In recent years there has been a lot of discussion around the topic of Imposter Syndrome. Initially called the “Imposter Phenomenon” in the 1970s by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness” and the fear of it being exposed, was once believed to be a condition that primarily affected successful women (from Presence by Amy Cuddy). However, more recent studies have revealed that imposter syndrome, as it’s commonly known today, is much more widespread. It is experienced by men and women and people from all backgrounds, and is quite prevalent.
Many very successful people have experienced the Imposter Syndrome: Tom Hanks, David Bowie, and Serena Williams are just a few examples (https://www.entrepreneur.com/leadership/12-leaders-entrepreneurs-and-celebrities-who-have/304273). Which got me thinking, is Imposter Syndrome really a bad thing? Does it always hold people back, or could it also be a powerful motivator? What role has the Imposter Syndrome played in my life?
It’s only when these feelings cause us to give up or to decline great opportunities, or to fixate on how others must be judging us as inadequate, that Imposter Syndrome becomes harmful. I think back to when I was in seventh grade and I had tested into the advanced algebra math class. I assumed it must have been some mistake. I didn’t consider myself to be good at math, and some of my friends, who I thought were much smarter than me, did not make it in. So when my math teacher asked me if I wanted to be in the class the following year, naturally I declined. It wasn’t until much later in my remedial community college algebra class (of all places), with the encouragement of a great math professor that I began to enjoy math and realize I was good at it.
Conversely, if feeling like you are not good enough and you don’t belong motivates you to work harder and keeps you grounded, it can actually help you. The difference, in my opinion, comes down to mindset.
If you have a growth mindset, you believe that with extra effort, you can excel. If you’re already talented in an area, the extra effort you put in due to your insecurities might actually ensure your success. And if for some reason things don’t work out as planned, instead of letting the discouragement take over, you will learn from the failure and be in a better position to succeed the next time around.
But if you are of the mindset that success in any given area is driven by natural abilities alone and that extra effort makes little difference, you may think that there is no way that you will ever be good enough. Failure is inevitable, so you might as well decline the opportunity or give up to save yourself the emotional distress.
Perhaps due to my community college remedial algebra beginnings, I continued to experience Imposter Syndrome as I pursued my degree in mathematics at Sacramento State University. I studied diligently while working part-time and graduated Magna Cum Laude as one of the top students in the math program and was awarded Outstanding Senior by the Phi Kappi Phi Honors Society.
There was a big part of me that really wanted to be a math professor so I could help other students like me find their untapped potential in math, but due to my fear of public speaking and a desire to start my career and be done with school, I decided to pursue a career in Actuarial Science instead. I studied hard and took actuarial exams while working as an Actuarial Assistant, and within a few years of graduating and entering the retirement industry, I became an Enrolled Actuary in 2012. And yet, I was still plagued by insecurity. Attaining my designation quickly meant that I did not have a lot of experience. I was very lucky to work with supportive actuaries and managers who helped mentor, train, and encourage me — and yet I often felt like I didn’t belong (perhaps no time more acutely than when I attended my first actuarial conference in 2012).
I took a short break from taking actuarial exams after becoming an enrolled actuary (EA), and then jumped back into studying to complete my ASA. It wasn’t required and my employer didn’t encourage it, but I wanted to finish because I had already passed the first three exams on my way to getting my EA (I was already over half way to completing it, I reasoned).
I wanted to get my ASA for several reasons. I thought it would give me more options in my career. There was a sick part of me that actually enjoyed studying for and taking actuarial exams. I thought it would make me a more well-rounded actuary. My feelings of not being quite as good, nor quite as smart, were certainly a motivator as well.
I took one exam while I was pregnant with my daughter, took a break, jumped back in to take my last exam, took another break, and so on until I finally attained my ASA in 2018.
For me, the most valuable part of getting my ASA — in terms of skills I actually use in my day-to-day work (other than the financial mathematics exam on interest and time value of money), was the fundamentals of actuarial practice (FAP) course. It emphasized the importance of actuarial reasonableness — something one can lose sight of when solely focused on using the Internal Revenue Code to get the best possible outcome for your client — and also the importance of clear communication (for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the FAP involves a series of writing exercises related to fictitious consulting assignment, culminating with a three-day, written, open-book exam in which you address a large consulting assignment).
I felt great about finishing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that an ASA wasn’t quite good enough. It’s not that I felt that EAs without their ASA or FSA were somehow any less worthy. I knew of many great actuaries who did not have their ASA or FSA: Kevin Donovan, Norm Levinrand, Lynne Young (just to name a few — there are many, many more). I just felt like I had to do everything I possibly could do to be the most qualified I could be. And the fact that the fellowship requirements, between the exams and modules, were all written appealed to me — I like writing, and I like the ability to at least receive partial credit when I don’t know a topic completely.
But I couldn’t justify the time commitment and spending the money on all of the exams and study materials for something my employer did not really value. When I came to FuturePlan by Ascensus, I finally had the opportunity to get my FSA because they offered exam reimbursement, and even a small allotment of on-the-job study time (plus pay increases for passing exams). I did almost all of my studying in the evenings after putting the children to bed so as not to sacrifice spending time with them, and I didn’t take any shortcuts studying, I tried to get as close as possible to the recommended study time for each exam. For the five-hour retirement design and accounting exam I took, that meant studying six months in advance since I could fit in no more than 15 hours a week of study time most weeks. Although my last two exams for my ASA took me two attempts each, I was able to pass both of my fellowship exams on the first try. From the time I started studying for my first fellowship exam to when I officially became an FSA was about a year and a half. Although it was grueling and intense, it went much more quickly and smoothly than I ever imagined it would.
Studying for my FSA broadened my knowledge of the pension field. It reminded me of the true goal of retirement plans — establishing retirement readiness (which one can sometimes forget when working on small, tax-driven pension plans) — and introduced me to topics that I would probably never encounter as a small plan Actuary: Accounting Issues, Investment strategies, and how pension plans are structured in other countries. The FSA requirements, like the FAP, also emphasized the importance of communication skills in Actuaries. There was even some training on presenting: the final requirement was to attend a conference with other candidates and give a short presentation.
Whether it should have or not, attaining my FSA did help with some of my insecurities and gave me a greater sense of belonging within the actuarial field. When I posted on LinkedIn about getting my FSA, I was overwhelmed by the number of congratulations I received from many well-respected actuaries that I had never met. I was inspired to begin volunteering and joined a couple of actuarial committees, which further increased my sense of belonging.
Imposter Syndrome is much less of an issue for me now than it was before. Although it has at times kept me from taking great opportunities, I think to an even greater degree it has motivated me to work hard and take on challenges.
Paradoxically, I don’t think I’d be where I am today without those feelings of inadequacy motivating me to try harder and do more. I’m glad that I no longer feel like an idiot at work (at least not as often), but I also don’t want to lose the hunger to grow and improve as an actuary, nor do I want to lose the humility that makes me work hard, ask lots of questions, keep an open-mind, and realize that I don’t know everything or have all the answers (seriously, not even close). My goal is to keep the parts of Imposter Syndrome that motivate me in a positive way, but ditch the insecurities (and thankfully, I think I’m starting to get there).
Tiffany Myers, FSA, EA, MSEA, is Manager, Actuarial Services, FuturePlan.
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