Embracing Imposter Syndrome as a Designer
Is it all in my head? How to leverage self-doubt as a catalyst for growth
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When I was little, my parents signed me and my brother up for a coloring contest. We were given a drawing of Winnie the Pooh, a box of crayons, and all the freedom in the world. Injected with excitement, I set out to create a picture perfect coloring taking special care to ensure all my color pencil lines flowed in one direction. When it was announced that my brother’s blue-nosed, chaotically scribbled Winnie the Pooh ended up placing third over my meticulously colored bear, 8 year old me was absolutely devastated. Although I had only been taking classes for a few months, I decided, right then and there, that I just didn’t have the talent for drawing and soon quit. It wasn’t until years later, when I found myself having the same feeling of self-doubt as I began designing, that I learned to confront and embrace that emotion.
Imposter syndrome is defined as a psychological pattern in which an individual is unable to internalize their accomplishments, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
It’s especially common in creative fields where success is harder to measure because there isn’t a right answer. In fact, designers spend most of their time in the murky waters of uncertainty, which can be uncomfortable. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you might have experienced one or all of the following:
- Feeling anxious during feedback sessions. You stray away from giving feedback or defending your designs because you feel as though you lack the expertise and credibility.
- Procrastinating. Not because you’re too lazy to start, but because you’re afraid to. Starting opens up the possibilities of failure and you’re scared to fail.
- Sweeping compliments under the rug. While critique is important, you ignore the positive feedback you receive. You struggle to understand the value you bring to the table because you don’t take praises to heart.
- Negative self talk. You blame yourself for not getting something right the first time. You take negative critique personally, allowing it to chip away at your confidence.
- Constantly comparing. Others always seem more experienced, more creative, more influential. You allow these thoughts to impact your self-worth.
These experiences can be disheartening, but I’m here to tell you, you are not alone. I studied computer science in university and attributed landing my first UX internship to pure luck. “We’re so excited to see what you bring to the team!” was echoed by a little voice in my head: “What exactly do I bring to this team? They’re going to have to spend so much time teaching me everything.” To be honest, I felt like more of a burden than a help.
But the butterflies in my stomach soon disappeared when a senior designer shared that he also never received formal design training. If he didn’t let it hold him back, why should I? That summer I became a sponge, soaking up every little piece of advice and information. As I continued to work, I found confidence in my ability to quickly learn, apply, and build on what I was taught. Of course, the waves of self-doubt still come crashing down every once in a while, but now instead of drowning in my worries, I leverage them as a catalyst for growth.
Ok, on to the juicy part. How do we re-train our minds to see imposter syndrome in a different light?
Find excitement in growth
Imposter syndrome is rampant in the field of design because design encompasses so many different skill sets and tools, and it can be nearly impossible to master everything. There seems to always be something to get better at, and it can be exhausting to feel like you’re always playing catch up with the newest industry trend.
But what if I told you that this is one of the most exciting aspects of design?
As a designer, you can learn to code, lead a team, and specialize in one or more of the many different facets of design. The options are endless, and it’s within your power to decide what you want to pursue.
Know your strengths and weaknesses
Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses as both a designer and a team member. Recognize your strengths and leverage them to continue bringing value to your team. Find opportunities to work on your weaknesses. If you want to get better at receiving and implementing feedback, push yourself to present your work to others at earlier stages of the design process and not just at its most polished state. Use your imposter syndrome as motivation to work on your weaknesses and become a stronger designer.
Learn to measure your success
What does success look like to you? Is it creating beautiful designs that garner great feedback from a client? Is it being promoted to a more senior position at your company? Or is it simply being a more efficient and consistent designer than you were last week? Everyone has different definitions of success, and it’s easy to get caught up in measuring yourself against someone else’s criteria.
By thinking critically about how you define success in your day to day work, you will begin to celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small or large. Acknowledging your successes can help you develop trust with yourself. By understanding how you see success, you will find yourself taking more risks to reach more goals.
Trust me. I know how frustrating it is to spend hours or days on an idea only to scrap it and go back to the drawing board. But it’s our job as designers to spend a great deal of time in a phase of uncertainty while we explore and iterate on different ideas. Only then can we discover the best solution.
Fear of failure can prevent you from taking chances and exploring outside your comfort zone. But if you choose to embrace uncertainty, you will begin to think of failure as a natural part of the design process. Suddenly, failing becomes a step towards success instead of 3 steps backwards.
Rely on your passion, not your talent
Think about how you got to where you are now. Chances are things didn’t come easy at first, but somehow you found yourself growing as a designer and picking up skills, confidence, and friendships along the way. Whether you’re just beginning your career in design or you’ve been in the industry for years, the skills and knowledge you’ve collected stem from your love for creating and problem solving.
However, self doubt and comparing your work to others can quickly deteriorate your passion for design. If you start to feel like you’re not good enough, remind yourself that you have already jumped over the mental hurdle of not knowing anything when you started pursuing design. Rely on that same strength and passion to jump over any other hurdles that come your way.
Talk about it
This one’s pretty simple, but arguably the most important. Find someone you trust to listen, and work through your worries out loud. It can be extremely freeing to not feel alone in your thoughts and you’ll quickly come to realize that people with all different kinds of experiences and expertises share your same feelings. I’ve found amazing support systems in my mentors, team-members, and managers just by being open in conversations.
There are also designers who have shared their own experiences with imposter syndrome online. Here are a few encouraging reads:
Whenever you feel unconfident, frustrated, or anxious, reassure yourself that you’re not alone in these feelings. It’s a sign that you’re in a place where, with the right mindset, you can grow. The more you experience and overcome, the more you will begin to trust yourself. And soon enough, this trust will shine through as confidence. So keep challenging yourself. Keep pushing forward. We got this 👊.