The Imposter Syndrome, and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Start a Freelance UX Design Career

by Karol K

posted on 09-15-2017

There have been multiple attempts to define what imposter syndrome (or impostor syndrome) feels like, but here’s my attempt at visualizing it:

In a sentence, imposter syndrome is when you feel like you’re a fraud (in your professional field), and that everyone is just about to pick up on that and fire/abandon/ridicule you on the spot.

The funny thing is that this happens despite the fact that you might already be quite successful and with a range of otherwise impressive achievements under your belt.

But here’s the kicker, you’re not unique at all in your imposter syndrome. Basically, all smart, talented and successful people feel like imposters every once in a while. Believe it or not, but it’s true nonetheless. Even those super-star engineers at Google feel that way, perhaps them even more so than anyone else, as one person admits:

At Google it’s so common there is an internal distribution list dedicated to it, and I believe it’s something the management watches for. It’s a natural side-effect of being surrounded by brilliant people.

– John L. Miller, former staff engineer at Google

Want more stats that are even more stunning? Well, it turns out that according to research data, the imposter syndrome phenomena affects – a hard to believe – seven in 10 people at some point in their lives. And the problem is nothing new, by the way. The term itself was coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Again, that’s 1978 – long before the internet, UX design, web design, or anything else that you’re doing on your computer right now.

In fact, if you don’t feel like an imposter at all (like never) then perhaps you should be more concerned with that.

Just think of the alternative; do you imagine yourself pondering something along the lines of, “I deserve that! I’m the perfect person for this job! There’s literally no one else here who could do this better!” and doing so all the time?! Only a crazy person would be like that.

And that is, likely, the most surprising thing about imposter syndrome – it’s normal. Feeling like an imposter is normal, and especially in creative fields. Granted; full disclosure, I have no background to claim things like that, but it makes sense nonetheless.

So, if you’re just getting into UX design, or have been doing it for a while even, then you need to realize that feeling like an imposter every once in a while is normal. With that, here’s how you can battle that feeling and get progress with your work and career. What follows are 11 things that you need to realize and/or put in practice:

1. Think of the Impact

Albeit very common, feeling like an imposter is not a mindset that facilitates growth – as in, personal growth.

There’s no value in sitting at your desk and thinking that you’re a fraud. It’s not motivating in any way, and it’s not something that’s easy to take action on. Basically, you can’t get any growth out of it that would contribute to either your skillset or take you in the right direction in your career.

So like with many problems of this nature, realizing that it’s not something to define yourself by is the first step to overcoming it.

2. You Don’t Need to Have All the Answers All the Time

Some designers are awesome. Drop dead awesome. They seem like they know everything. You see them on social media, you read their blog posts, you look at their portfolio. All awesome!

However, even they don’t know all the answers all the time. What you’re actually seeing is just the highlight reel. They too have doubts.

Again, don’t expect to have all the answers all the time. However, be ready to learn on the job, educate yourself, and find that answer eventually.

This brings me to:

3. There’s No Overnight Success

Even those awesome designers, albeit they might appear so, are not overnight successes.

There’s a great book by Chris Guillebeau, “279 Days to Overnight Success.” Even the title alone explains the gist. Basically, every successful person ever has been sitting in the trenches, experiencing failure after failure, try after try, building up their craft, and only then eventually striking gold. This is exactly when we hear about those people. We don’t hear about the failures, we hear about the one success. This is why it appears as if the person came onto the scene overnight.

The path is the same for everyone. You need to be a bad UX designer to then be an okay UX designer to then be an awesome UX designer. But you need to start somewhere in order to get there.

And, by the way, someday other people will start calling you an overnight success too. So no worries.

4. Don’t Try To Be Perfect

Perfect is the enemy of good. Even more than that, perfection is unachievable in UX design. At the end of the day, there’s always this one use case, this one client, or this one user test that fails. There are just too many variables.

So instead of iterating and iterating until you feel that your solution is perfect, and only then presenting it to the world, focus on providing value right away. Solve your client’s problems in the simplest way possible. The solution doesn’t need to be perfect, and especially if you’re just starting out in UX, but it needs to be a solution.

After you have your first iteration, get feedback immediately. Don’t try to perfect your creation in solitude. This is perhaps the first step to failure.

