Christophe Carsault was only 16 years old when he dropped out of high school in 1990. With no credentials, previous work experience, or references, finding a job was no easy task. He applied, worked, and got fired from several jobs.
Today, Carsault is the vice-president of sales marketing and education at Straumann Group, a company that specializes in dental equipment. When he landed this position in 2010, he felt as if he wasn’t supposed to be there. He felt out of place.
“I always told [my wife] that they must be wrong,” said Carsault. “I thought they would come up to me and say they had made a terrible mistake.” The feeling that Carsault describes is known as “impostor syndrome.”
Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual believes they’ve succeeded because of luck rather than their talents or qualifications. People who suffer from it doubt their skills and have a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud—despite evidence of their competence.
One Saturday night, while walking around the streets of Paris, Carsault stumbled upon La Coupoles, a famous French restaurant. “The restaurant was packed, and a waiter went outside to smoke a cigarette,” recalls Carsault.
He spoke with the waiter for a few minutes. Eventually, Carsault mentioned that he was looking for a job. The waiter gave him the contact information of Mr. Sacaze, who was the manager of La Coupoles at the time. “I was never embarrassed to ask for what I wanted,” shared Carsault.
Two days later, Carsault sat down with Sacaze for an interview. Sacaze shook his head and told Carsault he was too young to work. Additionally, he mentioned that the restaurant was too luxurious to hire high school dropouts. Around 1,400 guests occupied the tables of the restaurant every night. But Carsault didn’t take no for an answer.
“I told him I would work for free for a month,” continued Carsault. The conditions were simple: if he wasn’t doing a proper job, they would fire him. If he satisfied all the requirements, he would get hired. Sacaze agreed.
Carsault worked 12-hour shifts at La Coupoles for six weeks in a row. He had no days off. He was afraid he would disappoint Sacaze and lose the job. His feet blistered. And eventually, putting on shoes became a challenge.
Jean-Paul Bucher, the owner of the restaurant, heard about Carsault’s efforts and officially hired him as a waiter. Carsault spent five years working there. He eventually landed a manager position and led his own team.
However, things changed once he met Chrystele, the love of his life. At the age of 23, they wanted to start a family. Carsault’s long hours at La Coupoles made that an impossible task. A group of businessmen who always came for lunch at the restaurant grew fond of Carsault. They offered him a position to sell office supplies.
“I didn’t know if they were serious, but I figured I had nothing to lose,” added Carsault. The new job sparked Carsault’s passion for sales.
Carsault moved from sales job to sales job over the years. He sold office supplies, home renovation equipment, and houses. He learned the ins and outs of sales—how to behave with customers, how to develop pitches, and how to listen. Through the years, his networks and passion for sales grew stronger.
In 1998, he landed his first corporate job at CWS, a logistics and supply chain company, after one of his colleagues suggested he apply. In the span of 12 years, he climbed up the corporate ladder and arrived at his position at the Straumann Group.
“I always doubted myself because I never had a real education. Everything I understood, I understood it by myself,” explained Carsault. “When I come up with an idea, I test it with my team, my customers, and my colleagues. I have to be sure that it’s relevant and that it won’t lead to some catastrophe.”
Nearly 70 per cent of the population suffers from impostor syndrome, according to a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science. Impostor syndrome was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. At first, they believed the syndrome only affected women. Years later, they conducted and published a follow-up study that found the phenomenon affected all genders.
In 2011, Dr. Valerie Young, an impostor syndrome expert, published a book called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. In the book, she discusses specific groups that are more susceptible to impostor syndrome: perfectionists, experts, natural geniuses, soloists, and supermen or superwomen.
“Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves. If they don’t meet them, they feel like failures. “Experts” feel the need to know everything before they start a project or task, otherwise they avoid them. “Natural geniuses” must have ideas come to them easily. When something is too hard, they doubt themselves. “Soloists” like to accomplish tasks on their own. If they ask for help, they feel like a failure. “Supermen” or “superwomen” work long hours and never take days off to prove they work harder than others.
While those groups tend to suffer more from impostor syndrome, they’re not the only ones. New environments—whether in the workplace, academia, or in social settings—can trigger the syndrome in anyone. When we enter new spaces, we have the inherent tendency to compare ourselves to others.
“You’re the newbie, and you’re trying to become like the other people,” said Ulrich Schimmack, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His research contributes to the scientific understanding of happiness.
Professor Schimmack states that there is nothing wrong with social comparison as long as it is for personal benefit. The social comparison allows us to determine how we’re doing relative to others around us. However, the problem is that we often compare ourselves to people who are doing better than us. We feel inferior to them. We doubt our skills. We wonder where we belong within that circumstance.
“To learn from the best is not wrong. To compare yourself with the best is wrong,” explained Schimmack. “[Life] is not about being the best. It’s about being able to do what you like to do in a meaningful way.”
Dr. Young came up with 10 steps people can take to overcome impostor syndrome. The main one: break the silence. Simply acknowledging that you have these feelings and sharing them with others can be freeing.
“So much of what we do is present perfect images of our lives,” says Schimmack. “If you have a conversation where everybody opens up, you see that we’re all just human, we all have problems, and we’re all trying to survive in a world that is competitive.”
Reframing your thoughts is another important solution, according to Young. As time passes, we get used to new environments. We are reinforced with constructive feedback. In turn, this allows us to recognize our strengths and weaknesses. Learning to value such feedback can help us feel more safe and secure.
“The impostor syndrome is big because you’re hiding yourself,” concluded Carsault. “I know it’s not easy [but] if you want to get over it, you have to accept it. You need to know yourself—what you do well and what you don’t do well.”