Mentorship & Imposter Syndrome

An honest look into my anxieties helped me become a better designer, team member, and leader.

Hey! I’m Sabrina, but you can call me Sab. Just imagine for a second that I’m shaking your hand via the interwebz because I believe all social interactions should begin with a proper firm handshake. I’m an experience/product design student based in Vancouver, Canada. During my first ever work term gig at a nifty local place called Hootsuite, maybe you’ve heard of em?, I discovered a little bit about myself.

If you’re anything like me, taking on an 8-month work term for a UX position can be quite daunting especially as a 3rd year design student with zero industry experience. It’s even more unnerving if you’ve got constant Imposter Syndrome nagging at you. It’s the all too familiar feeling of “I don’t belong here,” “I don’t deserve this,” or “I don’t know what I’m doing” that creeps up on anyone as they begin to take on new opportunities in their lives.

My big takeaway at Hootsuite is the value of mentorship in both work and interpersonal-related experiences. My mentors helped me address my Imposter Syndrome.

I’m happy to share that my mentors have helped me address this personal obstacle. If you’re feeling the same as you start your first ever work term, then the best piece of advice I can give you is to make use of the mentors you’ll eventually cross paths with.

To be quite honest, I never thought I could address these anxieties with Imposter Syndrome. It’s something I’ve been struggling to hide, stifle, and disassociate from. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve learned that you don’t have to go through it alone.

Wait, what’s Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome is associated with those who internalise all their hard work and achievements out of fear that they’ll be exposed as “frauds”. It reflects a false belief that someone is inadequate and an incompetent failure, despite evidence that indicates they’re skilled and quite successful at their craft.

This is something that I struggle with constantly with my work. Imposter Syndrome doesn’t discriminate and it’s something many experience whether if you’re a student on a work term or a senior employee. Common themes behind Imposter Syndrome are:

01. Attributing your success to external factors
“Oh, I was just lucky.”
“The idea just came to me.”
“They probably hired me because there was no one else.”

02. Constant fear of being exposed as a fraud or being unmasked
“People are going to find out I don’t know how to do this.”
“My manager is going to find out I don’t belong here.”

03. Downplaying your own success
“I didn’t really do much, it was more of a team’s effort.”
“It was a small problem, anyone could have done it.”

Imposter Syndrome grows on paranoia and perfectionism: paranoia driving the fear of being unmasked, which, in turn, fuels the need to have everything be perfect. It’s a really vicious cycle.

Although there are countless strategies about overcoming Imposter Syndrome, I don’t think I’ll ever truly eliminate the general anxiety or the lingering effects it has on me. During my work term, I’ve struggled with addressing my anxieties, but I’ve come to a surprising way of mitigating them: Embrace your anxieties, especially by listening to the doubts that you may have, but just listen to your thoughtful mentors even more.

During my first two weeks, it was difficult to convince myself that a company had hired me for a position that I’d been exhaustively pursuing in school. Ironic, I know. Without romanticizing an unhealthy work ethic, I had 12 hour work days and long nights spent on campus. There was rigour, for sure, in what I was doing as a student. I’ve learned a lot and had put the time in, but Imposter Syndrome truly made me doubt the established skillset and work ethic that I was bringing to the company.

I mean, in hindsight, I had earned my opportunity. My projects excelled in my classes; I understood and could apply UX concepts; I had all the technical skills listed in the job description; I ticked all the general boxes for an applicant. But my self-doubt manifested by my Imposter Syndrome made me dismiss my previous work and accomplishments. I ended up spending my first two weeks painstakingly waiting for the moment someone would call me out for not knowing x concept or y method and validate that I was, indeed, a fraud.

But I’m not a fraud. That’s where mentorship comes in.

At Hootsuite, I worked closely alongside 2 mentors, Noel Heaney and Paul Donnelly, as I was part of their team. Simultaneously, I was surrounded by 17 other members on the Product Design team. These were the folks I individually respected for their own personality, position, skillset, and merits.

The second project I took on with full ownership had design mockup deliverables. This was the first time I would be creating something and I felt the need to have perfect, ideal solutions in order to continue masking myself or else someone’s going to call me out for being a fake designer. To be honest, I didn’t necessarily trust myself that I had the skills or enough background in the product to pull it off. However, I’ve learned that you don’t have to completely trust that you’re capable of the work asked of you, you’ll just need to trust the people who believe in you.

You don’t have to completely trust that you’re capable of the work asked of you, you’ll just need to trust the people who believe in you.

I spent hours being meticulous with the designs that when it came to presenting it I fumbled. I didn’t feel like I got the point across with why the designs mattered. That’s when my mentor, and friend, Noel Heaney, told me an important part of being a designer: Designers create conversations, not things. It took me a few minutes to process. It was something so simple I completely overlooked it. It was humbling. Removing myself from the minutiae of a solution helped me move forward as I saw the main reason behind presenting solutions in the first place. I understood why we had quick stand-up meetings, bi-weekly updates, or even table meetings for that matter. It was rarely a tick-in-the-box that x person is doing y, but moreso an opportunity to have a conversation about your work and get feedback on it.

My anxieties decreased over time as I asked around the team if they’ve too felt Imposter Syndrome and to my surprise, they have. I knew everyone goes through it, but it was another thing to hear that a majority of my team, people I looked up to, had more or less the same experiences.

So, why mentorship?

Mentorship is valuable, humbling, and, most importantly, free. As a student on a work term, the main objective is to absorb as much information as you can, but this goes beyond the work as you may end up learning something about yourself.

We seek out mentors for their wisdom, guidance, and opinions as we begin new journeys whether it’s career or life related. If you already hold your mentor’s opinion in high regard, shouldn’t that mean their opinion on your potential and skillset would, more or less, outweigh your own doubts and anxieties? So what does that say about your mentor’s decision to stick with you on your journey? Again, you don’t have to completely trust that you’re capable of the work asked of you, you’ll just need to trust the people who believe in you. And mentorship is a great way to have someone believe in the work that you’re doing and the career that you’re pursuing.

“Stay humble. Be teachable. The rest will follow.” — Russell Taylor

I look back on those words that my mentor and teacher, Russell Taylor, told me before I started my work term and I’m glad I stuck by it. My advice for future students is to take on as many projects and meet as many mentors as you can because you’ll never know how one small conversation can change your perspective entirely. This post is for those starting their first work term, but also as a thank you to the lovely and thoughtful mentors I’ve come across on the Product Design team at Hootsuite:

Sheryl Soo, Felix Tin, Paul Donnelly, Helen Park, Ashley Gadd, Madison Poon, Melissa Riby-Williams, Claire McCormick, Noel Heaney, Meghan Deutscher, Adrienne Tsang, Marjolein Visser, Tamasin Reno, Kerry McNamee, Vanessa Lew, Guillaume D’Arabian, Tim Kolke, Will Balladares, Eric Puchmayr.

I originally wrote this for Hootsuite, you can find it here.