5. Realize That Things Change Often

Your imposter syndrome tends to strike you every time you hear about a new technology or design trend or anything else that you don’t know of, but apparently, the whole web is crazy about already. “I should already be aware of this! Why ain’t I?! I must be a fraud!” – it’s easy to beat yourself over the head with this.

However, deep down, you know very well that it’s impossible to keep up with all new APIs, new tools, and new “somethings” right as they come. Yes, some people get to certain things faster, others later, but everyone needs to spend some time on the “on ramp” anyway. And no one simply just understands every new piece of technology out there. You shouldn’t be discouraged if that’s what you’re feeling. Just calm down and start learning things peacefully.

6. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

I realize that comparing yourself to others is hard to resist. However, comparing yourself to others in relation to your imposter syndrome is on a whole different level. You’re basically thinking that someone who previously did what you are doing now was much more qualified.

This is no good. And especially in UX design, where each project is so different that comparing them directly is basically impossible anyway. In other words, you never know for sure.

So, instead, work to your own tune. Set your own goals and focus on achieving them. Don’t spend time wondering what the goals of other designers might be, or how far ahead they might be in achieving them.

In short, don’t live other people’s lives … in fact, you don’t know how hard they’ve had it.

7. Make a Checklist of “Feel Good”

Setting your goals and working towards achieving them is one thing. But knowing what you can reasonably expect and allowing yourself to feel good is another.

A great way to avoid your imposter mindset is to decide what you need to do/achieve/complete to allow yourself to feel satisfied with your work. Make it specific – outcomes that you can define and then measure to some extent. In fact, make it a checklist. For instance:

Then, once you do complete all of those, you are clear to be happy about what you’re doing and pat yourself on the back. When the list is done, you’re not allowed to feel like an imposter at least for the rest of the day.

8. Teach/Mentor Other People

It sounds odd, after all, why would you think you can teach other people if you feel like an imposter yourself, right? However, first of all, to teach someone, you only need to know more than they do. You don’t need to be the best. You just need to be a little more knowledgeable.

Also, this gives you a new experience that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and it helps transfer your knowledge over to other people. The ones that will benefit from this especially are beginners who find it hard to learn from people who are too far ahead and thus fail to speak the language that beginners can understand.

Moreover, this validates your skills – it gives you proof that you’re not an imposter after all. This builds your self-esteem perhaps more than anything else could.

At the end of the day, it’s not all about you. It’s about other people too. So instead of just focusing on your own imposter syndrome, help other people grow. Focus on having a positive impact on them.

9. You’re Excited, Not Necessarily Fearful

Surprisingly, fear and excitement are very similar sensations. As Alex Korb, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at UCLA says, “There is very little physiological difference between fear and excitement.”

Or, as Gerry Hussey puts it, “When we can’t see the solution immediately in front of us, we start to panic.” This is because, when dealing with stress, the human brain operates based on the signals from its main stress-related area – the limbic brain.

Therefore, as it turns out, our conscious brains are not that good at distinguishing between those feelings. Oftentimes, or rather every time, we feel uncertain about all new challenges and projects that force us to go out of our comfort zone. However, as science proves, mostly, you’re just sensing opportunity in the air, and not as much being fearful of what’s coming. Embrace the feeling.

10. Don’t Consider Appearing Competent a Flaw

Appearing competent and thinking that everybody is wrong about the level of your true competence is one of the core problems of imposter syndrome. You just refuse to believe that you’re good enough and that there’s some rationale to people praising you.

It’s not a flaw to appear competent. It shouldn’t be avoided. In fact, it’s a valuable skill.

11. Just Turn Up and Do the Work

Starting a new freelance career is intimidating. There’s a lot of doubt that goes into this and many adversities. Especially in UX design – where the field itself is rather young and the lines between great and imposter can be blurred.

However, it all starts with a single step. So just turn up and do your work. Find your first clients, think how you can help them solve their problems. Don’t focus too much on yourself. Focus on them – the clients and other people you can teach – and see how you can help the field itself grow. Focus your energy outward instead of inward. This is perhaps the best method to battle imposter syndrome.

Again, just turn up and do your work! If you want to build a career in UX design, you can take the first steps today.

That sums up this list of 11 things that you need to realize about imposter syndrome, plus how to battle it when starting a new freelance career as a UX designer. What’s your take on this? Do you struggle with imposter syndrome as a designer?

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design