A Beginner’s Guide to Making Imposter Syndrome Your Friend

Training Institute Class of 2017–2018. Photo courtesy of Global Health Corps.

There are things that I know and things that I don’t. That is a fact of life that will always hold true regardless of how old I am, what degree I hold, or how far I may have made it.

A few months ago, my mom sent me Suzanne Koven’s “Letter to a Young Female Physician,” a surgeon’s poignant reflection on struggling with feeling like a fraud at every step of her career, despite finding successes at school, with patients, and amongst colleagues. As a soon-to-be medical student and future female physician, I knew her experience would likely be one I’d intimately come to know. While a career in medicine required her to master extensive amounts of knowledge, assume vital responsibility for a person’s life and well-being, and learn to face sexism when her presence in a space was questioned, one of the greatest hurdles she has had to overcome was her feeling of imposter syndrome.

I felt myself nodding furiously in agreement with what Koven wrote in this deeply personal letter, as I braced for the realities of a career in medicine and was already resonating with this sense of fraudulence. While Koven believes both men and women are susceptible to imposter syndrome, she argues “I believe that women’s fear of fraudulence is similar to men’s but with an added feature: not only do we tend to perseverate over our inadequacies, we often denigrate our strengths.” Upon first reading this line, I vowed to myself that, like Koven, I would go to battle with these feelings of imposter syndrome and learn to appreciate my strengths.

As I reflect back on my year as a Global Health Corps fellow, however, I’m no longer sure it’s just that simple. For any of us who have felt that unshakeable, insidious feeling that we weren’t smart enough or old enough or successful enough to belong at one point in our lives, imposter syndrome is very real. Koven hits the nail on the head in saying we need to embrace our strengths to fight against our feelings of fraudulence, but what if those feelings of fraudulence — those feelings of being a perpetual beginner — could actually be leveraged as one of our greatest strengths?

This time last year, I sat in my dorm room with a Global Health Corps acceptance in hand and a bachelor’s degree on the horizon. Senior year was supposed to be this culmination of success, a stamp of approval that after graduation, I’d be ready to take on the world. Yet there was this sinking feeling that I was horribly underprepared. While excited to be a fellow at the Boston Public Health Commission, I was also incredibly daunted to be one of the youngest, most inexperienced members in our fellowship class of 140 young leaders. Do I really belong here amidst all of my incredible peers who have started foundations, traveled the world, and done so much more with their lives than me? Was it a stroke of luck that I landed a spot?

Nine months later, I sat in the Sixth Annual State of Asian Women’s Health Conference amidst doctors, patients, and health department leaders. As was often the case throughout my fellowship year, I was the youngest in the room by far and felt this deep sense of not belonging creep up again. For the final breakout of the day, our group was tasked with brainstorming creative solutions to address challenges facing the new Accountable Care Organization (ACO) model in Massachusetts. As I joined a group of four, a sense of dread washed over me in realizing there was no way to hide in this crowd. One by one we went around. People shared solutions like increasing translation of documents, decreasing communication time, and expanding partnership efforts. All were great ideas, but the half-hearted nodding and occasional interjection of how it wouldn’t be feasible with the history of how things are done proved these solutions weren’t all too novel. As I mentally scanned for an idea, trying to think outside the box, something my design thinking professor once said came to mind:

Anyone can brainstorm — it’s even better if you’re a beginner. Great designers aren’t great because they’re always the best content experts in the area they’re designing for. They’re great because they start as beginners, allow themselves to be curious enough to ask big questions, bring experts into the process, and build off what they do know.

Not knowing enough about public health wasn’t an inadequacy, but was instead an opportunity to think creatively based on what I did know. I thought back to the patient panel earlier in the day, when a woman diagnosed with cancer shared how she went without a primary care doctor and with a broken foot for six months because there was no one to advocate for her patient rights. In response, the president of a large health plan acknowledged she did not realize the depth of pain patients had to struggle through, where the well-intentioned systems she helped lead were causing people to fall through the gaps. She ultimately vowed to do better knowing this. This powerful moment reminded me of a video where design thinking was used to improve education systems by having principals shadow high school students to foster empathy by observing their day-to-day lives. What if we could build understanding and empathy like this regularly, instead of once a year at a conference? What if decision-makers were required to shadow a day in the life of a patient to see and feel what struggles they had to go through? As I shared, people embraced the idea, adding nuances to create a collective solution that built off our different experiences as providers, patients, community members, and recent graduates. People were excited to try this at their organizations to improve and inform the ACO experience.

