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Paul Newman and I – From "The Impostor Syndrome – How to Replace Self-Doubt with Self-Confidence"
I once saw Paul Newman in a TV interview say that he always had the fear that one day someone would push through the crowd of his admirers, grab him by the arm, and say, “It’s over. It was all a mistake. You are coming back to paint houses.”
I understood exactly what he meant. He was describing the underlying fear that your good fortune is going to end and/or that someone is going to discover that you are a fraud.
Psychologists call this “The Impostor Syndrome.”
I am not a psychologist nor do I play one in this book. This book is about my obstacles and personal experiences and the strategies I’ve used and developed to overcome the self-doubt I lived with for many years.
I thought that once I built a successful business and was receiving international acclaim for my work in the martial arts, the self-doubt would evaporate. Instead, my self-doubt returned with a new name, The Impostor Syndrome.
The Impostor Syndrome is the feeling of being a fraud. Regardless of what is going on around you, there is a nagging feeling people will find out that you are not as smart, good, talented, successful, or anything else positive, as they think you are. It’s as though you aren’t the person you appear to be to the rest of the world.
The dread that you are to be found out or exposed as being inadequate is always present. The resultant undercurrent of self-doubt makes it hard to strive for excellence because the more you draw attention to yourself; the more vulnerable you are to being unmasked.
Studies in the mid-1980s show that as much as 70% of successful people suffered from the Impostor Syndrome in varying degrees. It’s difficult to know exactly how many people have achieved less or never even tried to succeed due to the Impostor Syndrome.
You could call the Impostor Syndrome “Advanced Self-Doubt.” The Impostor Syndrome is prevalent in successful, high-achieving people. Most other people aren’t terribly concerned about being exposed because they live low-risk lives.
High-achievers risk on many different levels, and when that risk pays off and the self-image doesn’t match the rewards of the achievement, the Impostor Syndrome takes root.
We have often observed this in entertainers who work to get to the top and then, once they are there, destroy themselves with drugs and alcohol.
For me, a key realization regarding self-doubt and then later the Impostor Syndrome was that every successful person “fakes it until they make it.” No one has all the answers right out of the gate. But you have to get in the gate to get into the race.
One of my favorite programs is a reality show from the UK called “Faking It.” This show takes someone from one field or background and gives him or her 30 days to learn a new skill and convince experts in that field that they are legitimate.
For instance, they once gave a very conservative young woman, classically trained, a month to learn how to be lead singer for a hard rock band. A minister was given the same time to become a used-car salesman, and a chess champion was given the task of passing himself off as the coach of a rugby team, though he had never played the game or even enjoyed sports at all.
Regardless of the success of the participants in that show, you can understand why they would have self-doubts about their place and position. They fear they will be discovered as a fraud. Paul Newman and I had that same feeling but in real life instead of a “reality show.” Regardless of our individual levels of success, lingering self-doubt cast a gray cloud on our clear blue futures.
Faking It instantly recreated the symptoms of the Impostor Syndrome which include:
1. A guilty feeling you are getting away with something.
2. A feeling you’re going to be exposed as an intellectual fraud or fake at some point.
3. Inability to take credit for your success or even say, “Thank You” to praise.
Self-doubt has affected my thought patterns since I was a kid. Those thought patterns resulted in patterns of behavior, both good and bad, that defined my life. This book is about how I overcame extreme self-doubt and negative programming.
As you read keep in mind that all the strategies I share with you have worked for me. I’m sure they will work for you. Essentially, this book will help you to “train your brain.” That sounds simplistic, but most of us were never taught how to think; yet what is more important? To be sure, I’m still learning and making mistakes, but I’ve come a long way, and I’m sure I can help you accelerate your growth.
I know a lot has been written about self-confidence. Here is my perspective on self-confidence and self-doubt. Imagine self-confidence as a positive number. The more confidence you have the higher the number. Imagine self-doubt as a negative number. The more you have, the farther away you are in the opposite direction.
Here’s the good news. As your competence grows in any area, you move from the negative numbers of doubt into the positive numbers of confidence. Here’s the reality. Soon after high school or college most people stop trying to “improve their numbers.” That could easily have happened to me, but I don’t want it to happen to you.
To say that I was a quiet kid would be understating it to the extreme. I can recall going days without speaking to other kids at school. I felt if I said nothing, I couldn’t be teased for saying something stupid.
Bless their hearts, my parents loved me very much and I them, but in our family the primary training method was to scream when something went wrong. If I did something wrong, it was Go Directly To Scream; Do Not Pass Go; Do Not Ask Questions First. After a while, you just learn to be quiet.
On the positive side, the fear that I might be judged as inadequate drove me to study, research, and develop a true hunger for information and learning. As I entered any new field of endeavor I invested time and money in learning how the best of the best made a success of it, and then I modeled their key behaviors and strategies.
There is no doubt that martial arts played a pivotal role in my gaining the confidence to give myself a chance. From my first karate class on February 12, 1974, I knew I had found my calling. In that first class at age 13, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I’m still at it. I began teaching private lessons for $7 per hour in 1976. That was great for a 16-year-old at the time. I was hired on as a staff instructor for $5 per class in 1978 after earning my black belt.
As my competence in the martial arts improved, my confidence in many areas of life improved. I knew if I could learn to jump over two people and break three boards with a flying sidekick, certainly I could learn to drive a car. Competence led to confidence.
In time, I was on my own, teaching around the area at various community centers and halls. I even taught an accredited college course for a few years, which was ironic because I never graduated high school. I used to joke that I dropped out of high school so I could teach college.
