The Millionaire Game can Solve Your Impostor Syndrome

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Is that show on anymore? If so, is it still Regis Philbin hosting or somebody else? These are questions I don't know the answer to. I think most people might, except for younger folks because is that even relevant to them? Am I showing my age?


But there is a hidden genius behind the design of that game show, and it applies to your everyday life.

I know I usually try to apply the posts I write to games or design or something. But I think this one is so valuable day-to-day that I won't even do that here. This time, the relevance to design is merely, "lots of designers feel like impostors."

The thing Millionaire does exactly right is that it tells you it's okay when you don't know the answer.

Sure, it helps to know some of the answers. But you have lifelines; different ways to help guide you toward the answer when you don't have it or aren't sure of it.

This occurred to me while I was reading an article on imposter syndrome. That article says:

‘Everyone else is doing much better than me’, is a common thing students worry about.   From my privileged ‘birds eye’ view of proceedings, I know otherwise.     Students often think ‘My peers understand everything better.  They don’t spend as much time as I do being confused’.  That’s a manifestation of a belief in what I sometimes call the Imposter Deathstar – a misguided Venn diagram guaranteed to make anyone feel bad about themselves.
The Impostor Deathstar

And I thought to myself that this was a brilliant way of thinking about it. You see, "everyone else" is not a person. It's everyone. If you pick out any single person and put what what they know into the diagram, it's just another crater in the moon ("That's no moon!"). Their crater is more or less the same size as yours, and it may or may not intersect with yours, but it is still just a crater, not the whole Deathstar.

Running with the school metaphor, it's like if the professor asks a question, and the person next to you has the answer. You didn't know the answer yourself, even though she did, and so you feel stupid because clearly everyone else already knew it.

But that's not true. That one person had the answer. Probably some other folks too. But not everyone in the room. And even if they did, now you do too.

This is where Millionaire comes in. Impostor syndrome happens when you assume everybody else has the answers that you don't have, so what are you even doing in a discussion with them? But Millionaire tells us a few key things:

  1. You don't need to have all the answers to win the game.
  2. It pays dividends to ask for help.

In an ideal fantasy world where everybody is open about their failures, people would be a lot more capable of asking for help when needed, and nobody would feel like a failure for asking.

But that world is not all that fantastical. True, most people are very reserved about asking for help. It makes them feel dumb. But here's the neat trick: whereas asking for help might make most people feel dumb, giving help makes them feel smart, and even better, they probably don't think of you as dumb for asking, even if you feel dumb.

So, next time you find that you don't know the answer, but you feel like everybody else does, go out there and be unrepentantly open about what you don't know yet. Phone a friend. Ask the audience! Oh yeah, and definitely be the friend who helps others learn what they don't know yet.