Thinking Errors 2: Moving the goalposts

A common way to discount our achievements is to move the bar higher or change the goalposts. At the start of a project, we tell ourselves that if we could just do a good job we’d be happy. But when we do a good job we say, “But I could have done so much better”.



Before the exam we say, “If I just pass I’ll really happy”.

But when we do pass we aren’t happy. Instead we say, “If I was any good I’d have got a credit, or a distinction.”

Some examples are:

  • I gave a good talk but spent way too long preparing. I won’t be able to go on like this.
  • I did make the sale but it was only to a small customer. I wouldn’t be able to pull it off with our major customers.
  • I did OK in the interview but I was anxious when I was answering questions.

Groucho Marx had a famous line that captures how we can change the goalposts and make sure we can never win.

I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that had me as a member.

Groucho Marx, (1890-1977), US comedian

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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Thinking errors 1: Black or white thinking

Most of us like to see ourselves as logical, rational people. We imagine that we look at the facts and draw sensible conclusions. But the reality is often different.

While a lot of the time you might think logically most of us have occasional ways of thinking that are not accurate.

These are called thinking errors (cognitive inaccuracies) and they can lead us to ignore evidence or facts and come to less sensible conclusions.

Black or white thinking

Black or white thinking (or all or nothing thinking) is where you see things as either 100% perfect or completely worthless. Either I’m perfect or I’m useless.

Let’s say you’re working on a project. It goes really well, but it took a bit longer than planned, one customer made a minor suggestion for improvement, or you could see how it could have been improved.

For the black and white thinker, these minor points completely undermine the project. It wasn’t perfect so it must go in the failure basket.

If you’ve given a presentation to 100 people and 99 are happy and one person looks bored or unhappy, you see it as a failure. Because if you were really good, the entire audience would be happy.

If you get 99% in a test it should have been 100%. You didn’t get it 100% right, it wasn’t perfect, therefore you’re a fraud. The missing 1% is your Achilles heel.

Shades of grey
The reality is that the world is rarely black or white. They are almost always shades of grey. Things are rarely completely perfect or 100% awful. So if you find yourself doing some black and white thinking, start looking for the shades of grey.


In fact, there’s a whole rainbow of colours out there.





Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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Real imposters

There are people who really are imposters. People who consciously pretend that they are something that they are not. Conmen, swindlers, people who claim qualifications or experience they do not have.

The sign language expert who wasn’t

JantieIn 2013, at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Thamsanqa Jantjie stood beside Barack Obama and many of the world leaders and pretended to be translating their speeches. In reality, he was just waving his arms around and anyone who could understand sign language knew that he had no idea what he was doing


The man who sold the Eiffel Tower, twice

Eiffel2In 1925, a conman called Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower to a scrap metal dealer called Andre Poisson. At the time there were reports in the newspapers about the exorbitant costs of maintaining the tower and Lustig decided to take advantage of this. He passed himself off as a government official and invited six scrap metal dealers to bid for the tower. He selected one, Andre Poisson, took the money and made his getaway.

Poisson didn’t report the scam because he was too embarrassed. Having got away with it once, Lustig decided to sell the Eiffel Tower a second time. He selected another six scrap metal dealers but this time one of them reported him to the police.

The pop singers who didn’t

milliIn 1990 the pop duo Milli Vanilli (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus) won a Grammy Award for best new artists. However, later that year, during a live performance in Connecticut a tape recorder jammed and began to skip, and the truth came out. They were lip-synching. But there was more to it than that. In fact, Morvan and Pilatus hadn’t sung on any of their records. The vocals were by other artists.

The opening ceremony singer

lin-yang-460_789580cAt the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a nine year old girl, Lin Miaoke, (on the left) impressed the world with her cuteness and beautiful singing voice. However, it turned out the voice we heard wasn’t hers. The real singer was a seven year old girl, Yang Peiyi, (on the right) but the officials decided that her crooked teeth meant she wasn’t pretty enough for the opening ceremony.


There are numerous other examples of frauds, spies, stock market schemers, criminals, liars. These are real imposters. They are claiming something that is not true.

Real imposter

A real imposter is a person who pretends or claims to be able to do something or have specific abilities despite not having the skills, background, or experience.

Imposter Syndrome

The imposter syndrome is completely different. The crucial thing about the imposter syndrome and imposter feelings is that there is clear cut evidence that you are not an imposter. You have the feeling that you are an imposter but there is evidence that you are not. That’s what makes it unique and so very interesting.

So are you an imposter?

