Defeating the Imposter Syndrome

This line of thinking can be detrimental and drag down your self-esteem. Here are some ways to get beyond those negative thoughts and boost your confidence.

If you’re like a lot of lawyers, you graduate law school, pass the bar and instantly realize you have no clue how to practice law.

If you’re not a lawyer that sentence might be a little alarming, but it’s pretty much true.

Law school gives you the building blocks to figure out how to practice law but you’ve got to go out and do the work.

The good thing about this is that lawyers are comfortable telling clients that they don’t know the answer to a particular question. In fact, it’s kind of expected that you won’t know the answer at first but that you’ll be able to find the answer and get back to them.

The problem with this is that it pours gasoline on the fire known as the imposter syndrome, which can be hard to shake off.

For those of you that aren’t familiar, the imposter syndrome is a well-documented condition describing high-achieving individuals that aren’t able to internalize their own accomplishments (i.e. good grades, great test scores, getting a professional degree and landing a good job) and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Does that sound like it could be you?

Here’s another quick test:

What percentage of Americans end up with a professional degree?

If you said anything higher than 3.27%, you might be suffering from a little bit of bias based on your surroundings.

Feeling like an imposter can have a direct impact on your finances.

Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to take a step back and make sure this isn’t you.

I’m not going to be here much longer

Many law students start their first job thinking that they might not be cut out for the position. The truth is, it’ll take some time to figure that out.

But that doesn’t stop you from thinking that you won’t be there for much longer.

When you think you’re not going to stick around (or that someone might ask you to leave), you’re not likely to take steps that impact your long term financial health, like putting money in a 401(k) account.

Why should you? You’ll be gone in a few months.

Unfortunately, this behavior can last for years.

Objectively, if you looked at a lawyer who didn’t manage to save very much over three years you might feel a twinge of judgment. But for that lawyer, it might have been a series of 36 individual months, with each month feeling like it might be the last. They never saw it as that “three year stint”.

The solution is take a step out of your personal situation and look at your life and the current year holistically.

So what if you might be gone in a couple of months? Well, it’d be great to get a couple of months of savings. That’s what!

Plus, even if you leave you’ll eventually find a job somewhere else and that job will probably have retirement accounts too.

There’s no shame in transferring a 401(k) account with $1,000 in it to a new job. That’s $1,000 more than you would have if you never got around to opening it in the first place.

Don’t let the imposter syndrome set you back a couple of years. Getting started saving your first $100,000 is the hardest part.

Welcome to the genuine fake factory

Investing, building wealth, etc. is pretty much similar to the fake it until you make it concept.

Pretend like you’re paying off your student loans and building a great war chest of dollar bills working for you.

Pretty soon after you decide to fake it, you won’t have any student loans and the dollar bills will each bring in a nickel or two a year (which adds up!).

That means that everyone has to start with a 401(k) balance that shows a pretty small sum. On the flip side, everyone has to go from $200,000 in debt to $196,000 in debt to $192,000 in debt, etc.

But a lot of your peers will skip these steps, thinking that they’ll go from a negative net worth to wealth in one giant leap.

In my experience, they’ll be waiting a long time for that leap and it may never come.

I’ve corresponded with partners that have told me stories of their fellow partners betting everything looking for the “quick buck” because they assume they have better investment insight than the professionals and have a lot of ground to make up due to not starting sooner.

I’m sure this behavior is common among doctors as well. When you start your career late in life, you’re way more likely to think that you need to catch up by doing something dramatic.

Nobody sees the day in and day out work of building wealth as dramatic. It seems almost too ordinary to get the job done.

But, welcome to the genuine fake factory! If you start off “faking it” by putting in $1,000s of dollars, it really doesn’t take much time before you’ll build genuine wealth, especially if you’re banking your raises.

If you’ve felt imposter syndrome feelings (who hasn’t, right?), take a moment to think about how it might be impacting your personal finance goals.

Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He spends 10 minutes a month on Empower keeping track of his money and is currently looking for additional lenders to add to Biglaw Investor’s JD Mortgage service which connects readers with lenders offering special mortgages for high-income professionals.

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    Thirteen thoughts on Defeating the Imposter Syndrome

    1. Me and my wife totally have imposter syndrome and it lasted for 10 years. I think it happens alot when blue collar kids end up with white collar jobs.

        1. After watching the endless parade of mediocre attorneys, one day you realize you do know what you are doing and have the confidence to know that alot of THEM don’t know what they are doing.

    2. I think I have a touch of imposter syndrome. Not the full-fledged disease, more like a seasonal allergy that tends to be an annoyance that comes and goes.

      The funny part is that I have it now, the higher I progress in my career, the more years of experience I gain. I sometimes look at myself now and I realize that to the younger members of my team I am the goto person, the big Kahuna. Then I find myself thinking back to the masters of yore, the folks that I considered to be founts of knowledge when I was a fresh-faced graduate and there is no way that I can convince myself that I am nearly as good at my job as they were.

    3. Agree with everything in this post. One thing I’d add is that lawyers can let the imposter syndrome work to their advantage. During my first year at a law firm I was worried that I’d somehow lose my job, so I saved as much as I could (and paid down my loans). In other words the anxiety of having to look for a new (possibly lower paying) job after my brief “stint” at a firm pushed me to start saving early.

      1. Smart. Harnessing the fear of failure to adequately prepare for it. I think I did this too but my one regret is not maxing out my 401(k) accounts at the beginning. I was too focused on paying off the loans, particularly since the refinancing market didn’t exist. Now I understand that your career will be long, so you need to take advantage of tax-sheltered space whenever you can.

      1. Slipping through the cracks is a great way to describe it. A common phrase around interviewing season is always, “Wow … I would have never been hired if I had to compete against the classes these days.

        Thanks for sharing the link. Sheryl Sandberg is great.

    4. I had a ton of imposter syndrome when I was in big law, since it felt crazy to me that anyone would pay a 26-year old kid that much. Similar to what Mixed Money Arts said above, I pretty much let that imposter syndrome work to my advantage. I never acted like I deserved that income, and instead, treated all of the excess as if it was a windfall. Ultimately, it allowed me to stretch my frugal muscle and get those loans done with a decade before most other lawyers pay them back.

    5. I think what you describe of a first year lawyer is true of almost any skilled position. I’m convinced college teaches you to learn and validates your ability to do so to an employer, it does not teach you anything directly about your job. I haven’t had imposter syndrome since my last major company change. Eventually you become comfortable as things become the norm. But at some point the next change in companies will trigger the same feeling.

    6. Coming out of med school, you really don’t know what you are doing. Then you finish training and are an attending and still don’t know exactly what practicing medicine is going to be like. It is all quite crazy.

      It is amazing how our bias dictates life. It is worse these days as liberals hang out with liberals, conservatives with conservatives, high earners with high earners, etc. Is it the “you are what your friends are phenomenon” where we are all trying to achieve, or are we just all not aware of what we are doing.

      Who knows but I enjoyed your thoughts on the subject!

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