I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century working primarily with women who feel like impostors, fakes, and frauds. In that time I’ve come to an important conclusion. If you want to truly put yourself on the fast track to feeling as bright and capable as you really are, then nothing, I do mean nothing, will get you there quicker than adjusting your beliefs about what it takes to be competent.

The Impostor Syndrome goes beyond lack of confidence. Everyone experiences bouts of self-doubt from time to time and especially when attempting something new. But for impostors self-doubt is chronic.

You can feel self-doubt without experiencing shame at performing poorly as impostor do. It’s also possible to doubt your abilities without believing that you ultimately succeeded because of some sleight of hand or that you are fooling others. A person could have normal jitters before, say getting up to give their first speech, do well, and then draw from this experience to feel more confident about the next time. The impostor doesn’t think this way. Because no matter how well you did or how loud the applause, you always think you could have done better or that you just had a “good audience” with no real bump in confidence.

Twenty years of well documented research by leading expert in motivation and personality psychology Carol Dweck and author of my new favorite book Mindset, confirms what I’ve been saying for years. Namely that for better or for worse, your perceptions of what it takes to be competent, has a powerful impact on how you measure yourself and therefore how you approach achievement itself. And if you feel like an intellectual fraud then there is an excellent chance that you have been operating from a definition of competence that is so grandiose that not even a certifiable genius could ever hope to attain. And it’s time to change that.

But before you can begin to create a new, attainable competence rulebook, you need to first uncover your current Competence M.O. or Competence Type. I’ve uncovered five. They are the Perfectionist, the Natural Genius, the Rugged Individualist, the Expert, and the Super Woman/Man/Student. If you asked someone from each of these Competence Types to complete the sentence, “I’ll know that I’m competent when…” and “If I were really smart…” they would approach it from a somewhat different angle.

  • The Perfectionist’s primary focus is on “how” something is done. This includes how the work is conducted and how it turns out.
  • The Rugged Individualist cares mostly about “who” completes the task. To make it on the achievement list, it has to be them.
  • The Expert’s primary concern is on “what” they know or can do. Or more precisely, what they don’t know or can’t do.
  • The Natural Genius also cares about “how” and “when” accomplishments happen. But for them competence is measured in terms of ease and speed.
  • And the Superwoman/Super Student measures competence based on “how many” roles they can both juggle and excel in.

So what’s in your Impostor Rulebook? What internal rules do you use to measure your competence?

Valerie Young

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young, Ed.D. is an internationally-recognized expert on impostor syndrome and author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business/Random House) now available in five languages.Valerie has delivered her solution-oriented message to over 80,000 men and women at such diverse organizations as IBM, Merck, Boeing, Intel, Chrysler, Facebook, BP, Ernst & Young, McDonalds, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and many more and her career-related advice has been featured in major business and popular media on five continents.

6 Responses to “What’s in Your Competence Rule Book?”

  1. Pooneh

    First of all Merry Christmas, and wish you a great new year. Finding your book made my holiday in a way the best holiday ever. I finished reading it today. i could see myself almost in every page you have written. You have done a briliant job. Yes, we have been waiting for your book, thank you.
    As for the rule book, I found myself to assume the position of the 1) natural genius 2) expert and 3) superwoman. That is just because i had suffered from perfectionism and rugged one before and have kind of overcome them. I have been so devestated by the consequence and agony of my mindset recently that could not take it anymore. i was looking for a solution but didn’t even know what kind of solution it could be and then thought about “women in male dominated work place”, was looking on internet for some tips, one click after another got to your book, bought it at once and started reading.
    I was surprised how much someone else had known about my thoughts :), I seriously believe this was my savior, I know as you have mentioned, it is not a change over night, but considering i had never looked at my anxieties from this angle, and had no tools before and now I do, it will set me on different path, some kind of playful and exciting one. Looking forward to go back to office in one week and start enjoying my work and interactions and seeing everything in a different light. Thanks again!

    • Valerie Young

      Hi Pooneh,

      You’re so kind to take the time to write. I’m thrilled to know how much the book spoke to you and has helped you to change course.

      I’m curious what field you’re in and where? I ask because you say you were doing a search for women in a male dominated workplace.” So many of my corporate speaking engagements come at the request of women in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

      That’s not to say women in HR, marketing, customer service, social services, teaching, etc., don’t identify with the impostor syndrome because they very much do. Just that whenever you’re in a minority situation based on race or gender and where stereotypes reinforce the notion that you’re not quite as competent as those in the majority group, impostor feelings are more likely to set in.

      Thanks again Pooneh,

      I appreciate your help in spreading the word to other women — and men as well – who might benefit from the book.


      Valerie Young

  2. Valerie Young

    It sounds to me like you’re doing GREAT under tough conditions.

    You can’t control what other people think — only what you think of yourself.

    If the promotion furthers your career then take it. But if you prefer to stay in the technical work then you should do that.

    You are definitely no impostor!

    Hang in there.


    p.s. What country are you in?

  3. Lidewij

    Hi Valery, I’ve just found your website so I haven’t read the book yet, but reading through the site and particularly this blog was an incredible ‘aha-erlebnis’. I completed the sentence :”I’ll know that I’m competent when I…know everything there is to know about a relevant subject, when I’ve mastered every skill, when I’ll make no mistakes anymore,” clearly the Expert Competence Type. And then I realized: by nature I’m the opposite of an expert, I am a generalist. I love to learn about different subjects and to acquire different skills and combine them in a creative way in my work. But, at the same time I expect myself to be an Expert at all these different subjects and skills – flawless and ‘all-knowing’. And this creates enormous stress, I’m continuously anxious I will be exposed as a fraud and always feel I should know more, take another course, read another book…..a never ending story. My perfectionism is sometimes paralyzing. As a self-employed woman this really is an impediment: I’m shy to promote my business, have trouble with charging adequate fees, am doing work for free that I should be charging for, am spending far to much time on preparation, etc.
    So, true to my nature, I’m happy to bring something new into my life, which will be your book , and I am grateful in advance!
    Kind regards,
    the Netherlands.

    • Valerie Young

      That’s a really powerful Aha Lidewiji!

      I’m also self-employed and agree that it can be a huge and costly challenge. The good news is, the way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like one!

      Look forward to hearing how you enjoy the book and thanks for taking the time to write.

      Hope to get back to your beautiful country one day soon.




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