Why I Hate Accomplishment Lists


Anyone who has ever started a small business knows how painfully slow success can be.

It’s easy to get discouraged.

That’s why, in the mid-90s, I started to document small wins.

Year 1

  • Interviewed by my local newspaper
  • Applied to teach at adult learning center
  • Ran one public workshop

Year 2

  • Interviewed by The Boston Globe
  • Profiled in UMass alum magazine
  • Sent press releases to 12 newspapers
  • Taught two adult learning center classes
  • Took HTML class
  • Bought website domain

The process reminded me that although I was yet to be profitable (understatement), I was progressing.

So, I don’t hate achievement lists per se.

I object to how they’re pitched as a solution to impostor syndrome.

I get it. 

Your list is supposed to be a tangible reminder of how well you’ve done in the past and, therefore, how well you can reasonably expect to do in the future.

I also understand the recommendation to maintain an ongoing success file to review when impostor feelings strike.

A success file can be handy, especially for students, early-career individuals, and new small business owners whose achievement journey is just beginning.

And if you’ve ever had to update your resume or CV, write an annual self-appraisal, or write your professional bio, a success file is a helpful memory jog.

However, I’ve not found these techniques to have lasting value as a solution to impostor syndrome.

For one, the problem for people with impostor syndrome isn’t that they forgot they earned top grades, landed the big account, or won a Grammy.

The problem is the tendency to see their success as mainly due to external factors like luck or timing, the supposed simplicity of the task, or personality (as if likability wasn’t a valid skill set!) 

Listing past accomplishments will do little to counter the belief that “If I can do it, anyone can.

Or thinking, “Sure, they said I did a great job; but that’s just because they like me.”

Besides, what if you did accidentally stumble into a situation that was foundational to your ultimate success?

Or what if you landed your position because you did know someone on the inside or were a so-called legacy admission into an elite university?

The solution isn’t writing down your achievements. 

The solution is for organizations, more broadly, and therapists and coaches specifically, to instill an individual and collective awareness that rather than be an excuse for our success, things like luck, timing, connections, and personality play a legitimate role in success. 

What you do with your great fortune, timing, connections, or personality is what counts.

Second, the problem is less that people with impostor feelings don’t recognize their wins.

It’s the lop-sided preoccupation with their actual and perceived “failures.”

For example, it’s unlikely that reflecting on past accomplishments would help the doctoral student who took the fact that he’d failed his qualifying exam at a previous institution as proof he was a fraud. 

Nor would it help the NASA engineer who, in her words, was “depressed for weeks” following a performance review in which her manager cited five areas where she’d excelled along with one remarkably minor recommendation for improvement, which she experienced as “criticism.”

In other words, attempts to counter impostor syndrome by emphasizing strengths alone will not help when confronted with inevitable and equally valid evidence of failure and deficits.

Unfortunately, many managers and coaches rely on the “pep talk” approach to impostor syndrome.

Taking stock of your accomplishments can be helpful.

However, don’t expect it to resolve your – or your employee’s or clients’ – impostor syndrome.


VALERIE YOUNG is a global thought leader on impostor syndrome and co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute. In 1983 she designed the first training intervention to impostor syndrome and has since delivered her Rethinking Impostor Syndrome™ program to over half a million people around the world at such diverse organizations as Pfizer, Google, JP Morgan, NASA, and the National Cancer Institute and at over 100 universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Oxford.

Valerie earned her doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was the founding coordinator of the Social Justice Education program, a forerunner to today’s DE&I training. Although her early research focused on professional women—over half of whom were women of color—much of the original findings have proven applicable to anyone with impostor feelings. Her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: And Men, Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It has been reprinted in six languages.

Click here now to learn how you can bring Valerie in to speak at your organization.

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