Saturday, January 7, 2012

Curing the Impostor Syndrome: Work hard then forgive yourself

I've had the privilege of being career coach to some of the world's most successful executives, lawyers, physicians, professors, etc. And it may surprise you to know that even most of them often feel like impostors.

It's not that they're inferior. It's that there's a gap between what even stars can do and what complete knowledge and perfect judgment would enable. It's simply impossible for a CEO to know for sure whether it's wisest to be incremental or bold, for a lawyer to be certain s/he's picked the right defense, for a physician to be sure when saying, "You're fine," Even eminent experts, those who appear in the media, according to U.C. Berkeley research, have prediction rates no better than chance!

So after you've done what you can reasonably do to become competent and you've reached that sweet spot where yet more study is likely to only minimally improve your success rate, it's time to give yourself a break, time for acceptance of your fallibility, of humankind's fallibility.

I heard a perhaps apocryphal story that at one of America's leading medical schools, the chief resident welcomes each year's interns by telling them, "Each any every one of you is entitled to one clean kill. A patient will enter the hospital reasonably expecting to leave healthy and you'll kill him. Sure you must learn from your mistakes but you must forgive yourself, because medical errors are part of the cost of a medical education. Your worth as a physician is defined by the net effects of your lifetime as a physician."

Whether or not your workplace decisions are life-and-death, work hard to become competent, learn from your mistakes, and then forgive yourself. We're only human.


mdubuque said...

I agree completely with the notion that we should forgive ourselves for our inevitable mistakes.

Perhaps one of the most helpful aphorisms I have heard on this subject is to try to do things as perfectly as you can, BUT THEN let go of the result.

We cannot control the world, we can only dance with it.

But I put a little different frame on making mistakes than what is the norm in the USA. I think my views mesh more closely with the norms of Switzerland viz a viz perfectionism.

Indeed, it is perfectionists like da Vinci, Stradivari, Michelangelo and Steve Jobs that inspire us over the ages.

I acknowledge and welcome that learning without mistakes is impossible. Learning is done by trial and error and an error is definitionally a mistake.

But when we make large mistakes, such as actually killing a patient as described in your post originating this thread, we need to learn from them, rather than simply celebrating them and move on.

And the bigger and more painful the mistake, the more we need to learn.

Reducing mistakes, and the severity of them, is susceptible to systematic study. Over time and with discipline, our error rates can be reduced.

Medical doctors, especially surgeons, have done some of the best professional work in studying how to reduce the quantity and severity of mistakes.

The paper below is one of the most widely cited in the medical literature on this subject. It has helped me smell when nascent catastrophes may be lurking in the woodwork.

I hope you find it helpful:

This paper pioneered the "Swiss cheese" approach in studying catastrophic mistakes.

That model describes how defenses, barriers and safeguards can all be penetrated by the trajectory of an accident.

As my wife gently pointed out to me, after pointing out without blame or rancour that I made more mistakes than she did:

"Matt, if you don't try to do things perfectly, you will never do anything important."

I am not perfect, by any stretch, but I relentlessly PURSUE perfectionism.

And because now I generally take the time to do things right the first time, less of my time is spent continually addressing old, unfinished business that keeps cropping up time and time again.

So I have more free time and my stress levels have collapsed. I laugh a lot more. This is NOT a Type A existence!

Matt Dubuque from Millbrae, author
"The Art of Perfection: Why the Pursuit of Excellence is Doomed to Fail"

Anonymous said...

"impostor," not "imposter."

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

The New Yorker ran an interesting article a few months back about a seasoned surgeon who felt his skills had plateaued so he enlisted a "coach" (a more senior surgeon) to observe him. His point was that athletes and singers have coaches, it seems other professions should use them as well. But in doing so, you have to be humble enough to admit that you have areas that could use improvement.

mdubuque said...

I agree. We need to compete against ourselves, in a friendly, amicable way.

I think both Michael Jordan and Picasso were each examples of this. When you attain a very high level of competence, you need to keep reaching.

This is why I focus on the relentless PURSUIT of perfection.

It's the pursuing that sustains us and rewards us.

Bart Starr said the most important thing Vince Lombardi taught him was to always pursue perfection and you will surely fail.

But when you fail, you will likely be excellent.

Compare that with pursuing excellence and failing.

Then you are merely above average.

And merely being above average doesn't cut it in today's competitive economy.

The relentless PURSUIT of perfection.

And in reading Marty's book How to do Life, his prose is so lucid it is clear that, at least in his writing, he pursues perfection.


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