When I was 18 I rejected my Cambridge offer to study at LSE instead.
“Are you f*cking crazy?!”
…was the usual reaction.
Cambridge rang me up to see if I’d gone nuts, and Dr Sushil Wadwhani (CEO of a billion £ hedge fund + family friend of a rich Indian kid I was tutoring) spent an hour lecturing me against the decision.
But I just didn’t listen.
I’d dropped out of school at 16.
I’d self-studied my A Levels in bed, watching YouTube videos.
I’d grown up in a house with no hot water and a snail infestation, constantly on and off with social services.
And I was terrified of getting found out.
My biggest fear was turning up at Cambridge for everyone to discover I was actually just a fat, lazy dumbass who’d “hacked” his way through the examination game.
But the imposter syndrome had gone so deep I wasn’t even aware that it was fear holding me back anymore.
I’d genuinely convinced myself that rejecting Cambridge was actually the best option…
I’d get to stay in London, closer to my Dad who was on his way out; continue building my London-based tutoring company; network more closely with London’s high-fliers.
What a load of bullsh*t.
For virtually all our decisions, our emotional brain has already chosen for us…all we do is invent reasons to rationalise those choices.
The truth is: my Dad and I weren’t ever close, I saw him perhaps six times during my degree; my tutoring company was online (lol) and when I did teach in person I had to travel back to South London anyway (Cambridge would’ve added an extra hour tops to this journey); and I hate networking.
But my prefrontal cortex clung to these excuses to rationalise my fear of studying at Cambridge, and nudge me towards the “safer” option of LSE.
Almost a decade on, it’s still my worst ever life decision and my only regret.
Deep down, I knew it was the wrong choice, I just couldn’t get past the even-deeper-rooted fear of “getting found out as the Cambridge imposter”.
And in case you were wondering: LSE was dreadful.
Its social life is just as bad as the rumours (and a lot worse if you’re not on a sports team).
Everyone is obsessed with finance/banking/consultancy — also known as hell for an entrepreneur/artist like me…
And the teaching is just as bad as university league tables suggest. Most of my teachers were plain incoherent and one couldn’t even speak English.
Imagine that: teaching cointegration and time series analysis in a foreign language…she should never have been assigned a teaching role 😒
Regardless, I made the most of the situation, as many LSE students do.
I found a handful of friends (mostly at other London universities), started a successful edtech company, and did well enough in exams to become a behavioural economics teacher there (without a Masters degree).
But that was me hustling (not the Losers’ School of Egregiously bad teaching).
My imposter syndrome was so bad, I’d turned down a university most students would kill to get into, to study at an institution diametrically at odds with my values and ambitions.
Everyone Is An Imposter
Unfortunately, it isn’t just academic.
Imposter syndrome has been a recurring feature in all parts of my life.
I genuinely believed I couldn’t date women with lighter skin than me because I’d internalised years of teenage racism.
I let a former cofounder walk all over me in negotiations because I didn’t think I was worthy of the huge value I’d created.
And now as an executive coach, I’ve realised (almost) everybody feels like this somewhere in their lives.
From industry titans to flamboyant founders, as soon as I dig past their superficies of confidence, everyone feels like an imposter, like they don’t deserve their success, like they’re just waiting to get found out…
And that’s the irony of it.
No one deserves their success. We all got lucky (or unlucky) in the lottery:
I was blessed with a weird mix of analytical intelligence and abstract creativity.
Others were blessed with a crazy work ethic and pain tolerance.
And we’re all blessed to be born into a world with abundant opportunity and life-saving healthcare.
So yes, you can tell yourself you deserve your success because you’ve hustled…but you know who else hustles?
The farmer in Mali breaking his back 18 hours a day on $30/month. The cart-puller in rural India, killing himself to make ends for his family.
We’re all f*cking imposters.
No one “deserves” their success; no more than Sri Lankan babies deserve genocidal infanticide, or Subsaharan African toddlers deserve malaria.
(Donate here to do something about it please…)
But enough ranting, let’s get into how I finally overcame my imposter syndrome.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Ultimately it all comes down to exposure therapy.
As I got more exposure to the people I felt “imposter” around, I finally realised: everyone is just making it up as they go.
When I started hiring (en masse) Oxbridge graduates to create content for my previous company, I realised these kids were just as clueless as all the other graduates we were hiring.
Not in an offensive way, but in the same way all graduates are totally lacking in useful skills and street smarts.
When I attended the Forbes 30 Under 30 retreat in Israel a few years ago, I was initially blown away by the insanely successful founders I met.
And then I learnt about their stories: often there had been 40+ failures before this one success. Their sexy (and hyper-profitable) business model wasn’t part of a grand masterplan; it was the accidental byproduct of the time they’d spent in the market and repeated pivots.
When I began executive coaching, I felt the imposter syndrome creep back again.
But now I see even the biggest big shots for who they really are: some dude who’s applied common sense to a real-world problem, built out compounding technical skills over a few years, and finally struck gold.
Ironically, the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met haven’t at all been the smartest. They’ve been the ones who just do, and do and do. And when they can’t solve a problem, they ask and ask and hire.
Next time you meet someone you’re in awe of, ask for their story. Not the one on their LinkedIn, but their real story.
Airbnb didn’t start off a beautifully UX’d search platform, it looked like this:
The same for Uber:
Phil Knight (the founder of Nike) wasn’t a branding genius or expert entrepreneur; he was a cowardly accountant who resold Japanese trainers on the side, hired a random student to design the Nike logo, and eventually after several years of growing sales, got the balls to quit his firm and expand Nike to a billion-dollar global brand.
Nintendo, the awe-inspiring videogame creators, started off selling trading cards. Then when Space Invaders became popular they created a ripoff version. But it didn’t sell, so they rotated the controls and created a new character based on Popeye — you might have heard of him:
And the same for virtually any other big successful person or company.
That guy in the gym with the Jesus Christ abs was a skinny twig or fat slob just a few months ago.
That influencer girl with the massive clothing line was just an insecure teenager posting selfies on Instagram a few years back.
This is me 10 years ago when I was 16 lol:
But I get it: it’s hard to believe we all started from such similar places.
Showing Your Work
That’s why I believe it’s extremely important to show your work.
It’s why when I lost weight, I documented the journey every day…so skeptics could see it’s possible (even if you’re Indian with man boobs and love handles) to get ripped:
It’s why with the app I’m building right now, I’m vlogging the process daily so others can see it’s possible even if (like me) you have zero coding background.
I’ve done the same with my piano and Spanish learning challenges too, and with my current company as well.
You don’t have to share your work now…I get it, it’s scary because you might fail; so wait until you’ve got the end result but make sure you document along the way so others can realise it’s possible too.
(If you’ve got the balls, sure, share the failures too — even better!)
The beautiful thing about documenting your journey is it gives you a much deeper purpose: when I was cutting weight for my sixpack, my motivation transcended Tinder matches…I was doing it to show others it’s possible.
And the more proof we have that “it’s possible” the more we normalise success.
Every kid is expected to be able to read, write and arithmetic. It’s normal. But even just a century and a half ago, it wasn’t: these skills were exclusive only to upper-class pseudo-intellectuals, “too hard” for dipsh*t commoners.