He’d figured out the Rules all the way back in grade school. The Rules never changed.
Rule One: Make a perfect first impression, even if it’s not an honest one. Front-load a compelling performance of your best possible self, and polish that façade for at least three weeks. Then, if you start screwing up later on, they might assume it’s not “the real you” and give you some extra slack.
Rule Two: Present yourself as competent, even when you’re not. Never admit you don’t know something, and avoid situations where you might have to. This includes any situation where you feel tempted to ask for help. If the higher-ups never catch you looking overwhelmed or scared, they might assume you’re so good at what you’re doing that it never fazes you.
Rule Three: Wherever any work you do will be assessed, master the assessment process. Study it early and often, so you can exploit it if you ever start failing in your work. Maybe the test writer always uses better grammar on the correct multiple choice option. Maybe the boss tends to give softer performance reviews toward the end of the afternoon. Maybe someone put together a clear enough rubric for you to reverse-engineer a practice solution in advance, so you can run a rehearsed script even as the proctor assumes you’re improvising. Don’t worry about actually achieving things. Just do what it takes to obtain proof that you’ve achieved them, and people will assume you’re just as strong as a real achiever.
He followed the Rules to the letter, each and every day.
He did this for decades.
He became a master of charming the pants off people. He became a master of pattern recognition. He became a master of making and keeping himself comfortable.
He became a master of bullshit.
He never quite mastered the art of shoving into the deepest pit of his subconscious this little nagging feeling that everything about his life was implacably wrong and somehow getting worse, the wrenching jealousy toward his childhood friends who had managed to learn and grow while he was busy protecting his image, the eternal searing terror at the thought of being unmasked…but he’d always figured that mastery would come in time.
Or hey, maybe he could fake his way out of dealing with that work too.
And then, out of nowhere, a Horrible Thing happened: He obtained proof of an achievement that he genuinely wanted to earn, and then he realized he had no clue whether he had actually earned it.
And he had always followed the Impostor’s Rulebook to the letter, in front of everyone he’d ever met, so who was left for him to ask?
Whose feedback could he possibly trust now?
The problem with trying to game a system is that any “system” you’re in is actually just you and some other people, making choices. You need at least a few of those other people if you want to prove to yourself that who you think are is who you really are.
You’re a social animal, wired to build and constantly update a self-concept based on how you see others react to your choices. You rely on honest, kind (not necessarily nice!) feedback to maintain your self-concept.
So when you fail to practice rigorous honesty with the people in the system whose feedback you’ll need in order to figure out where you really stand, what you’re doing is like putting up a mirror where that other person thinks they’re looking at a window, redirecting an uncomfortably bright light that could illuminate your best next step.
You were afraid of sunburn, so it felt safe at the time. But if the mirrors stay up for too long, your self-concept will wither in the shade, along with any confidence you’d been able to fake up to that point.
The Horrible Thing to worry about is not that the Rulebook will fail you. The Horrible Thing is that it might *not*, and you’ll end up more lost than if you’d never picked up the book in the first place.
The easy way out is never a way out. It’s a cul-de-sac, 1000 miles long and winding, and by the time you finally realize you must turn back around, you may not be walking in daylight anymore.
You can learn all these things on your own time, if you really really want to. Or you could listen hard to someone who’s been trudging his way back for over a year now…
Usually, the fastest way to cure Impostor Syndrome is to stop doing the things Impostors do.