Category Archives: Thinking

‘That little prick in your head…’

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you…once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Steve Jobs


Unless blessed with Trumpian levels of self confidence, everyone in business will have felt it at some stage.

It usually crops up early in your career.

That feeling of awkwardness when you’re making a point in a room full of experienced peers and superiors, hoping that it will land. The anxiety and feeling of unease when you’re about to present to a room full of smart people. The experience of being out of your depth, swimming in deep water when you’re given a difficult, mission critical task.

As an anxious person by nature, for years I would literally come out in a sweat at some of these moments, face turning red and mouth turning dry.

Despite the fact that I knew objectively and logically that I belonged at this level, that I was good at my job and could add value to meetings, presentations and projects, there was always that gnawing feeling in the back of the head.

‘You’re not good enough for this.’

‘You’re going to be found out Shane.’

‘Nobody is going to listen to you anyway, might as well keep the mouth shut’.

I thought it was only me that suffered from this lack of confidence and feeling of inadequacy at certain points in my career.

Until I started to realise that everyone else in the room was also feeling, or at least had felt that exact same thing at some point.

Then I learned that this thing had a name – ‘imposter syndrome’.

Fraud Police

It was coined as a term by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

And even more enlightening, I started hearing incredible, experienced, world class people at the top of their game talk about similar feelings.

I came across a commencement speech from the acclaimed author Neil Gaiman where he speaks about having the exact same problem – a feeling that you’re about to be found out at any moment, and you’ve no right to be where you are. He calls it ‘the fraud police’.

(Go to about seven minutes into this video)


Many doubts

Retired sportspeople seem to be the most willing to speak about ‘imposter syndrome’. I’ve heard a similar trope from countless rugby, football and GAA stars. Pep Guardiola, a man who has won almost everything there is to win in the world of football, claims he’s a constant sufferer.

An analytical over thinker, Guardiola says in his book that “I know you won’t believe me and that people will think it’s false modesty but it’s honestly what I believe. I have so many doubts, I worry about everything and am secure about nothing.”

Even the great Brian O’Driscoll has spoken about his feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence when stepping up a level in his career.

It impacts objectively successful people from all walks of life, from Maya Angelou to Seth Godin to Tim Ferriss. Feelings of fraud seem to drive some of the best people on.

Pearls of wisdom

I heard a great description of the scourge of imposter syndrome on a podcast recently. Former footballer Richie Sadlier has a new show with Second Captains called ‘The Player’s Chair’, and judging by the first few interviews, he has also found an interview style that gets brilliant guests to let down their guard and verbalise their inner thoughts.

The conversation with former Clare boss Anthony Daly was at once truly vulnerable, but also incredibly empowering. Daly touches in his own West of Ireland way on topics like anxiety, stress, bereavement and family life. Without even knowing it, he imparts some incredible pearls of wisdom.

One of the best passages has Daly and Sadlier speaking about the scourge of imposter syndrome. Here are a few quotes.

Daly: ‘I would’ve gone through periods where I struggled with my own confidence. I would’ve suffered with anxiety.’

Daly: ‘Your subconscious is constantly undermining you, asking yourself what are you doing here? What right have you to be here? It keeps backbiting at you.’

Sadlier: ‘That inner voice you’re talking about that questions and undermines you all the time, I was burdened with the same thing. It’s like as if there’s a voice inside you telling you you’re a complete imposter, that I don’t belong here and I’m going to get found out soon. It’s like the fella on a train journey without a ticket, you’re enjoying the journey, but all the time there’s some little prick in your head saying that you’re going to get a tap on your shoulder from some fella who’ll say ‘Richie son, the run’s over, you don’t belong here’. I was as motivated as much to shut him up as anything else’

Daly: ‘Yeah, the monkey on my shoulder I call him. I try to beat it back with positivity, but it’s a constant battle’. 

A beautiful description of the phenomenon and anyone who has felt it will understand what the two guys mean.

