Imposter Syndrome: Mike Cannon-Brookes at TEDxSydney (Transcript)

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.

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Now, our surprise turned to shock in the first award of the night, the young category, when we beat all of the other states and won the Australian Young Entrepreneur of the Year. When the shock had worn off, we got a lot of champagne to the table and the party began, and the night was surely over. We were having a royally great time.

Fast-forward to the last award of the night, and our shock turned into everybody’s shock when we won the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year against all of the other categories.

Now, so shocked was everybody else, in fact, that the announcer, the CEO of Ernst & Young, opened the envelope, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Oh my God.” And then he reset himself and announced that we had won.

So we knew we were in way too deep. And from there, the water got a lot deeper, because we jetted off to Monte Carlo to represent Australia in the World Entrepreneur of the Year against 40 other different countries.

Now, in another rented suit, I was at one of the dinners and sitting next to a lovely man called Belmiro de Azevedo, who was the winner from Portugal. Total champion.

At 65, he had been running his business for 40 years. He had 30,000 employees. Don’t forget, at the time, we had 70. And he had four billion euro in turnover. And after a couple of wines, I remember admitting to him that I felt that we did not deserve to be there, that we were well out of our depth, and at some time, someone was going to figure this out and send us home to Australia.

And he, I remember, just paused and looked at me and said that he felt exactly the same way and that he suspected all the winners were feeling that way, and that despite not knowing Scott or I or really anything about technology, he said that we were obviously doing something right and should probably just keep going.

Now, this was a pretty big light bulb moment for me for two reasons.

One, I realized that other people felt this as well. And two, I realized it doesn’t go away with any form of success. I had assumed that successful people didn’t feel like frauds, and I now know that the opposite is more likely to be true.

And this isn’t just a feeling that I have at work. It happens in my personal life, too.

In the early days, I was flying back and forth to San Francisco every week for Atlassian, and I racked up a lot of frequent flyer points and got access to the Qantas business lounge. Now, if there’s ever a place that I don’t belong… It doesn’t help when I walk in and they generally look at me in shorts and jeans, or jeans and a T-shirt, and say, “Can I help you, son? Are you lost?”

But anyway, sometimes life happens in the Qantas lounge when you’d least expect it. One morning, over a decade ago, I was sitting there on my regularly weekly commute, and a beautiful woman from way out of my league walked into the Qantas lounge and continued walking straight up to me in a case of mistaken identity. She thought I was someone else, so in this case, I actually was an impostor.

But rather than freeze as I would have historically done or chivalrously maybe informed her of her error, I just tried to keep the conversation going.

And classic Australian bullshit became some sort of forward movement and a phone number. And I took that girl to the awards ceremony a couple of months later. And more than a decade later, I’m incredibly happy that she is now my wife, and we have four amazing children together.

But you’d think that when I wake up every morning, I wouldn’t roll over and look at her and think, “She’s going to say, ‘Who are you, and who gave you that side of the bed?’ ‘Get out of here.'” But she doesn’t. And I think she sometimes feels the same way.

And apparently, that’s one of the reasons that we’ll likely have a successful marriage. You see, in researching this talk, I learned that one of the attributes of the most successful relationships is when both partners feel out of their league. They feel that their partner is out of their league. They feel like impostors.

And if they don’t freeze, and they’re thankful, and they work harder and they stretch to be the best partner they can, it’s likely to be a very successful relationship. So if you have this feeling, don’t freeze. Try to keep the conversation going, even if she thinks that you’re somebody that you’re not.

Now, feeling like, or people thinking I’m someone I’m not actually happens quite frequently. A great example from my more recent past, a few months ago, I was up late at night with one of my kids. And I saw something on Twitter about Tesla saying that they could solve South Australia’s rolling series of power crises with one of their large industrial batteries.

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Without thinking, I fired off a bunch of tweets, challenging them and saying were they really serious about this. And in doing so, I managed to kick a very small rock off a very big hill that turned into an avalanche that I found myself tumbling in the middle of.

Because you see, a few hours later, Elon tweeted me back and said that they were deadly serious, that within a hundred days of contract signing, they could install a 100-megawatt-hour facility, which is a giant battery of a world-class size, one of the biggest ever made on the planet. And that’s when all hell really broke loose.

Within 24 hours, I had every major media outlet texting and emailing and trying to get in contact with me to get opinion as some sort of expert in energy.

Now, at the time, I couldn’t really have told you the difference between a one-and-a-half-volt AA battery that goes in my kids’ toys and a 100-megawatt-hour industrial-scale battery facility that goes in South Australia that could potentially solve their power crisis. I was now feeling a chronic case of impostor syndrome, and it got truly bizarre.

And I remember thinking to myself, “Shit. I’ve kind of started something here and I can’t really get out. If I abandon the situation, I’m going to sort of set back renewables in Australia and maybe just look like a complete idiot because of my idiocy on Twitter.”

So I thought the only thing I could do was to try not to freeze and to try to learn. So I spent a week trying to learn everything I could about industrial-scale batteries and the electricity grid and renewables and the economics of all of this and whether this was even a feasible proposal.

I talked to the chief scientist, I talked to the CSRO, had multiple ministers and premiers trying to give me their side of the story from both sides of the aisle. I managed to exchange tweets with the prime minister. I even managed to pull off a passing impression, let’s say, of an energy expert on ABC Lateline.

But as a result of all this, South Australia did put out a battery tender, and they had more than 90 applications for that battery tender. And the national conversation over a period of a few months moved from the sort of theatrical lumps of coal in the parliament to discussing kind of which industrial-scale battery chemistry was the best for building large-scale renewable batteries.

So I think that the important lesson is by that time in my life, I knew well that I was an impostor. I knew I was miles out of my depth. But instead of freezing, I tried to learn as much as I could, motivated by my fear of generally looking like an idiot, and tried to turn that into some sort of a force for good.

So one of the things I’ve learned is that people think that successful people don’t feel like frauds. But I think, especially knowing a lot of entrepreneurs, the opposite is more likely to be true.

But the most successful people I know don’t question themselves, but they do heavily question, regularly question, their ideas and their knowledge. They know when the water is way too deep, and they’re not afraid to ask for advice. They don’t see that as a bad thing. And they use that advice to hone those ideas, to improve them and to learn.

And it’s OK to be out of your depth sometimes. I’m frequently out of my depth. It’s OK to be out of your depth. It’s OK to be in a situation where you just can’t push the eject button, so long as you don’t freeze, so long as you harness the situation, don’t be paralyzed and try to turn it into some sort of a force for good.

And it’s important that I say “harness” here, because this isn’t sort of pop-psychology BS about conquering impostor syndrome for me. It’s merely about being aware of it.

In fact, I’m extremely aware of feeling like an impostor right now, as I’m up here, some sort of pseudo-expert on a feeling that I couldn’t even put a name to a few months ago, when I agreed to do this talk. Which, if you think about it, is kind of the point, isn’t it?

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

Defeating the Inner Imposter That Keeps Us from Being Successful: Knatokie Ford at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Richard St. John: 8 Traits of Successful People (Full Transcript)

Imagination: It’s Not What You Think. It’s How You Think by Charles Faulkner (Transcript)

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