‘That little prick in your head…’

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you…once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve Jobs


Unless blessed with Trumpian levels of self confidence, everyone in business will have felt it at some stage.

It usually crops up early in your career.

That feeling of awkwardness when you’re making a point in a room full of experienced peers and superiors, hoping that it will land. The anxiety and feeling of unease when you’re about to present to a room full of smart people. The experience of being out of your depth, swimming in deep water when you’re given a difficult, mission critical task.

As an anxious person by nature, for years I would literally come out in a sweat at some of these moments, face turning red and mouth turning dry.

Despite the fact that I knew objectively and logically that I belonged at this level, that I was good at my job and could add value to meetings, presentations and projects, there was always that gnawing feeling in the back of the head.

‘You’re not good enough for this.’

‘You’re going to be found out Shane.’

‘Nobody is going to listen to you anyway, might as well keep the mouth shut’.

I thought it was only me that suffered from this lack of confidence and feeling of inadequacy at certain points in my career.

Until I started to realise that everyone else in the room was also feeling, or at least had felt that exact same thing at some point.

Then I learned that this thing had a name – ‘imposter syndrome’.

Fraud Police

It was coined as a term by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

And even more enlightening, I started hearing incredible, experienced, world class people at the top of their game talk about similar feelings.

I came across a commencement speech from the acclaimed author Neil Gaiman where he speaks about having the exact same problem – a feeling that you’re about to be found out at any moment, and you’ve no right to be where you are. He calls it ‘the fraud police’.

(Go to about seven minutes into this video)


Many doubts

Retired sportspeople seem to be the most willing to speak about ‘imposter syndrome’. I’ve heard a similar trope from countless rugby, football and GAA stars. Pep Guardiola, a man who has won almost everything there is to win in the world of football, claims he’s a constant sufferer.

An analytical over thinker, Guardiola says in his book that “I know you won’t believe me and that people will think it’s false modesty but it’s honestly what I believe. I have so many doubts, I worry about everything and am secure about nothing.”

Even the great Brian O’Driscoll has spoken about his feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence when stepping up a level in his career.

It impacts objectively successful people from all walks of life, from Maya Angelou to Seth Godin to Tim Ferriss. Feelings of fraud seem to drive some of the best people on.

Pearls of wisdom

I heard a great description of the scourge of imposter syndrome on a podcast recently. Former footballer Richie Sadlier has a new show with Second Captains called ‘The Player’s Chair’, and judging by the first few interviews, he has also found an interview style that gets brilliant guests to let down their guard and verbalise their inner thoughts.

The conversation with former Clare boss Anthony Daly was at once truly vulnerable, but also incredibly empowering. Daly touches in his own West of Ireland way on topics like anxiety, stress, bereavement and family life. Without even knowing it, he imparts some incredible pearls of wisdom.

One of the best passages has Daly and Sadlier speaking about the scourge of imposter syndrome. Here are a few quotes.

Daly: ‘I would’ve gone through periods where I struggled with my own confidence. I would’ve suffered with anxiety.’

Daly: ‘Your subconscious is constantly undermining you, asking yourself what are you doing here? What right have you to be here? It keeps backbiting at you.’

Sadlier: ‘That inner voice you’re talking about that questions and undermines you all the time, I was burdened with the same thing. It’s like as if there’s a voice inside you telling you you’re a complete imposter, that I don’t belong here and I’m going to get found out soon. It’s like the fella on a train journey without a ticket, you’re enjoying the journey, but all the time there’s some little prick in your head saying that you’re going to get a tap on your shoulder from some fella who’ll say ‘Richie son, the run’s over, you don’t belong here’. I was as motivated as much to shut him up as anything else’

Daly: ‘Yeah, the monkey on my shoulder I call him. I try to beat it back with positivity, but it’s a constant battle’. 

A beautiful description of the phenomenon and anyone who has felt it will understand what the two guys mean.

Dunning Kruger

It strikes me that introspective people who overanalyse (I’m certainly one of those) tend to suffer from this more than others.

Imposter syndrome is closely related to the ‘Dunning Kruger‘ effect,  the irony that unintelligent people are often overconfident and overestimate their ability, while brilliant people (I’m certainly not calling myself one of those!) often underestimate themselves and put themselves down.