Dunning Kruger

It strikes me that introspective people who overanalyse (I’m certainly one of those) tend to suffer from this more than others.

Imposter syndrome is closely related to the ‘Dunning Kruger‘ effect,  the irony that unintelligent people are often overconfident and overestimate their ability, while brilliant people (I’m certainly not calling myself one of those!) often underestimate themselves and put themselves down.

The things that get you to the top – drive to always be better and a strategic brain that overthinks about small details, can actually be the things that make it difficult for you.

Irish society has come a long way when it comes to talking about mental health, and we’re more aware than ever that talking is important and depression is a serious illness that can be treated. Guys like Bressie, Alan O’Mara and Colm O’Gorman have done brilliant work in unravelling the taboo around male depression.

I believe there’s also a wider job that needs to be done around latent, more difficult to define problems that Irish people suffer from around self confidence (not arrogance), self worth, anxiety and living with our own thoughts. These might not be life threatening problems and illnesses in the same way that serious depression is, but they do also impact many people’s quality of life.

I wish someone had told me about imposter syndrome when I was younger, told me that we all have feelings of inadequacy, but that doesn’t mean you’re inadequate.

Now, through experience, learning about imposter syndrome and how others suffer, I see these feelings as a positive. I’ve turned my perception around, because anyone that’s pushing themselves and trying to better themselves, if they’re honest, will always have that little voice in the back of the head. It just goes with the territory. I now know that under control, it can actually be a healthy thing, a motivator that can spur you on and shows that you care about what you’re doing.

Only a small proportion of people, often supreme narcissists like Trump, will have supreme self confidence in all scenarios.

Sure, some of the time the voice is right, some of the time you are out of your depth and you shouldn’t be in that position. But then again, we only learn outside our comfort zone, not from playing it safe.

It’s about learning to quieten it and knowing when not to listen to the little prick in your head, the monkey on your shoulder.

We are what we think, and if we allow the strange power of the mind to continuously create doubt and ultimately self sabotage itself, we’ll never accomplish anything.



Further Reading:

Afraid of being found out?
Tools Of Titans
Learnings from the best football coach in the world
Learning to deal with imposter syndrome



Influencers and the paradox of self decleration

Maybe it’s the filter bubbles that I operate within on social media, but it strikes me that there’s a growing feeling that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ when it comes to ‘influencer’ marketing. From the Pepsi clusterfuck to brilliant articles like this and this, it feels like the bubble is about to pop.

That’s unfortunate, because the theory behind this approach is pretty sound. In a time when consumer cynicism/skepticism is incredibly high and attention is hard to come by. Using a credible, independent, trusted third party to verify your brand should be a positive step.

But, as with many other new trends with a shred of actual substance behind them, brands and influencers have combined to extract all the authenticity and credibility out of the market.

Without wanting to add to the chorus of naysayers, I’d like to propose a new law/heuristic/rule of thumb that we need to start applying to influencer marketing (and indeed other areas of marketing and business where hubris and bullshit reigns.)

It’s called ‘the paradox of self deceleration‘. (Catchy eh? Someone else can surely come up with a better title!)

It goes like this:

If you call yourself an ‘influencer’, ‘thought leader’ or an ‘entrepreneur’ on the internet, it’s very likely that you’re not one.

Self praise is no praise. Amongst all the issues with influencer marketing, one is the mislabelling of influencers by themselves. Having an Instagram account with a few million followers doesn’t make you an influencer, no matter how many times you use that hashtag. The irony is that really influential people don’t need to label themselves. They just are influential.

Similarly, just having a blog doesn’t make you a thought leader, or having a business idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. These are things that because of what you do, just declaring it yourself doesn’t make it a reality.

