Here is the full text of Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes’ talk titled “Imposter Syndrome” at TEDxSydney conference.
Mike Cannon-Brookes – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
So I’ve experienced a lot of success in my life. Over a decade ago, I started a business straight out of uni with my mate, Scott.
Now, having no prior business experience and not really any grand plan — in fact, our goals when we started were not to have to get a real job and to not have to wear a suit to work every day. Check and check.
Today, we have thousands of amazing employees, and millions of people use our software around the planet. And technically, even outside the planet, if you count those that are currently on their way to Mars.
So you’d think that I know what I’m doing every day when I go to work. Well, let me let you in on something: most days, I still feel like I often don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve felt that way for 15 years, and I’ve since learned that feeling is called impostor syndrome.
Have you ever felt out of your depth, like a fraud, and just kind of guessed/bullshitted your way through the situation — petrified that anytime, someone was going to call you on it? Well, I can think of many examples where I felt like this.
Interviewing our first HR manager, having never worked in a company that had an HR department — terrified as I walked into the interview, thinking, “What am I going to ask this person?”
Or attending board meetings in a T-shirt surrounded by suits, and acronyms are flying around, feeling like a five-year-old as I surreptitiously write them down in my notebook, so I can look them up on Wikipedia when I get home later.
Or, in the early days, when people would call up and ask for accounts payable, I would freeze and think, “Wait, are they asking for money or giving it to us?”
And I would cover the phone, cover the mouthpiece of the phone, and say, “Scott, you’re in accounts,” and pass it across. We both did a lot of jobs back then.
So for me, impostor syndrome is a feeling of being well, well out of your depth, yet already entrenched in the situation. Internally, you know you’re not skilled enough, experienced enough or qualified enough to justify being there, yet you are there, and you have to figure a way out, because you can’t just get out.
It’s not a fear of failure, and it’s not a fear of being unable to do it. It’s more a sensation of getting away with something, a fear of being discovered, that at any time, someone is going to figure this out. And if they did figure it out, you’d honestly think, “Well, that’s fair enough, actually.”
One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, put it so beautifully in a commencement address he gave at a university, called “Make Good Art.” I want to make sure I get his quote correct.
“I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard would be there to tell me that it was all over, that they’d caught up with me, and that I would now have to go and get a real job.”
Now, when there’s a knock on my door, I still feel like some sort of dark-suited clipboard man is going to be there to tell me that my time is kind of up. And being a crap cook, I’m quite relieved when it’s just someone with a pizza for the kids.
But it’s important to note that it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of goodness, I think, in those feelings. And this isn’t some sort of motivational-poster type talk, a “Begin it now.” It’s more of an introspection into my own experiences of impostor syndrome, and how I’ve tried to learn to harness them and turn them into some sort of a force for good.
And a great example of those experiences is in the early days of Atlassian’s history. We were about four years old, and we had about 70 employees. And at the advice of our auditors — most good stories start with advice from an auditor — we entered the New South Wales Entrepreneur of the Year competition.
Now, we were surprised when we won the New South Wales Entrepreneur of the Year in the young category for entrepreneurs under 40. There were eight categories.
And so surprised, in fact, having looked at the list of people we were up against, I didn’t even turn up to the awards ceremony. So Scott collected the gong by himself.
And then we traveled off to the national awards. I thought I should probably turn up to those. So we rented some suits, I invited a girl that I had just met — we’ll get to her in a second — and off we went to the big black-tie gala.