Imposter Syndrome (JHP Day 7)
I think to some extent we've all felt it. That fundamental concern - dread, even - that you just aren't worthy. Not worthy of people's validation, of their respect or their recognition for the things that you've done. Why would you be?
You start to feel like you're lying to everyone you talk to - that the things you've done aren't really yours to speak about, or that the knowledge or skills you supposedly have were mistakenly assigned - shoddily slapped onto your reputation like sticky labels already starting to peel off.
At it's core, imposter syndrome is an inability to recognise and assess your own competence. You attribute success to other external factors outside of your control, berating your own performance because you take no ownership in the things that you did.
It can also come from a fear of living up to expectations - a fear that you've not achieved enough. One thought leads to another and suddenly you're doubting yourself, setting goals you simply can't reach, feeling disappointed when you fall short and thereby sabotaging your success.
Imposter syndrome is often considered the single greatest threat to your career (and reaching your potential). But the fact that it happens to almost all of us proves that it's both a relatable problem, and one that can be solved. This article will show you how even the best of the best have faced it, and overcome it.
What Makes It Happen?
Fundamentally, imposter syndrome can be triggered by 5 basic feelings, which can be translated into types:
- The Perfectionist. You think unless you were absolutely perfect in something, you could have done better, and so you aren't worthy.
- The Expert. You feel like a fraud because you don't know everything there is to know about a particular subject or topic, or you haven't mastered every step in a process.
- The Natural Genius. You don't think you're naturally intelligent or competent, if you don't get something right the first time around or if it takes you longer to master a skill.
- The Soloist. You had to ask for help to reach a certain level or status - you couldn't get there on your own, so you question your competence or abilities.
- The Superperson. You aren't the hardest worker in the room, or you aren't reaching the highest levels of achievement possible - so you're a fraud.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Another handy way to think about it is through the lens of the Dunning Kruger effect, which sufferers of imposter syndrome can identify with easily.
Following the graph, novices experience overconfidence due to quick progression on the learning curve - while experts’ confidence drops because they realize what they don’t yet know. Paradoxically, the more you become an expert, the more you may feel like an imposter.
Once you hit a certain level, you learn to critique your own skills, because you recognise and start seeing how much you have left to learn. And witnessing how much you have to improve on can often feel crippling.
I could spend my time typing out ways to address your feelings with kind words - to tell you that it's a common experience and there's no shame in it, or that there are ways to work around it. And I will. But I want to come at it from a different point of view first, and one that I think it's important to recognise.
In some ways, you ARE an imposter.
When you do ambitious and important work, you are far beyond your capabilities. So by definition, you are an imposter - lacking the skills needed to be completely competent.
If you only did things you were ready to do in your career or your hobbies, you would achieve nothing. Nobody would achieve anything. Neil Armstrong wouldn't have walked on the Moon, Jeff Bezos wouldn't have made Amazon. Neither of those people felt ready or competent enough to face the challenges they faced. And yet they still came out the other side.
David Perell, a famous writer, once said, "once you realise that everyone is an imposter, you realise that nobody is an imposter. You realise you have a responsibility to yourself, the friends and the world to share ideas."
As humans, we advance our culture and civilisation solely by standing on the shoulders of the people before us, and building on their inventions, believing that we aren't worthy, and then eventually convincing ourselves that, in fact, we are.
We fail to fully recognise our own complete competence because if we did, we would just be sat on our laurels. We wouldn't want to work to be better in any aspect. The fact that we feel it proves we're on the journey to success. And that is a crucial insight to take forward. In that path to success, you MUST feel like a failure.
The Concrete Steps
So what can you do now? Knowing that failure is necessary - that feeling like an imposter IS part of the process.
Well for one thing - know that it doesn't have to cripple you.
There are ways to accept it and incorporate it into your life that let you move forward, flowing with the feeling and allowing it to pass without harming you.
1. Recognise that it's not just you.
It's estimated that around 77% of people in the UK have faced imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. It’s a societal norm.
2. Discuss it with others.
Studies consistently find that people who experience Imposter Syndrome feel alone. But after learning the facts (see above) you'll be able to see just how many other people feel or have felt similarly.
3. Write down your successes
Whatever they are. Grades, performance reviews, compliments or kind words. Celebrate them and understand the recognition that you've been provided came from a genuine place. See how far you've come, and how capable you are.
4. Give up perfection
One of the lessons I took first hand when accepting this challenge and writing on this blog. The #1 factor that influences success in creative fields is volume of work produced. According to the 70-20-10 rule: - 70% of your work will suck - 20% will be average - 10% will be amazing. If you’re avoiding failure, you’re avoiding success too.
5. Keep learning
Don't let the fear stop you from the inherent desire to get better and be more than what you were yesterday. Everything surrounding you right now was built by people with the same capacity for thought as you. The only difference was that the creators went through a process of idea to execution—and continued to learn along the way. Follow in their footsteps.
I think one of the most refreshing things for someone going through imposter syndrome can be realising how common it is among people they know. So - here's how I've felt it, both in engineering and my other hobbies.
Engineering and Making Drones
So many times, I've felt like I'm 'playing at the same level' as a lot of other people, without having their actual skills or knowledge.
I've been interested in drones for a few years now. I've been seen as a subject matter expert in the topic, as the avionics lead of a drone project for almost a year.
Can you guess when I actually started making one myself?
Everything before that was research, or contributing small bits and pieces in group projects. Nothing I felt like I could ever call my own, and definitely nothing I could show for it, until now.
If anything, my journey proves you don't even need something to show to be able to provide help, contribute, or act as an advisor. All you need is a willingness to learn.
I am not joking when I say, when I came to university, all I knew how to make was scrambled eggs and beans on toast.
Other than that, I didn't know a single recipe off by heart. In fact I still don't - I just know how to use the internet to find things I'd like to eat - and I have the interest to go out, get ingredients, and follow a set of online instructions to make them.
Cooking is inherently a hobby based around discovery. Creating new methods, new flavours and new experiences.
Feeling like a fraud - like someone who isn't good at cooking - is a natural part of becoming a good cook.
I'd like to think I've managed to make some decent food now. But I'll let you be the judge of that.
Imposter Syndrome as a University Student
Throughout my two years at uni, I've talked to a lot of people. And over that time, hearing what's said to me or about me, it sometimes feels as though I've acquired this reputation of a person who 'does things' - who's in these interesting projects, or has these side hobbies, or diverse interests.
I've had to deal with it for a while, and often in the beginning I struggled. In my previous post on burnout, one of the things I mentioned was fulfilling people's expectations of me - and I suppose this was part of that.
The truth is, I never felt able to do it all. And I think I still don't. When you stretch yourself out in that way, putting 10% of your energy in 10 different projects, it's common to feel like you aren't contributing anything. I love to do different things, and I think I've developed a lot of interests over time, trying to develop my career prospects as well. But imposter syndrome was common for me and often played into my reasons for burnout.
I think a part of me still isn't over it. I'm just happy to keep going because I'm slowly recognising that it's a part of the process.
If insights from blogs like this prove anything - it's that even when you have the information that you aren't an imposter - that you've earned your achievements - you can still feel as though you are one.
It will always be a mental battle. But I trust that it's one that you can win.
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