I didn’t have to work many hours, and I had Friday through Sunday off. As a young man, I didn’t have many needs nor did anyone expect me to be well off. I could keep expenses low. So I always had a little cash in my pocket. Being a champion karate instructor brought with it all kinds of social benefits, from meeting girls to being treated like a local celebrity.
However, my friends at the time were following a more traditional path. They were going to college and/or working at jobs they hated. They always seemed broke, even though they put in horrendous hours to make any money. They were miserable at their jobs, but I loved mine. They were broke, but I always had some cash to play with. They would tease me about getting a real job, while envying my position.
Eventually, the contrast started to get to me. I began to feel guilty about this great life I was leading. I started to doubt that I deserved it. One weekend, I was scheduled to fight in a tournament in Gainesville and came up a day early to have lunch with a former girlfriend.
Over a nice outdoor meal, I described to her my situation and my growing feelings of self-doubt and guilt. “I work maybe three hours a day, Monday through Thursday. I make good enough money to get by. On the other hand, my friends are all working forty or more hours and struggling. How can that be?”
She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “John, I know you. You wouldn’t accept anything less.”
There are moments in life that I call “emotional thresholds.” Once you break through them, you begin to destroy all self-doubt related to that area of your life. This was one of those moments for me. It was as though I had permission to design the life that I wanted, rather than follow the path of a fresh rat in the race. While it didn’t entirely erase my self-doubt, it gave me a surge of momentum in the right direction.
That sense of getting permission to live life on my terms was a huge moment for me, so let me share this with you right now:
You, like me, have permission to create the life you want.
As a direct result of my crashing through that emotional threshold on that day at lunch with my friend, I have had a rewarding and lucrative career in the martial arts. I say this because the martial arts industry does not produce a lot of high-income earners. Martial arts schools are usually mom-and-pop labors of love.
One of my other mentors was an acclaimed plastic surgeon. He told me once that he was a millionaire by the age of 37. I made a goal to do the same. I beat him by six months.
A key to my transformation from self-doubt to self-confidence was an understanding of the power of programming and self-image.
Still, the skills of wealth-building and entrepreneurship were like a foreign language to my family and those of my friends. Not necessarily because our parents were against it, but beyond, “Get a good job and work hard,” they didn’t really have a strategy for success.
Though we were programmed to follow a traditional path of doing well in school in order to get a good job working for someone else, the fact is that the majority of millionaires are self-employed. You rarely build wealth working for someone else. I heard a great line somewhere. A small business owner puts his hand on his employee’s shoulder and points to a big house on a hill and says, “You see that big beautiful home? If you work really hard for me, I can have that one day.”
I had two big problems with the traditional path. One, I hate getting up to an alarm clock. Today the only time I use an alarm clock is if I have to catch a plane. Second, I also hated the idea that one third of my life would be spent doing something I didn’t like. That didn’t make any sense to me.
Ever since I was a little boy reading biographies of my sports heroes, I wanted to be either an athlete or a teacher. The martial arts provided me with the perfect platform to combine those two passions. Every day I work at something I love.
My next emotional threshold came when I began teaching. While I knew nothing about business at that time, I did know that I wanted to be the best teacher in the area.
A good friend of my instructor Walt Bone was Mike Anderson, an eccentric genius. Mike used to tell me all the time, “John, you’re a great teacher. You should open a school and make a lot of money.” As flattered as I was, I knew nothing about making money. I was sure I would embarrass myself trying to operate a business.
Then in 1984, Mike called to tell me that Joe Lewis was in town and he wanted me to meet him. As a point of comparison, if you are a golfer, it would be like hearing Jack Nicholas or Tiger Woods is in town.
As a teen, my heroes were Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, and Joe Lewis. When my friends and I would play fight, one of us would be Bruce Lee and the other a snarling Joe Lewis. Lewis and Chuck Norris were the biggest names in sport karate.
Mike wanted me to promote a Joe Lewis seminar, which I did. After the seminar, which was a success by everyone’s standards, I handed Joe $2,000 in cash and then told him he talks too much in his classes. (Sometimes I feel like I have “truth Tourette’s.”) The room froze. He looked at me and said, “No one has ever critiqued my teaching before . . .” I’m not sure if that meant “Thanks for the feedback” or “Who the heck are you?”
The next week I asked to spar with him. He told me point blank, “I don’t do that light contact stuff. I fight full contact.” I told him I trusted him not to hurt me and he didn’t. We trained hard and often for years following.
The pinnacle for me was when the top martial arts magazine interviewed him and asked who would carry his torch. He named my brother and me.
Joe would meet me to spar wherever I was teaching that particular night. One night it would be a basketball court, the next afternoon a college gym or a boxing club. At the same time, I was developing a strong following of students, mostly my college class students who became “karate addicts.” They took my two-hour college class and then followed me to wherever I was teaching to take more classes.
Finally, Joe called me on the phone. “John, you’ve got to give your students a home,” he said. “A place they can take pride in and call their own. If they go off to college, they can look forward to coming home to their school.”
That was my next emotional threshold. Despite my lack of business savvy, I understood him exactly. I literally lived in my instructors’ karate school at times. Most of the time I stayed all night to train, but sometimes I stayed there to escape my home life. I had a strong emotional connection to the martial arts school as a refuge. The next day I started looking for a location for my school.
My goal for this book is to use my story to help you understand on a deep level that self-doubt is common even among successful people. We all have self-doubt. What is important is how we handle it. What I’m about to share with you is what I have done to break out of the prison of self-doubt. I realized that self-doubt is self-imposed and self-defeating, but it’s as common as a few extra pounds in the waistline. I’m going to help you lose them.
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