How to Reap the Benefits of Impostor’s Syndrome

So this is our design expert…

This is how my boss introduced me to a Fortune 100 client. It was my first design job. I tried to pull my shit together and pretend to be a “design expert” as much as possible. I felt uncomfortable and like a fraud.

What does it mean to you to feel like an impostor?

The dictionary definition of impostor is someone who “pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.”

Unless you’re a conman like Leo from Catch Me If You Can or Jennifer Love Hewitt in Heartbreakers, most of us who feel like impostors are rarely doing anything with malice. The harm we inflict is on entirely on ourselves.

benefits-impostor-syndrome-leo-catch-me-if-you-can
Leo’s pretends to be a pilot, pediatrician, and attorney in Catch Me If You Can.

Here are some impostor syndrome examples from my life…

  • I coach designers in their job search, and most of my students are far more talented than I am
  • I sell courses on Wireframing and UX Portfolios. I don’t consider my own wireframing skills or my own portfolio to be that good.
  • I don’t feel quite like an “entrepreneur” because that term indicates a level of success I don’t have, yet I do “entrepeneurial-y” things
  • Friends look to me as a mature source of reason. I am still quietly laughing inside.

TMI? But you get it – I too have impostor’s syndrome. But slowly, over time, I’ve learned to not only become 100% okay with impostor’s syndrome, but also leverage it for good. Those learnings are codified into three steps I’ll share with you now.

Step 1: Normalize it

Managing impostor’s syndrome starts with realizing you’re not alone in this feeling. Almost everyone experiences impostor’s syndrome in their lives. Researchers even did studies to confirm this:

70% of people will experience at least one episode of this Impostor Phenomenon in their lives (Gravois, 2007)

This finding is even more powerful with countless examples from executives, high performers and celebrities who consistently feel like frauds:

  • Every year, about 2/3 of new Stanford Business School students raise their hands to the question “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made? (Olive Cabana, author of The Charisma Myth)
  • Out of 21 great graphic designers I interviewed in my book, all but two –Massimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser – said they experienced that sort of fear of being found out, or not being able to repeat their successes, or suffered impostor syndrome. (Debbie Millman, Designer, producer of Design Matters podcast)
  • There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud. (Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO)

Half the battle of managing impostor’s syndrome is remembering that you are far from the only one experiencing this. It’s necessary to de-isolate yourself from the bubble of “I’m the only one.”

everybody is faking it, except taco guy

Society has conditioned us with social media and advertising to believe that life should be perfect and legendary all the time. Which makes us forget that IT’S OKAY TO FEEL SHITTY FROM TIME TO TIME.

The more we fight impostor’s syndrome, the more we give it power. It’s not anything to “get rid of” just as much as we can’t get rid of the sting of rejection. But it is something that can be managed, something that we can relate to on a healthier level.

In fact, impostor syndrome can help us in more ways that you might assume.

Step 2: Make it Useful

From an evolutionary standpoint, if everything felt good all the time…there would be no human progress. Without the motivation or need to solve problems, we’d already be extinct as a species.

So let’s take an experiment and change our relationship to impostor’s syndrome. In step 1, we saw how I.S. is a normal part of our human condition. In step 2, we can think of impostor’s syndrome as a potentially useful feature of our human condition.

IT’S A FEATURE, NOT A BUG

There’s a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the inability to recognize one’s own ignorance or lack of skill. The two researchers who named this bias conducted a study with university students, with these findings…

The group of competent students underestimated their class ranks, while the group of incompetent students overestimated their ranksPDF from Colombia University

Interesting implications, right?

There’s a chance that if you underestimate yourself (a common symptom of impostor’s syndrome) and are always working to improve, you’ll probably end up at least competent in what you do.

> …competent students tended to underestimate their own competence, because they erroneously presumed that tasks easy for them to perform also were easy for other people to perform.

Counterintuitively, the same study suggests that…

imposter’s syndrome correlates with success, and that those who don’t suffer imposter symptom are more likely to be the real frauds. (Quartz)

We can also think of impostor’s syndrome as a cue to learn from others. It’s all a matter of reframing.

The next time you think “Omg, everyone here is so much smarter than me,” your impostor’s syndrome is actually telling you “This is a good learning opportunity.”

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” (James Watson)

Conversely, if you always feel like you’re the smartest person in a group or room, that’s a cue to seek more challenging environments.

In step 2, we reframed impostor syndrome from a liability to a built-in advantage that normal-functioning humans possess.

The self doubt that weighed you down… was a booster rocket all along. But how do you ignite it?

Step 3: Action over Identity

What matters more…what you do, or the label that defines what you do?

(Rhetorical question)

The ego is the fuel of impostor’s syndrome. It does this by making us focus on our identities, rather than taking action.

It’s a lot more pressure to become a writer than it is to simply write. It’s harder to become a master scuba diver than it is to just scuba. (Is that how it works?)

And it’s more paralyzing to try and become a successful person than it is to spend time doing things you value.

You get the point. It’s easy to get caught up in what I call identity-based thinking because our egos love being fed. The ego, or our “sense of self,” wants to always grow bigger and feel ever more important. So much so, it makes us lose sight of the actual work that matters.

So next time impostor’s syndrome strikes, try letting go of the identity for a minute. Let go of being a creative, being an entrepreneur, or whatever label you might be using.

Then return to the things you truly care about.

Habits are your strongest weapons against impostor’s syndrome. Putting in work consistently helps you focus on action over identity.

You don’t have much control over becoming something, which can prove to be a vague, amorphous goal. But you have control over how you spend the most important resource in your life – time.

Impostor’s Syndrome, managed.

The three steps we covered can be used to not only manage impostor’s syndrome, but maybe get some use out of it too.

A quick review:

  • Step 1: normalize – remove yourself from isolation, realize it’s okay (and normal) to feel what you feel
  • Step 2: leverage – use impostor’s syndrome as a healthy self-check mechanism
  • step 3: focus on action over identity

Impostor’s syndrome can be crippling. But it doesn’t have to be. It all starts with being kinder to ourselves, and realizing everything we’re feeling – good and bad – is just part of being human.

Further reading and resources

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