Warning: This column contains spoilers for Succession… and also corporate America.
The television series Succession, just concluded this week, focuses on who gets the top job at the fictional media conglomerate Waystar Royco. While this season fixated on the trio of siblings jostling to be heir apparent after their dad and media mogul Logan Roy dies, what’s been striking throughout the show’s run is the gall and confidence of so many, from apparatchik Frank to oafy cousin Greg to the entitled siblings themselves, in their brazen pursuit of power. Lack of management experience? Tongue-tied, oratorical disaster? No financial acumen? Killed someone and covered it up? Not an issue for these people.
“When you have a system geared towards telling you how infallible, powerful, incredible you are,” explains Ruchika Tulshyan, a workplace and organizational strategist, “why would you have impostor syndrome?”
Tulshyan is the co-author of a groundbreaking piece published in Harvard Business Review titled, “Stop telling women they have impostor syndrome.” Its publication two years ago precursed a wave of revisionist history around impostor syndrome, loosely defined as a diagnosis of doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work. The label makes workers, especially women, feel like their lack of self-confidence is the problem and pathologizes the response. In the piece, Tulshyan and co-author Jodi-Ann Burey argue: “Impostor syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Women of color have similarly called attention to the underlying issues that impostor syndrome often masks. Filipinx author and activist Lisa Factora-Borchers told The New Yorker earlier this year, “Whenever I’d hear white friends talk about impostor syndrome, I’d wonder, How can you think you’re an impostor when every mold was made for you? When you see mirror reflections of yourself everywhere, and versions of what your success might look like?”
And last week, Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code, dubbed impostor syndrome a farce in an address to the Smith College class of 2023: “It’s leaders looking around and saying that the biggest problem facing women isn’t paid family leave or pay gaps, a lack of childcare or a culture of misogyny; the problem is us. The impostor scheme, then, is just a tool—to keep our concentration on our own inadequacies, not the system that is set against us.”
There’s that word again: system. Indeed, the reason impostor syndrome is being so drastically reframed is because we are, thankfully, in a moment of acknowledging and rethinking the organized structures that seem set up against workers, particularly women and people of color.
It’s really not you.
There’s real irony in using Succession, whose whiteness is impossible to separate from greed, wealth, and success, as a reference point here, since the roster of wannabe CEOs are seemingly impervious to feeling like impostors. And yet there may be no more perfect showcase for the rottenness of the so-called system, with relentlessly dysfunctional workplaces that reward the most privileged. The characters are unapologetic because nothing has ever indicated to them to be otherwise. We viewers cannot emerge so unaffected.
If there was ever a show redeeming the idea that the world is the problem, not us, this is it. “Most people live and work in unjust systems that don’t serve them, and it’s time to stop asking individuals to tie themselves in knots ‘fixing’ themselves when it’s society and systems that need fixing,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, author of the new book The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Power. “Systems are racist, biased, patriarchal, and unjust. I don’t know anyone who would look at corporate America and say, ‘Wow, is this a healthy place to be!’”
How to prevail anyway? The rest of us don’t have the safety nets of the Roy siblings, but we can identify and curb behaviors in response to our fears of shame and failure. Researchers have identified two such areas, says Aarons-Mele. “One is the path of procrastination, which is a kind of self-sabotaging response to feelings of fraudulence: Worried they won’t succeed, these workers put off tasks until the last minute, and when they do succeed, they easily discount their success as undeserved or a stroke of luck,” she says. “Others take the path of overpreparation. These are the workers who overachieve, overwork, and overfunction.”
Being clear in what you stand for and centering your mental health are also key. “We do have power within us to change and lessen the impact of our impostor feelings,” says Aarons-Mele.
Or as real-life media mogul Oprah Winfrey told graduates of Tennessee State University earlier this month: “Do not let the world make an ‘impostor syndrome’ out of you.”
Self-doubt is ubiquitous.
In her new book Wonderhell: Why Success Doesn’t Feel Like It Should and What to Do about It, Laura Gassner Otting interviewed more than 100 high achievers from CEOs to Olympic medalists and found “every single one of them still struggled with impostor syndrome.”
She, too, concluded the problem lies in external forces. “As the impostor, you have three options: You can hide who you are. You can change who you are. Or you can lose who you are. And each option just exacerbates that feeling of not belonging,” she says. “But perhaps the problem isn’t with you at all. I think we all know now that the real problem is the world in which we impostors are trying to operate.”
To channel that anxiety or doubt into success requires staying attuned to your own values. “You’ll begin to know your own heart and figure out what matters most when you can listen to the still small voice,” Winfrey told the Tennessee grads. “Every right move I made has come from listening deeply and following that still small voice.”
That voice can be transformative, but still requires support from others: child care, a sponsor, a supervisor who has your back, an inclusive workplace that supports the career growth of its marginalized employees.
Back to Succession: The ultimate choice of successor to Logan Roy, his son-in-law Tom Wambsgans, is a distillation of how the system perpetuates itself. Tom exudes desperation and is ultimately chosen not for his confidence or sense of self, but his lack thereof. He is a malleable sycophant, almost proudly so, and thus useful to those in power. His fictional rise—like that of others around him who choose proximity to power over purpose—demonstrates a truth of the real world: Impostor syndrome might not be real, but the impostors who prevail most definitely are. Undoing such a deeply entrenched pattern depends on our willingness to look outward and see the problem for what it truly is.