Think Differently to Beat Impostor Syndrome: The Natural Genius

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Valerie Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.  In a previous post, I wrote about the different versions of Impostor Syndrome. Here’s one version.

People who subscribe to the Natural Genius theory of competence believe that true competence means having inherent intelligence and ability. Valerie Young writes, “… the thinking here is that success should be effortless. If you identify with the Natural Genius, what you care mostly about is how and when accomplishments happen.”

I’ve written about the trap of perfectionism, but this trap may be even worse. Young writes, “…instead of the key measure being flawlessness, you judge yourself based on ease and speed. You expect to know without being taught, to excel without effort, and to get it right on the first attempt. You think, If I were really smart, I would be able to understand everything the first time I hear it, or If I were a real writer, it wouldn’t be this hard.”


Those suffering from Natural Genius syndrome get there by comparing themselves to the best of the best. “Look at Michael Phelps swim. No matter how good I get, I’ll always struggle with my backstroke. Even if I win all my races, I’m no Michael Phelps.”  It sounds silly when I write about Michael Phelps, but how many times have you compared yourself to someone who is a “natural” speaker, writer, salesman, or manager?

Psychologists have studied this phenomenon for years, and they have identified one of its root causes. People with a fixed theory of intelligence believe that your capacity to learn and know is pre-determined.  You’re as smart as you’re ever going to be at a very young age. You buy into this and reinforce it when you say things like “I’ve never been good at math” or “I always struggle with writing.” Even when you have success, you attribute it to luck or your innate capacity, and your success doesn’t build confidence.

The truth is that you can master almost any skill; it just takes focus, study, and practice. If you believe you can get better over time, you have a growth mindset.  With a growth mindset, you’re more likely to work hard on building skills and solving tough problems, and coincidentally, you actually get better. When you have success, you recognize it’s because you worked hard; you gain confidence that you can master the next level skill as well.

You can help yourself and those around you build a growth mindset. Next time you see someone (especially a girl or woman) succeed, don’t tell her how smart she is. Evidence shows that implying that their success is due to an innate ability (smart, pretty, a natural speaker), you reinforce the fixed mindset. Instead, tell her that you can see her hard work paid off. Tell her you admire the effort she put into that presentation. When she compliments your success, acknowledge the hard work you put in. “Thanks – all those hours of practice finally paid off. I appreciate your noticing.”

Here are Valerie Young’s new rules for the Natural Genius:

  • Effort trumps ability.
  • Challenges are often opportunities in disguise.
  • Real success always takes time.

If you suffer from this syndrome, ease up on yourself. Very few “Naturals” are actually naturals – they’ve worked long and hard to get where they are.

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