How to avoid feeling like an imposter

We've all had the feeling that we're in over our heads and don't know what we're doing. Here are a few tips to keep that at bay.
Aloke Pillai

The most helpful skill I learned from my design school days has been the ability to critique something. Good feedback has the power to transform both the art and the artist. We humans thrive off of feedback because creation demands it. We need it as validation for what we build. For art, feedback is the reaction. For design, feedback is the motivation for change.

The opposite of good feedback isn’t negative feedback, it is apathy or indifference because when someone asks for feedback, they are requesting you to empathize with someone to solve their problem. When building things in a work environment, that apathy can be silence. It is that meeting that ends with everyone silently nodding along in agreement.

Sometimes, the reason behind that silence is the personal insecurity we bring to the table - our own impostor. That is what I want to unpack here. The impostor feeling is the tiny version of you sitting on your shoulder. The more paranoid version of you. When you lack the experience, it is the loudest. It may be small but powerful.

There may be many reasons for its voice. You may justify it with your inexperience. I personally faced a lot of these thoughts when I first joined the industry. I rationalized to myself that many of the ideas I would bring would be riddled with naivete and would not stand the test of further scrutiny. So I decided to stay silent and help others distill their ideas instead.

However, I think this feeling is well deserved if you believe that surrounding yourself with people smarter than you is how you grow. The byproduct of that aspiration could introduce personal insecurities about your own competence. If you have ever felt this, rest assured we have all been there.

If you do feel this in your day to day, here are some reminders for you. Remember, being comfortable at work allows you to express your ideas with pure conviction and chutzpah! It can unlock your true potential and bring your game to a whole new level.

Learn history and guide the conversation

If you suffer from not having experience, learn the history of the domain. Imagine you find yourself in a room filled with the most decorated army generals in the world planning a siege. Their experience may intimidate you but understand that the value you add can take a different form. Whereas they might reference personal experience, you can reference history. People tend to have a worldview with a timeline of the past 10-20 years. If we zoom out to 100+ years we start to learn more about our human patterns of communication and computation. These references can guide and mold a conversation.

Use the right words

A critique should be imagined as a place mentally designed to entertain and stretch ideas. Certain words can visualize and shape shift. It can paint a vivid picture in someone else’s mind easily. An old mentor of mine had a great tactic of presenting his ideas. He prefaced his words with ‘what if...’, ‘imagine that...’ or ‘let’s say we live in a world where...’. These words create a temporary state to propose ideas without poking holes into it right away.

Talk to that impostor

Have a real conversation with yourself of why you think you can’t present these ideas. Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous author behind Eat, pray, love, speaks about this. She beautifully personifies her fear sitting in the backseat of the car she drives. She tells her fear that "you're allowed to have a seat, and you're allowed to have a voice. But you are not allowed to have a vote. You're not allowed to touch the road maps, or suggest detours. You're not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you're not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, you are absolutely forbidden to drive."

Be prepared to visualize ideas

When you don’t have the experience, you just have to work harder and be more prepared. One can rely on their pedigree and past experiences for their discussion, but the real winners study and prep their ideas all the time. In the long run, guess who will always have a leg up.

Help and build trust

Be willing to do anything to push the best ideas forward. If it is taking notes, take the best notes possible and forward it to everyone after the meeting is done. If the ideas after the meeting seem esoteric and blurry, take one or two and prototype it to show the team. Taking this step will help people trust you and ask for your input.

Time to ask that impostor to quiet down and become a beginner.

Now begin!

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