This story probably makes more sense if I start at the end.

Of all the speeches Mike Cannon-Brookes’s speech on Imposter Syndrome resonated so much that I got home after a huge day at TEDx Sydney and googled him, only to find myself in even more awe of his success.

The well-spoken man claiming to not own a suit, with long hair, sporting a cap and jeans, was in fact worth $2.51 billion dollars, an accolade which wasn’t mentioned in the day’s programme.

I had never been to a TED event before and for those that don’t know – TED is all about ‘ideas worth spreading’. Being a nonprofit devoted to spreading powerful ideas as short talks, to change the way we think, feel and exchange ideas. The days coined phrase was ‘Unconventional’. The Sydney convention centre was transformed into a huge hub of overlapping and carefully entangled ‘tribes’.

There was a tribe for;

o   Idea sharers and story tellers

o   Independent thinkers

o   Creative and curious

o   Body, mind and spirit

o   Education and learning

o   Introverts

o   Sustainability and environment.

There was even a ‘tribe’ for those single and open to romance, and for those with zero expectations.

Throughout the day speakers Bronwyn King Radiation Oncologist discussed tobacco free superannuation investment, Tom Griffiths Professor of Psychology from Berkeley discussed the science behind decision making, David Power fisheries manager residing in the Pacific Islands discussed sustainable fishing practices and Peter Greste foreign correspondent on media freedom. Body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression, the changing face of engineering and even Australian history were discussed throughout the day. Each speaker’s biography in the programme seemed more and more impressive, all hugely successful in their own right.

Then came Mike Cannon-Brookes.

The co-founder and co-CEO of Atlassian, a collaborative software company, winner of Australian IT Professional of the Year 2004, Australian Entrepreneur of the Year 2006, Australian Business Person of the Year 2017; who has also been honoured in the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader in 2009; adjunct professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales- (who I later found out to be an actual Aussie billionaire) – revealed he felt like an imposter?!

Here’s the best I can make out of the scribbled notes I frantically took down during his speech…

“Who I later found out to be an actual Aussie billionaire – revealed he felt like an imposter?!”

Imposter Syndrome is a feeling that doesn’t go away with success. At times, I had no idea what I was doing and how I even got to where I am. Have you ever felt like you are out of your depth? Like a fraud? And sort of bullshitted yourself through a situation – petrified that at some stage someone is going to call you out, turn up at your house with a clipboard to tell you the journey is all over?

Cannon-Brookes recalled a time he was terrified to interview Atlassian’s first HR manager, not having worked anywhere that had even had a human resources department. He recalled times as a young entrepreneur, turning up to board meetings in a T-shirt to find everyone sporting suits. He frantically noted down buzzwords in these meetings only to search their meaning on Wikipedia when he got home.

After 15 years of not feeling like he knows what exactly he’s doing- he coined this as ‘Imposter Syndrome’.

Then came a Portuguese Billionaire – Belmiro de Azevedo.

Years back Cannon-Brookes travelled to Europe for the International Entrepreneurs awards. After a couple of wines, he admitted to the man he was seated next to, De Azevedo that he felt he didn’t deserve to be there.

De Azevedo at 65 years of age was running a business of 30 000 employees (Atlassian had 70), with a turnover of 4 billion Euro. Cannon admitted he felt that someone was going to figure him out and send him home. This didn’t happen. Instead De Azevedo turned to Cannon-Brookes, paused, and said he felt exactly the same way. He also suspected that everyone else honoured at these awards probably harboured the same self-doubt. He offered some advice, not fully understanding Atlassian’s technology, he said that Cannon-Brookes was obviously doing something right and should probably just keep going.

“Even the most successful amongst us harbour self-doubt.”

As an outside observer, we may think that successful people don’t feel like imposters but often the opposite is more likely to be true.

So, what in Cannon-Brookes words, is the solution to Imposter Syndrome?

What can we learn from the ultra-successful themselves?

o   It is okay to be out of your depth, be in situations where you just can’t press eject

o   It is okay to ask questions

o   Be thankful that at times you are out of your league

o   Use tough circumstances as an opportunity to stretch yourself

o   Do not freeze under pressure

o   In pressing situations tackle insecurities with knowledge – learn

o   Be aware of ‘Imposter Syndrome’, not paralyzed by fear

o   Try to harness a difficult situation and try to turn it into some sort of force for good.

Even the most successful amongst us harbour self-doubt. After 15 years of wild success, Mike Cannon-Brookes is a humble example of perseverance. Use situations where you are way out of your depth as opportunities for growth and try to turn them into a positive. Cannon-Brookes’s story is empowering. Wildly successful individuals are human after all. We can press on and use their wisdom in pursuit of the greater good, knowing that if we feel as if our success is going too well and the clipboard yielding man may arrive soon to tell us that the dream is over – we are on track!

Strive for success.


By Alex Hardy