Well it’s pretty easy to work out. Have you been lying? Have you fabricated your qualifications? What is the evidence? If you really did earn your achievements, then you are not an imposter.

But even though you are not an imposter you can still feel like one. Do you?

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.
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Do I dare?

One of my favourite poems is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. Here’s an extract:










These lines so accurately describe doubt. How in just one minute we decide something, then revise our decision and then reverse the whole thing again.

Should I apply for that job?

Should I ask that girl for a date?

Should I apply for that further education course?









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The job hunter

I’ve coached many people who have stunted their careers because of an overdeveloped imposter syndrome.

wanted“I’ve reached the top of my level and would like to get a higher level job. People are encouraging me to apply for jobs. I saw a position advertised recently that looked good and that I’m probably qualified for but I wonder should I apply. Maybe people will think I’m above myself. They’ll think I have unrealistic opinions about myself. Who do I think I am? Maybe it’s better to wait a bit longer; to get more experience or more qualifications, because there is one aspect of the selection criteria that I’m a bit weak on.”

Kym, job hunter

These are people who have the ability to work at a higher level but cannot bring themselves to apply. And so they talk themselves out of applying. They say things like:

I think someone else is already lined up for that job.

If I do get the job I wonder will I be able to do it well? They’re going to expect me to be able to do all these things, to solve all the problems and perform at a really high level. I know my limitations.

It’s really busy here right now so I don’t think I have time to put together a really good application.

And even if they do apply and get the job the feelings remain. And so they can’t enjoy their success. In fact, success can make their imposter feelings worse because now the expectations are higher.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.


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Beginnings and transitions

Beginnings and transitions are a very common time to experience imposter feelings. It might be starting a new job or a new project, teaching a new topic, or learning a new skill. Naturally, at the start of any new project or job, there is a lot to learn.

“Entering general practice training as a junior registrar was a completely different story. With just you, the patient, and a supervising specialist GP watching your progress, you are completely exposed. And this, coupled with the fact that junior registrars are going to make mistakes, made for a very humbling experience. I couldn’t count the number of times I reached the conclusion that being a doctor was just not for me. I regularly thought about my “fallback” options, going back to research, perhaps teaching, or maybe stacking shelves at the supermarket.”

Dean, experienced GP

In most cases you don’t know everything about the new task. This lack of knowledge can lead to doubts and worries.

I’ll come across as stupid.

I’ll keep making silly mistakes.

I’ll ask really dumb questions.

They’ll think I’m an idiot.

It can be particularly hard when you are taking over a job from someone else, especially if they did a good job. You might be thinking “The previous person was so well liked and respected and knew all the networks. I don’t know anybody and don’t know who to go to when I need a favour.”

cvperfectionThese doubts can be especially strong when you start a new job because of course at the interview you told the panel how good you were, how well you handle challenges, how you are a self-starter and a quick learner.

So now they are going to expect great things from you. And here you are, the quick learner, asking really thick questions.

When you look at this logically it doesn’t make sense. It’s unrealistic to expect that you should be an expert from day one – this doesn’t allow for learning, or for the need to develop new skills. But what’s logic got to do with it? You feel like a fraud so it must be true. And the doubts can become self-fulfilling. If you don’t ask those stupid questions then you don’t get the answers and so you might make those silly mistakes.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.


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We spend a lot of time comparing ourselves with others but despite that we’re often not very good at it. For example, here are three comparisons that people regularly make.

Apples and oranges

A new PhD student compares their first draft of a piece of writing with an article in a top journal written by three eminent professors.

A person who starts a new job compares their performance with someone who has been doing it for 20 years.

A person decides to take up painting and compares their first effort with the Mona Lisa.

Obviously, if you compare yourself to leaders in the field, to the superstars, or just to people who have much more experience than you, then you are going to come off badly.

Myopia – Short-sightedness

We tend to look just at our immediate group for comparisons.


The blue circle on the left seems quite big when it is surrounded by smaller white ones. Yet the same circle seems small when surrounded by those bigger ones on the right. Both blue circles are the same but the context makes one look bigger or smaller.

So if you want to look clever, hang around with stupid people.

If you want to look fit, hang around with unfit people.

And of course the reverse also happens. Let’s say a student has been top of their class in high school. They feel really intelligent. They go to university and now they are surrounded by lots of clever people. They don’t feel so bright any more. And then they continue hanging around with ever-more clever people. People who have a Masters degree or a PhD. They haven’t got more stupid – it just feels that way because the comparison group is smarter.

