You’re Not a Genius

A few weeks ago, I was on a Zoom call with a founder. She had just won a global pitch competition with an incredible idea and pitch. We’d been connected through a good friend, and I jumped on the call with no agenda other than to see how I could help her.

We dove into her pitch—which, again, was an incredible one for a company that, if we were able to, we would totally invest in.

But a few minutes into our conversation, something happened.

She asked me, “You really think my idea is a good one?”

“Yes,” I told her. “I really do think it’s a good one.”

I could see and hear her sigh of relief.

She had just won a respected global pitch competition for early-stage companies, I had just shared with her that her idea is a good one, and yet she was still having a difficult time believing that her idea really is that good.

And, for whatever reason that day, I asked her this question:

Do you feel like you’re a fraud?

To which she responded:

Yes. I feel like a fraud.

Many Founders Feel like Frauds

I’m on multiple calls every month with friends, family, and founders who all feel this way.

They don’t feel like they’re supposed to be in the roles they’re in.

They don’t feel like they’re the ones who should be doing what they’re doing.

They feel like there is someone else smarter, more capable, and more experienced who should be doing these things they’re doing.

They feel like a fraud.

All of us have felt this feeling at least once in our lives.

But the problem actually isn’t that we feel like a fraud—it’s what do we do when we feel this way.

We Cannot Live to this Standard

I was sharing all of this with Marty on the GAN team, and he mentioned something Elizabeth Gilbert put out to the world about a decade ago.

In one of her talks after Eat Pray Love’s runaway success, she described having anxiety over what would happen with her next book: She would now always be held to the standard of Eat Pray Love and the pressure for future books to measure up to it.

Without the same level of success for her new books, she felt like she would be—a fraud.

Then she discovered that few people before the Renaissance ever felt like—a fraud.

If you look back at the Roman and Grecian periods, times when creative energy was incredibly high, feeling like a “fraud” was never part of the human vernacular.

The reason?

Creativity, back then, wasn’t viewed as something you possessed as a person.

No—creativity was “blessed” on you by a third (divine) party. It was given to you by a Genius (in Roman times) or a Damon (in Grecian times). A Genius or Damon would come in and help you be creative.

So, when you managed to be wildly creative, you could never take all the credit. You had to give some of the credit (or even all of it) to your Genius or Damon.

But, on the flipside, when you failed, it was the Genius or Damon’s fault for not showing up.

A few hundred years later came the Renaissance, and a collective farewell to blaming things on Geniuses and Damons and their capricious comings and goings. Now, popular thought saw the human person as fully possessing and employing the traits for being creative. Unfortunately, with the departure of those Geniuses and Damons, the issue of feeling like a fraud reared its ugly head.

The Renaissance led us to believe that our creativity—and our success—solely depended on us.

If we believe that it is ultimately and fully up to us to build our company, to come up with new ideas, to keep being creative, there is no way we would not feel like a fraud.

We cannot live to this standard.

But what if we were to believe, like the Greeks and Romans did, that creative energy comes and goes and isn’t controllable? That an external force helps us be creative? And that sometimes this external force provides a ton of help and value and other times it doesn’t do the best job? Would believing this help us feel less stressed? Could it release some of the weight of the world from our shoulders?

Distance Makes the Heart…

At the end of the day, these ideas about Geniuses and Damons are clearly a little out there.

But with founders suffering two times the rate of depression as non-founders, we’re also clearly at a place as an industry where what’s happening to each of us isn’t working either.

As Elizabeth says in one of her talks, “‘People seem to be undone by their gifts.”

So, while I’m not saying we need to start believing that a Genius is going to guide us, maybe we can stop for a second and say to ourselves, “There are a lot of external things going on that allow creativity to come and go. Am I paying attention to those?”

How can we start creating more space for inspiration and for opening ourselves to it, and maybe working long hours and skipping vacation is not the answer? Gilbert goes on to talk about the importance of showing up—combined with a posture of openness and peace that allows the inspiration to show up too.

When we take this posture to welcome inspiration, it’s not the exact same effect as a Genius whispering in our ear (or however these creatures communicated), but it just might allow us to distance ourselves a little from our skills and abilities. It also might be our only option for getting the Genius-effect, short of time traveling back to those heady pre-Renaissance, pre-fraud days.

And maybe, just maybe, distance makes the heart—stop calling its person a fraud.