Stop Worrying and Love Your Imposter Syndrome

While I was at Web Directions last week, a few people brought up the topic of imposter syndrome and were asking for advice on how to overcome it. There’s been a lot written about the challenge of feeling that you aren’t good enough and like at any moment you’ll be found out for the fraud you really are (Julie Zhuo wrote this fantastic article which you should definitely read). Particularly in technology, it’s pretty common to find people who are performing functions they didn’t train for in school, which I can vouch only increases that anxiety. For instance, I was a Creative Writing major and never studied design or management, which has almost certainly contributed to my own imposter syndrome.

Personally, I still struggle with that feeling a lot of the time, even as VP of Design (in fact, especially as that!). Every time I encounter an unfamiliar obstacle, I wonder about whether or not I’ll be able to figure it out. To be sure, there are design managers out there with a lot more practical design experience and more honed intuition. And there are absolutely managers who are more seasoned, who’ve seen and successfully navigated all the things that I’m only just now encountering for the first time. I’m surrounded every day by incredibly smart, talented people, which can be pretty intimidating and at times makes me wonder if I’m capable of hanging with them and able to contribute anything valuable.

The thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that most of these smart, talented people are feeling the exact same way that I am. I’ve had so many discussions with folks I respect in which they talk about how they’re struggling or second-guessing themselves. What seems effortless in the moment is actually a byproduct of a ton of self-reflection and questioning. The best manager I know is the quickest to ask if her decision is the correct one and the fastest to admit that she may be wrong. Regardless of whether you’re a manager or maker, it’s important to realize that the person you think knows what they’re doing and makes everything look easy is probably a total basketcase when it comes to knowing whether or not they’re doing a great job and belong in their role.

It’s interesting to me that we all talk about imposter syndrome as if it’s a bad thing, a challenge to be overcome, a feeling to be ignored. In my experience, the folks who find a way to embrace that feeling are the ones who deliver the most value. Imposter syndrome makes people more conscientious of their choices, lowers egos and makes them more open to other points of view. When someone tries to ignore or suppress their imposter syndrome, the result is typically overcompensation - they run over their colleagues and insist on being right because that’s what someone who wasn’t an imposter would do, right? By trying to be better, they accidentally wind up becoming less effective and, a lot of times, alienating to their teammates.

Personally, I love the imposters. I love the way they’re driven to collect feedback on how they’re doing almost constantly. I love how they second guess (or double check) themselves, because they’re truly considering the problem and are open to being wrong. I love their curiosity and how they push themselves to learn new things and take on new challenges in order to try to prove they aren’t imposters. I love how humble they are, and how kind they are to others, knowing they have a lot to learn from everyone around them.

At Etsy and at BuzzFeed, we have a form for leaving feedback on product design candidates after interviews. The last field in the form is simply titled “Quietly Awesome - Are they doing world-class work with a low ego?” We’re literally looking for the candidates with imposter syndrome, the ones who are conscientious, thoughtful, kind. And effective. Instead of incorrectly seeing imposter syndrome as a weakness, we view it for what it truly is: strength.

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