I work with a lot of high achievers, both from my previous life in tech companies as well as my current coaching clients. I also work with many women and people of color. Imposter syndrome is a familiar concept to many of us.
Imposter syndrome is described on wikipedia as:
a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
Valerie Young in The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It highlights a familiar internal monologue:
It’s only because they like me. I was in the right place at the right time. I just work harder than the others. I don’t deserve this. It’s just a matter of time before I am found out. Someone must have made a terrible mistake.
When I worked at Facebook, I was surrounded by unbelievably smart people, all world-class experts in their specialities. My first 90 days was a disaster. Everyone I met in my first 2 weeks intimidated me. I knew nothing about how Facebook advertising worked. It felt unbelievably complicated to learn about a product and the culture of a giant corporation. My ideas and suggestions were terrible. Everyone else, from the data scientist to the product manager knew a lot more about the design patterns than I did and had far better suggestions.
I made all the mistakes in my first 90 days. I wanted to prove myself quickly and ended up alienating my more experienced teammates. I rolled up my sleeves to dig into the product at the expense of getting to know my teams and cross-functional partners. I gave pointed suggestions rather than listening and learning at the design critiques. All of this was because I was suffering from imposter syndrome and felt that I had to work harder and do more because I didn’t belong and desperately needed to prove myself.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was leading workshops for women leaders across the technical and sales teams as well as running monthly coaching sessions for senior female designers. In every session, we would talk about imposter syndrome. Through the years, imposter syndrome came up in every intimate 1–1 meeting that I had with designers or any cross-functional team member. We started having panels where some of the most successful people in the organization would share their imposter feelings. Across the board, everyone at Facebook had imposter syndrome.
This is unsurprising given that the company has a culture of high performance and achievement. While there’s not a lot of variance in titles—every designer from the recent college graduate to one with 15 years of experience has the same Product Designer title— everyone gets a performance rating every six months and compensation is directly tied to this rating.
I’ve seen four main beliefs of imposter syndrome:
- Skills: I lack the skills to do this job. Everyone else is smarter and has better skills than me. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I simply must work harder to compensate.
- Belonging: I don’t belong here. No one else understands this feeling. I feel alone. They all fit in and I’m the one that’s achingly different.
- Achievement: My performance achievement matters most. What I do and accomplish is the number one goal. I must be superwoman and do everything. I don’t have time to be nice or build relationships.
- Failure: I can’t make any mistakes. I can’t fail. Failing would expose my fraud for everyone to see.
Another Perspective — Pioneer Syndrome
Yet what if there’s another perspective? Perhaps imposter syndrome isn’t a bad thing. If you’re feeling a little bit intimidated and out of your element, it’s likely a sign that you’re playing in the big leagues. You don’t want to be the smartest, most accomplished person in the room. That means you know exactly how to do your job, and that’s boring. There’s plenty more growth opportunities to be the small fish in the big pond and learn from all the smart, inspiring people around you. Perhaps imposter syndrome could be a good thing because then you’re in the right room and ready to be stretched.
Instead of thinking that you have imposter syndrome, consider adopting *pioneer syndrome. These are the definitions of pioneer from dictionary.com:
- a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area
- a person who is among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity
- a member of an infantry group preparing roads or terrain for the main body of troops
Imagine that you are blazing the way for others and are among the first to experience this new thing.
If we look at the four beliefs of pioneer syndrome:
- Skills: I lack the skills to do this job. No one has done this before as it’s brand new, so I have as much to contribute as anyone else. We’re all figuring it out together.
- Belonging: I don’t belong here. This is a brand new place where nobody has historically belonged. Together we can co-create what the norms and culture of this new place are. And if I’m not the very first pioneer, often pioneers travel or work together in groups. Working with someone else or finding a connection may be the best way to survive in a new place. Start reaching out to share stories & connect.
- Achievement: My performance achievement matters most. Out in this new place, both what I do as well as who I am — how I show up and what relationships I form— will make me stronger.
- Failure: This is a completely new context for pioneers. We’re going to make mistakes and learn quickly. We’ll experiment and iterate to find out the best way to fail fast.
Consider that not all aspects of imposter syndrome may be bad. That feeling of apprehension can mean that you’re playing on a bigger stage. Shift your perspective from imposter syndrome to pioneer syndrome which then allows for a different framing on skills, belonging, achievement, and failure.
*Full disclosure: I completely made up the term pioneer syndrome. There is no psychological basis in this at all.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in summer 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.