The things that get you to the top – drive to always be better and a strategic brain that overthinks about small details, can actually be the things that make it difficult for you.

Irish society has come a long way when it comes to talking about mental health, and we’re more aware than ever that talking is important and depression is a serious illness that can be treated. Guys like Bressie, Alan O’Mara and Colm O’Gorman have done brilliant work in unravelling the taboo around male depression.

I believe there’s also a wider job that needs to be done around latent, more difficult to define problems that Irish people suffer from around self confidence (not arrogance), self worth, anxiety and living with our own thoughts. These might not be life threatening problems and illnesses in the same way that serious depression is, but they do also impact many people’s quality of life.

I wish someone had told me about imposter syndrome when I was younger, told me that we all have feelings of inadequacy, but that doesn’t mean you’re inadequate.

Now, through experience, learning about imposter syndrome and how others suffer, I see these feelings as a positive. I’ve turned my perception around, because anyone that’s pushing themselves and trying to better themselves, if they’re honest, will always have that little voice in the back of the head. It just goes with the territory. I now know that under control, it can actually be a healthy thing, a motivator that can spur you on and shows that you care about what you’re doing.

Only a small proportion of people, often supreme narcissists like Trump, will have supreme self confidence in all scenarios.

Sure, some of the time the voice is right, some of the time you are out of your depth and you shouldn’t be in that position. But then again, we only learn outside our comfort zone, not from playing it safe.

It’s about learning to quieten it and knowing when not to listen to the little prick in your head, the monkey on your shoulder.

We are what we think, and if we allow the strange power of the mind to continuously create doubt and ultimately self sabotage itself, we’ll never accomplish anything.



Further Reading:

Afraid of being found out?
Tools Of Titans
Learnings from the best football coach in the world
Learning to deal with imposter syndrome



Influencers and the paradox of self decleration

Maybe it’s the filter bubbles that I operate within on social media, but it strikes me that there’s a growing feeling that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ when it comes to ‘influencer’ marketing. From the Pepsi clusterfuck to brilliant articles like this and this, it feels like the bubble is about to pop.

That’s unfortunate, because the theory behind this approach is pretty sound. In a time when consumer cynicism/skepticism is incredibly high and attention is hard to come by. Using a credible, independent, trusted third party to verify your brand should be a positive step.

But, as with many other new trends with a shred of actual substance behind them, brands and influencers have combined to extract all the authenticity and credibility out of the market.

Without wanting to add to the chorus of naysayers, I’d like to propose a new law/heuristic/rule of thumb that we need to start applying to influencer marketing (and indeed other areas of marketing and business where hubris and bullshit reigns.)

It’s called ‘the paradox of self deceleration‘. (Catchy eh? Someone else can surely come up with a better title!)

It goes like this:

If you call yourself an ‘influencer’, ‘thought leader’ or an ‘entrepreneur’ on the internet, it’s very likely that you’re not one.

Self praise is no praise. Amongst all the issues with influencer marketing, one is the mislabelling of influencers by themselves. Having an Instagram account with a few million followers doesn’t make you an influencer, no matter how many times you use that hashtag. The irony is that really influential people don’t need to label themselves. They just are influential.

Similarly, just having a blog doesn’t make you a thought leader, or having a business idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. These are things that because of what you do, just declaring it yourself doesn’t make it a reality.

An old boss of mind Gary Brown wrote a brilliantly contrarian piece a few years ago about the cult of entrepreneurship and the bullshit that surrounds Irish startupland and made some brilliant points:

“The best way to be an entrepreneur is to go and start a business, call it a business, create a few jobs, and let someone else call you that. Self-proclaimed titles are very dangerous.”

It all reminds me a bit of the clip from The Office when Michael DECLARES BANKRUPTCY and expects it to actually mean something!



It strikes me that far too often people are happy enough to label themselves something but not put in the hard work to actually back the label up with credibility.

It doesn’t work like that.

Don’t claim you are, show you are. Because one thing’s for sure, if there’s no substance behind a claim, eventually, you’ll be found out.

Thermodynamic thinking – Learnings from Musk, Munger and Boyd…

Musk Munger

Most of the smart people I’ve come across have one thing in common.

It’s not when they get up, what they eat for breakfast or how little time they spend on social media.

It’s that they read widely. They devour books, articles, journals and anything they can get their hands on.

