I’m a Total Fraud, and So Are You

Making imposter syndrome work for you in the world of design.

Illustration: Justin Cheong.

You sometimes hear people say ‘fake it ’til you make it.’ While that’s a useful expression, it suggests that once you make it, your fears and doubts will just fade away. Spoiler alert – they often don’t. Like me, you may be at a place in your career where, in addition to the work you produce, people are coming to you for guidance and leadership. Maybe you’re doing public speaking or work presentations, publishing articles, or mentoring more junior staff. From the outside things are looking pretty solid, which is why it’s so strange that you keep feeling as if people are eventually going to figure out that you really shouldn’t be here. Even stranger is that these feelings may have helped to get you to where you are today.

‘Imposter Syndrome’ is sometimes used as a catch-all term for self-doubts that can plague us at work. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science_,_ 70 percent of us suffer from the feeling of being a fraud. Take Nobel laureate Maya Angelou, who once said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.‘” If winning a Nobel prize doesn’t make these feelings go away, then it’s time to accept that they probably never do, but that might not be a bad thing.

Maybe instead of trying to ignore these feelings, or somehow ‘beat them,’ we should acknowledge them and then put them to work for us. Here’s how to turn those nagging thoughts into something useful:

“I don’t deserve to be here”

Well maybe you don’t, but does that really matter? You are where you are, so unless you’re planning to quit, you should make it your job to be as useful as possible. When someone asks you for help, take the time to do what you can. I’ve had several roles with “director” in the title and still found myself doing basic production work, proofreading copy, and occasionally cleaning out the fridge (gross).

When you contribute to the team you earn your place regardless of how you got there, and earning your place is something that should never stop.

“I don’t know what I’m talking about”

You’re in good company with this one — Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once said, “Very few people get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.” Regardless of how much you know going into a job, it’s your responsibility to keep learning, as much as you can, all the time.

I’ve led several design teams and in the beginning I’m usually suspicious that this will be the time my peers pick-up on my lack of formal design education; I worry I’ll lose their confidence, and becoming embarrassed and ineffective. It hasn’t happened yet, but I still keep reading, practicing, and forcing myself out of my comfort zone to stay current and learn as much as I can. President Barack Obama read for an hour a day, every day, so keep learning and eventually you will know what you’re talking about (even though you probably did already).

“I’m not as smart as __

Natalie Portman spoke about being a freshman at Harvard, saying, “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company.” Sometimes instead of your peers it’s someone you hire, someone young, eager, and fluent in the latest tools and techniques. The good news is that you don’t need to be the smartest or the most talented in order to succeed, so embrace your humility and accept that you’re probably not going to be the best at everything.

Counter-intuitively, the more you surround yourself with the best and brightest people, the more you personally will succeed because you’re part of a team, perhaps even its leader. Don’t fear people that you perceive as being smarter or more talented; instead, nurture and support them. A rising tide lifts all boats.

“I’m going to embarrass myself”

Your instincts are probably right on this one. We all embarrass ourselves from time-to-time, but that’s what makes us human. The first talk I ever gave at a conference was called User Experience Doesn’t Exist — obviously users exist and they have experiences so it didn’t really make much sense. Thinking back on it makes me cringe, but it got me started and I’ve gone on to give several more talks that made moderately more sense at conferences across the country.

Leadership requires confidence, but demonstrating a bit of vulnerability can be a very endearing quality. While you don’t want it to happen everyday, embarrassing yourself isn’t the worst thing that can happen, in fact it might help you to win people over. When you make an innocent gaff, just smile, own it, and course correct.

“I’ve never done anything good”

Many talented people cringe when asked about their past work. Whether it’s a portfolio of designs, things they wrote, or a startup they founded, watching them explain it can be a painful experience filled with excuses and qualifiers for something that, to their audience, seems good or even exceptional. While most of us could learn to market ourselves better, this feeling isn’t necessarily bad in small doses. If you still think the work you did 10 years is ago is amazing then how much can you have grown in your craft since then? Maybe it was good for the time with the resources you had, but you’ve learned a lot since then so your work today can be even better.

The drive to improve is a healthy one, so while you don’t need to hate the work you’ve done and make excuses for it, it’s probably healthy to wish you could apply what you’ve learned since to make it better. My first portfolio site had background music…‘nuff said.

Don’t fight it, use it

Of course these kinds of feelings can be a negative force in your life, but you’ve gotten this far without being overwhelmed, so stay the course — don’t ignore your doubts, but don’t accept them as true either. Focus instead on what they can teach you: how to be humble, useful, nurturing, curious, endearing, and driven to improve. The reason why so many successful people confess to having these feelings may just be that they learned how to tap into them to make themselves better leaders, better friends, and ultimately happier, healthier frauds people.