The Mirror Has Two Faces
Would I Lie To You?
“I still sometimes feel like a loser kid in high school and I just have to pick myself up and tell myself that I'm a superstar every morning so that I can get through this day and be for my fans what they need for me to be.”
In Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Ramban asks perhaps my favorite interpretive question on the Torah: How did the Israelites learn how to build the Mishkan?
If your initial reaction is, “The Israelites just followed the instructions,” consider the following: Building the Mishkan is not, to use Atul Gawande’s words, a “simple problem” like baking a tray of brownies.A person cannot successfully construct the Mishkan just because they have the instructions. Rather, building the Mishkan is a “complicated problem” like sending a rocket to the moon; if you have the expertise, someone with similar expertise could explain to you how to do it. But if you lack expertise, instructions won’t help much.
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While the Israelites had centuries of experience with hard labor as slaves, presumably slave labor is far more mimetic than creative. Although certain figures emerge with incredible artistic abilities such as Betzalel and Oholiab, it is hard to imagine how a group of formerly enslaved people found the skills necessary to create the ornate accouterments of the Mishkan.
Ramban rejects the premise of my question and offers a beautiful answer:
“...none [of the Israelites] ever learned these skills before from any teacher nor had ever practiced them before. But each one discovered their natural talent or aptitude for the task, their heart rising as it were to the Divine challenge enabling them to come into Moses’ presence and say: “I can do it.”
Ramban acknowledges that the Israelites did not possess the skills necessary to build the Mishkan. Instead, Ramban argues that the Israelites discovered natural talents that existed all along.
I love Ramban’s answer because I believe every organization should cultivate a constant stream of people who discover talents that they can bring to an organization that the leadership encourages and helps flourish (i.e. a “charismatic organization”). But beware: A countervailing force can damage this ideal, one that strikes at the heart of the internal work of leadership development.
I hesitated to choose the imposter phenomenon, what many people refer to as “imposter syndrome,” as our big idea for two reasons. First, presumably, this is a concept that many readers already know, and I want to provide new content. Second, imposter syndrome tends to be associated with challenges facing marginalized groups, and since that is not my reference point, I worry I will mansplain.
That said, with the caveat that my goal is to go deeper than the basics, I hope that this will prove useful to all readers.
What today people refer to as “imposter syndrome” was originally identified as the “imposter phenomenon.” Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that, in spite of achieving significant career and educational gains previously withheld from women, many high-achieving women remain “painfully convinced that they are phonies,”in spite of objective markers of career advancement in the form of job promotions, acceptance to prestigious universities, etc. In everyday terms, if you ever met someone that you perceive as highly successful and hear from them that they are constantly worried that they will be “found out” as a fraud, you are hearing the imposter phenomenon in action.
In the original research, Clance and Imes used their background in psychotherapy to demonstrate how one can intervene with imposter syndrome by helping a “client…become aware of the superstitious, magical aspects of her imposter belief.”The imposter phenomenon is not “rational” and cannot be overcome simply by pointing out data to the contrary, and almost functions like negative confirmation bias. The only thing a person can see is evidence confirming that they are an imposter; well-deserved accolades do not enter the picture.
But here’s where the story gets really interesting.
In 2021, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” arguing that while the term imposter syndrome was utilized in a therapeutic context to help patients address feeling like a fraud, the authors did not explore “why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women.”Last month, Leslie Jamison of The New Yorker wrote a powerful piece questioning some of the assumptions behind imposter syndrome, interviewing Clance and Imes and learning about their own frustrations with how the concept has been used, particularly in terms of calling this a “syndrome” instead of a “phenomenon”:
“Every time Imes hears the phrase “impostor syndrome,” she told me, it lodges in her gut. It’s technically incorrect, and conceptually misleading. As Clance explained, the phenomenon is “an experience rather than a pathology,” and their aim was always to normalize this experience rather than to pathologize it. Their concept was never meant to be a solution for inequality and prejudice in the workplace—a task for which it would necessarily prove insufficient.”
The imposter phenomenon is an inner experience; it is not a disease, and implying that it is like one implies that someone needs to be “cured,” doing more violence to an inner narrative already damaged by societal inequities. This narrative experience is what led Clance and Ames to their original discovery, and it remains important to consider even if the concept has been misused in the public domain as it became ubiquitous.
For my male-identified readers, I implore each of you to remember that just because you read something about women’s leadership does not mean you have even a small idea of what it actually feels like to experience leadership as a woman. I’ve made this many times before, and while my bookshelf includes fantastic books by Liz Plank, Kate Manne, Carol Gilligan, and Nel Noddings (my personal favorite), becoming better informed does not mean that I truly understand.
But with that caveat in mind, oftentimes continuous education is the best option I have to get an idea of what someone else different than me might experience that I cannot understand. The knowledge I will possess is no substitute for the actual experience, but it’s also invaluable for me to slow down and ask myself what frames of reference I might miss.
Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead is an excellent introduction for men who would like to better understand the dynamics discussed above (and for female-identified readers, I will leave it to you to decide whether or not it is helpful for you.)
Returning to the imposter phenomenon, Mohr’s readable and practical book reminds leaders that “you don’t have to win the argument with your inner critic; you have to step away from the conversation.”Mohr’s analysis seems to reflect the original intentions of Clance and Ames, helping someone think about understanding their inner experience and when the still, small, voice continues to harm it.
Which Voice Will Win? The One You Feed
Why Does A.I. Lie? Look in the Mirror: Why does Chat GPT lie all of the time? Because we lie all of the time. Read more from The New York Times.
We’ve Always Been Distracted: Today, the conventional wisdom is that technology is the major barrier to productivity and focus, but is that really true? Aeon has an awesome piece on how every major technological shift was accompanied by concerns that this new technology was “destroying” our brains.
Permission Slip Culture is Hurting America: A few years ago, a friend of mine who is an economist taught me about “rent-seeking behavior,” when people build wealth by controlling a marketplace instead of creating new wealth; here’s a new piece on it that I found insightful.
“Doing the Right Thing” vs. “Doing Things Right”: Nonprofit AF continues to be one of the most interesting newsletters in the nonprofit world. I loved this recent piece by founder Vu Le.
A Little Bit of Narcissism is Normal: This past year, I spent a lot of time reading about gaslighting, and how it relates to narcissistic leadership. This is a helpful introduction from The Conversation.
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009), 51.
To see the original report upon which Gawande bases his formulation, see Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman, “Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like?,” Discussion Paper No. 8 (Commission on the Future of Healthcare in Canada, 2002).
Pauline Clance & Suzanne Imes, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” in Psychotherapy Theory, Research, and Practice, Volume 15, Number 3 (Fall 1978), 4.
Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” Harvard Business Review, 11 February 2021.
Leslie Jamison, “Why Everyone Feels Like They’re Faking It,” The New Yorker, 6 February 2023.
Tara Mohr, “Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead” (New York: Avery, 2014), 21.