is also inspired by the Edmontonians, Albertans and Canadians who tirelessly build a better place for future generations.