But it’s not just that they read a lot.

It’s the type of reading too.

From Musk to Munger, the smartest people seek obscure ways of thinking, outside knowledge and dissenting opinions. They try to learn widely from other areas and they look for inspiration from outside their immediate circle. This is the easiest way to avoid the dogma of specialisation.

It also lends itself to ‘thermodynamic thinking’.


John Boyd is described by some as the greatest military strategist in history that no one knows. He began his military career as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, but he slowly transformed himself into one of the greatest philosopher-warriors to ever live.

Boyd came up with an approach that revolutionised the military, and has been applied to numerous other areas (including most notably to business) since – the OODA Loop.

It’s a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions and a guide to thriving in a volatile and highly competitive economy.

Underpinning the whole theory is a fairly simple line of thinking – since we all live in a world of ambiguity and fluidity, any logical model of reality that we hold is incomplete (and possibly incorrect) so must be continuously refined/adapted in the face of new observations. Basically, the world is fluid, so our strongly held opinions and positions need to be fluid too.

Boyd used the second law of thermodynamics to explain why.

According to the law…

The total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time.

How does that apply to how we think and learn? It’s simple really – if our mind is a closed, isolated system, if we’re not open and constantly seeking out new information, dissenting ideas and new approaches from other areas of knowledge, our knowledge doesn’t expand.

We become stuck.

We entropy.

Think of an isolated Amazonian tribe. They have their way of life. And if they never contact the outside world, thus never learn about other ways to hunt, new things to eat or how to create fire or harness electricity, they’ll continue to do what they’ve always done.

Or think of an entrenched company like Kodak, whose blindspots to attack from outside its immediate realm of interest and lack of lateral thinking ensured that it almost imploded.

According to Boyd…

“By observing and taking into account new information about our changing environment, our minds become an open system rather than a closed one, and we are able to gain the knowledge and understanding that’s crucial in forming new mental models”.

There’s some overlap here with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach. The worst thing we can do is become dogmatic and entrenched in our views.

Open mindedness is vital to growth.

The hammer/nail problem

Charlie Munger agrees. According of the best known and richest investors in history, narrow-mindedness is holding us back.

“Someone who is really smart but has devoted all of their time to being an expert in a narrow area may be dangerous to themselves and others. Examples of this include macroeconomists who study the economy but are disastrous when investing their own portfolios and marketing experts who may think that most all business problems can be solved through marketing.”

As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Of course, this is all becoming more difficult in the era of social media. Confirmation bias, or the habit of collecting information that conforms to your existing opinion, is built into social networks. We surround ourselves with a cozy filter bubble of our own creation.

But, as Ryan Holiday says, there’s opportunity in reading and learning outside your comfort zone. If you read the same things and think like everyone else in your industry, then you should expect the same average results as everyone else.

However, if you’re always looking for obscure new models, lateral approaches and different ways to solve problems, then that creates an unfair advantage.

Learnings transfer refers to taking what we learn in one context and applying it to another. It means taking previously unconnected ideas and connecting them to create unique thoughts and insights.

Sounds like like a great basis for creativity, innovation and smart business ideas right?

Musk and combinational intelligence

Opportunities abound for those who can develop connections across disciplines. Elon Musk is an excellent example. According to the man himself, he spent his youth reading widely and learning the foundational principles of a variety of areas like war, science and business.

Musk is a master at combinational intelligence. He’s an expert-generalist who studies widely in many different fields, understands the deeper principles that connect those fields, and then applies the principles to his core specialty.

HIs successes with PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX are a result of this incredibly unique mind.

It makes sense doesn’t it?

The more people and fields you can pull from, the greater the likelihood you’ll come up with a new approach to an old problem. People like Faris Yakob, Adam Grant and Mark Earls have made the strong case that good ideas are merely new combinations of old ideas, existing ways of thinking twisted and shaped in different ways.

So the more old ideas you know about, the more unique the combinations will be.

As we build our reservoir of knowledge by learning across disciplines instead of staying within our own silos, we leave ourselves open to thermodynamic thinking.

And in a modern world full of specialisation, that’s very powerful.


Further Reading:
OODA Loop – The Tao of Boyd
Munger and the pursuit of worldly wisdom
How Elon Musk learns faster and better than anyone else…
The rise of the expert generalist