Imposter Syndrome and Entrepreneurship

Over the years, like many other educators in the field of entrepreneurship, I have sought to better understand and clarify what it means to have an entrepreneurial mindset.  While the origins of the concept date back to the early 20th century and the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter and others,  it was a mere 20 years ago that professors Rita McGrath and Ian MacMillan, popularized the concept in their book, The Entrepreneurial Mindset.   Since that time, many have tried to clarify this perspective and there are many theories and opinions about what it means to look at the world through an entrepreneurial lens.

Shortly after I moved to the Tampa Bay area I was approached by my now good friend, Dr. Jen Hall, one of the lead designers of the Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP), to provide input on this simple tool that can help anyone better understand the lens through which they look at the world and their work.   During a recent Enfactor podcast, Jen and I discussed the EMP.  During that conversation I shared that I have found the EMP to be a valuable addition to my work – both as an educator and a consultant.  While it may not be the definitive word on entrepreneurial mindset, it is an excellent way to encourage reflection on mental models and how we see the world.

The EMP measures an individual’s approach to the world and work on 14 different dimensions – 7 of which they argue are personality-based and 7 that are acquired or learned skills. Their research has demonstrated that self-described entrepreneurs score higher on 13 of the 14 attributes and thus anyone who takes the assessment can see how they score on each attribute compared to those who describe themselves as entrepreneurs and those who describe themselves as corporate managers.  


Using this assessment as a way to approach discussions about whether my students  and clients are interested in and ready for their own entrepreneurial journey has been an interesting way to encourage reflection on what it means to be an entrepreneur.   Because any mental model is complex, one of the more interesting aspects of using this assessment, with students of all life stages and career stages, is the interplay between the 14 attributes.   For example, I recall a workshop that I led in New York for an amazing group of women of color.  These women were highly accomplished PhDs in engineering fields who were hoping to gain some insight into how they could commercialize their research and  be more entrepreneurial in the way they approached their work.  Each of them completed the EMP prior to the event and during the program we reviewed the basics of the assessment tool and discussed their individual results.   I also prepared a group assessment.  Not surprisingly, these women were, individually and as a group, off the charts high in the achievement dimension.  However, at the same time they scored low on self-confidence.  When we discussed this finding, there were tears.  It was an emotional experience not only for them but also for me.  How could these rock star women who had accomplished so much, often with the odds stacked against them, have any self-doubt? 


I recall that when I got notification that I had passed my doctoral defense I shared the news with one of my new colleagues at the university where I had just begun a tenure track position.  She promptly sent me flowers and was very vocal about the accomplishment, sharing it with everyone and in general just making what seemed like, to me, a really big deal about this.  She asked me why I was so subdued about this, and I can remember telling her that it still didn’t feel real because I had some editorial changes to make to the final version of my dissertation.  She just laughed and said, you need to get over that and celebrate.  What I know now is that I was still questioning whether I was really this person that the committee thought had demonstrated the knowledge, skills and ability to be granted a PhD.  I knew that there was still so much I idn’t know and I also believed that most everyone else in the same situation knew more than me.  I was suffering from imposter syndrome – feeling inadequate despite evident success

I would like to say that I was able to quickly get over this but it has been a challenge for most of my life and I could never quite figure out why.  But, life has a way of teaching us and as I began to use the EMP more with my students and my clients, I began to see the pattern emerge over and over.  Take for example, the graduate student who had been a division 1 athlete and graduated from her bachelor’s degree with a 4.0 in an engineering field who scored extremely high on achievement and low on self-confidence – just like the ladies in the workshop.  And the many students I have worked with who simply could not accept any grade less than an A.  People with very high personal goals for achievement often feel that they cannot ever reach them and this in turns can erode self-confidence.   An extremely high need to achieve can actually keep us from enjoying not only our accomplishments but also life.  And, we often don’t even realize we are being so unkind to ourselves.

It is often the highest achieving and successful people who suffer from imposter syndrome. And, since many entrepreneurs fall into this category, imposter syndrome can be a problem for many of them.  It can also get in the way of building a successful company.  Entrepreneurs identify deeply with the business they have started and when they encounter failure of any kind, it can feel personal and it can begin to make them question their abilities and in turn affect their confidence and make them question their skills and decisions.  It is at this point that every entrepreneur has to be brave and remember that entrepreneurship is a practice.  Bravery and courage can keep us going until we can get help from our mentors and others in our network who provide us with a safety net.  This is the power of entrepreneurial ecosystems and this is why every entrepreneur needs a strong network.

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