The reason why this moment was so empowering wasn’t because our group came up with a groundbreaking idea to transform the system. It was a simple idea that didn’t require years of public health knowledge, but leveraged a mindset in design thinking that encourages interdisciplinary solution-sharing through analogous inspiration, inspired by the fact that building empathy is often the first step to motivating someone to action. It was the moment when I realized my feelings of imposter syndrome and fear of fraudulence as a beginner were the very set of fresh eyes I could use to bring creative ideas to the table, not yet jaded by the realities of decades in the field.

There will always be someone smarter, someone who’s worked longer, someone who’s done more. But isn’t it better to have someone smarter around when there’s a question you can’t answer on your own? To have the space to be curious and soak up all the knowledge of those who’ve come before, with mentors to guide you along the way?

To all the fellows who have shown me so many incredible careers I could take to be a changemaker in the global health space this year: thank you. Thank you for not being the reason why I question my validity but for inspiring me and giving me the chance to see what the hundreds of different paths I could take to fight for health as a human right could look like, without having to live each one out for myself.

To my supervisors, colleagues and friends: thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise with me. Thank you for welcoming me and not judging me for my youth, and for pushing me to realize my strengths. I may not be ending the year as an expert in public health, but I have learned so much from you that will undoubtedly guide me in the years to come.

When we’re young, we’re in such a rush to reach that peak of success — we don’t take time to appreciate that these are the years when we should give ourselves space to be curious instead of wasting all our time trying to figure out how to prove ourselves. We hold ourselves back when our emphasis on what we lack overshadows our confidence in what we bring to the table. Whether we’ve spent nine months in the field or twenty years, there will always be things we know and things we don’t. Recognizing that we are beginners in areas where we know less does not validate that voice in our head that makes us feel like frauds. Seeing through the eyes of a beginner makes you curious, reminds you to listen, and gives you fresh eyes to challenge old ways. Being a beginner is a strength.

This year I’ve learned to embrace being a beginner. Being a beginner doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. Sometimes when you think you know too much, you’re afraid to ask questions. You’re afraid that you no longer have the right to be curious. This year, I took a course titled, “Life and Doctrine: the starting point for exploring Christianity”, where I was given the chance to be a beginner again. As someone who was raised in the church, as I grew older, I felt I no longer had the right to ask the hard questions and instead should be the one to answer them. Being in a class catered towards beginners was a burden lifted off my shoulders. Not knowing enough didn’t mean I was an imposter. It meant I could dig deep into what I didn’t know and ask why it made me uncomfortable. I could return to the foundations of what I did know and learn from my peers to build myself up, not tear myself down.

Imposter syndrome gives you humility to recognize there is much for you to learn, but far too often we fall into the toxic trap of confusing humility with self-denigration. Use that feeling of imposter syndrome to your advantage but don’t let it make you feel inadequate — let it show you what you don’t know, what you do know, what you want to know, and who you can find to help you along the way.

Lean into your curiosity to learn and let it drive you. Lean into your feelings of newness, of being a beginner, and find creative ways to bring your past experiences into your future endeavors.

So as graduation season comes to an end yet again and new jobs and new adventures dawn on our horizons, for all you out there celebrating new beginnings like me, I hope we’ll remember this the next time we feel like we don’t belong: make what society considers to be your weakness your hidden strength.

Patricia Bai is a 2017–2018 Global Health Corps fellow at Boston Public Health Commission.

All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. Want to get involved? Check out these great opportunities to support the health equity movement and consider joining us as a fellow or partner when applications open later this year! And don’t forget to connect with us on Twitter / Instagram / Facebook.