Insides and outsides

We’re very selective in what we compare. We tend to compare the insides of ourselves with the outsides of others. Our insides e.g. our worries and doubts, our imposter feelings, the slight slip-ups that nobody but us notices, are compared with the competent exterior that others portray, their effortless successes and their obvious self-confidence.

If you want to experience this, just read someone’s curriculum vitae. It reads like a series of inevitable successes. All the awards they’ve received, the important roles they’ve performed and the glowing references – without ever a hint of a setback or failure. And then we look at our own experiences. Jobs we didn’t get. Projects that didn’t turn out well. Qualifications we don’t have.

In April 2016, Johannes Haushofer, an Assistant Professor at Princeton University published his CV of failures to highlight the distorted view we get when reading other people’s CVs.

Social media tends to amplify this. When we look at other people’s profiles all we see are the highlights, what seems like a series of peak experiences. While in our own lives we are well aware of the many valleys. So it looks like everyone else is having a great time while we are just wasting time.

So three actions

  1. Compare apples with apples
  2. Get a ruler and measure those blue circles. Use an objective standard.
  3. Stop comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.
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The hidden benefit of procrastination

We all procrastinate occasionally (well, quite often actually) – we put off writing the assignment, we avoid making that difficult phone call, we do the housework instead of paying the bills.thelastminute That’s pretty normal. But some people use it as a self-sabotaging strategy. Here’s how it works. You might have to do a test in a month’s time. It’s a bit scary. You might fail. They will find out that you don’t really know your stuff. So you put off preparing for the test.

You find other more important things to do like rename all the folders on your computer, clean out your wardrobe, visit the in-laws, even a dentist’s appointment looks good. You leave your preparation to the very last minute. Then, because your anxiety is now really high you cram all night before the test.

But the procrastination has given you your alibi. If you don’t do well you can say “Well what can you expect. I only started on it last night. If I had more time I would have done better”. And if you do well then you feel good because you can say “Look at that. Even though I only had a short time I still did well.” You win either way.

minilastminuteIf you had started preparing a month ago and worked hard and then you didn’t do well – that would be really bad. Clearly then you must be a fraud. You’ve given your best effort and it wasn’t enough. Game over. And so procrastination allows you to protect yourself from being exposed. You now have a valid excuse. An alibi.


Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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Perfectionism leading to procrastination

SingThis is where you set high standards for yourself. But not just high standards – stratospheric standards. The presentation can’t be just good. It has to be the best presentation in the conference. Or that novel you’re planning to write – you don’t want to write any old rubbish. This is your chance to write the next Harry Potter.

So since you don’t have much time right now, or don’t have the perfect idea or perfect opening sentence then there’s no point in starting. Let’s wait until you can do it properly. Until you can do it justice.

Which sounds plausible. Worthy even. And it would be OK if you did get on and do it but often the right time never comes, the killer opening sentence never materialises and so the novel remains a work of fiction – in your head.

But you have a good excuse. “I know I didn’t get it done. But I’m not procrastinating or avoiding. I just want it to be as good as it can be”.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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Prepare for mistakes

A danger time for imposter feelings is when something goes wrong. When you make a mistake. This is likely to send a shiver through your imposter body and stir up all the imposter fears. So it’s a good idea to have a routine to follow when you make a mistake. This could be:


The No-talent Police

1. Acknowledge it

Acknowledge that you have made a mistake. Force yourself to describe accurately what happened

2. Accept feeling uncomfortable

Accept that you will feel anxious and uncomfortable. And that this is normal, not nice but normal. Remind yourself that a mistake is not fatal. Unpleasant, yes, but it does not mean that you are stupid or incapable or a failure.

3. Scale it

Be objective about the scale of the mistake. Is it as bad as you think? What was the context? Could you have done anything about it? Does this mistake wipe out the positive parts of what you did? How significant will this be in a year’s time? It can be hard to be objective by yourself so perhaps you need a second opinion.

4. Impact

What are the consequences? How likely are the negative consequences?

“I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”
Attributed to Thomas Edison, (1847-1931), US inventor

5. Act

Then try to take some action rather than dwell on the worries. What can you do to rectify the mistake? What can you do to move on?

“Our greatest glory consists not,
in never falling,
but in rising every time we fall.”
Oliver Goldsmith, (1730-1774), Irish writer

“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”
Attributed to Thomas Watson, (1874-1956), former president of IBM


We all make mistakes. It’s not nice and you will probably feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. That’s normal. But a mistake does not mean you are a fraud or a failure. And if you have a strategy for dealing with mistakes you can keep your response in perspective.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome. Hugh Kearns, 2015.

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