An old boss of mind Gary Brown wrote a brilliantly contrarian piece a few years ago about the cult of entrepreneurship and the bullshit that surrounds Irish startupland and made some brilliant points:

“The best way to be an entrepreneur is to go and start a business, call it a business, create a few jobs, and let someone else call you that. Self-proclaimed titles are very dangerous.”

It all reminds me a bit of the clip from The Office when Michael DECLARES BANKRUPTCY and expects it to actually mean something!



It strikes me that far too often people are happy enough to label themselves something but not put in the hard work to actually back the label up with credibility.

It doesn’t work like that.

Don’t claim you are, show you are. Because one thing’s for sure, if there’s no substance behind a claim, eventually, you’ll be found out.

Receptivity, intrusion and the balance between desired and effective advertising…

Having started a new role last Monday, this week has been a fascinating seven days of learning. Learning about clients, new planning frameworks and above all learning the names of my new colleagues! Isn’t that exactly what you want from a new job?

Of all the things I’ve learned this week, one new word that I picked up stuck with me – receptivity.

It’s a bit of a makey uppey planning word, but it’s a nice concept nonetheless.

Receptivity, when used in terms of communications, basically refers to how open people are at a certain time to communications, how receptive they are to being marketed to.

It takes cues from Google’s theories around ‘Zero Moment of Truth‘ – the perfect moment when your consumer is ready to buy and you’re in the right place with the right message (although it’s based around a broader time period than that).

It also overlaps nicely with McKinsey’s recent thinking into the updated consumer purchase journey and the importance of hitting people at the start of their buying journey, when they’re most open and easily swayed.

Receptivity is a brilliant concept. It focuses on understanding your consumer explicitly and tailoring your communications so as not to interrupt them. It’s rooted in the idea of pull marketing and is a lovely empathetic way to look at communicating.

In a world when attention is so short term and fragmented, brand loyalty is a misnomer and and choice is abundant, hitting people at the exact moment they’re most open is a very salient strategy.

But there’s another side to this coin too.

While hitting people when they want to be spoken to is fantastic, we mustn’t forget the dirty secret of marketing and advertising.

We also need to interrupt people.

Sure, it’s not nice to say, and the need to interrupt has diminished as we’ve become smarter over the last decade.

But if we want to keep our brand top of mind, to drive mental availability, then we need to be hitting light buyers who may not even be in market. Big brands need to be speaking to everyone on an ongoing basis. To do that, we often need to look past moments of receptivity and instead utilise moments of interruption.

A recent study into consumer’s favourite channels in which to be marketed to raised a few eyebrows around the industry. Indeed, I shared it on social with my own eyebrows raised, and it cause quite a reaction. According to the study of 24,000 16-49 year olds in a variety of countries, outdoor, cinema and magazines were their favourite formats.

Incredible right? I thought so too.

That was until my ex boss Paul pointed out something that completely changed the way I saw the graph (as is his wont!).

The top three preferred channels are the most ambient, creative or unobtrusive channels. After being asked ‘what formats do you prefer to receive brand messages?’ of course people were going to offer up those that annoyed them the least.

Looking at this in isolation, a kneejerk brand manager could take the opinion that he should be pumping more budget into magazines, cinema and outdoor.

But the question asked biases the response.

People can’t always verbalise the moment at which they’re most receptive, and they certainly weren’t going to ask for more TV, radio, digital display or mobile video ads annoying them online.

What’s my main point here?

Basically, what people prefer and what’s effective isn’t always overlapping.

That doesn’t mean we hit people with more retargeted pop-up ads or non-skippable pre-roll. (No surprise that the latter was found to be the least positive way for brands to market in the same study.) But it does mean we need to balance out our thinking when it comes to channel choice.

Secondly, moments of real receptivity are rare and fleeting. It’s our job as marketers to find those moments, but at times we need to be interruptive and hit people when they’re enjoying something else. That’s part of the job description.

It’s important that we find the middle ground. Advertising has to intrude, but it also has to know its place.

Data taken from Millward Brown Ad Reaction study.