Can I Get Over Imposter Syndrome?

Advice from The Sherwins for June 2018

Climbing Squiggle Mountain


Hey Sherwins!

I read your column last month on conferences, and saw that you mentioned imposter syndrome. I have it, and it’s really bad. It happens with every project, and I’m afraid to talk to anyone about it. I know this is just part of being a designer, but I feel like I could be more successful if I just figured this out. Any ideas?

Thank you!
W in Wisconsin


Hi W,

So you want to be successful? Or famous? Or maybe you just want to be happy? That’s great. Fine, really. Awesome.

But how will you know?

Or, maybe a better question is this: Do you know that there’s no end to that? There’s no magical point where you just become successful. Or rich. Or any of those things. Hey, remember that one Thursday? That’s when I became Happy.

It’s a bit like adulthood. There’s no real point that you stop being a child and transform into an adult. “Becoming a grownup” appears to roughly map to taking responsibility for larger and larger things, but people who never buy a house, have a child, or start their own company still end up as grownups, and responsible ones at that. And vice versa. We know plenty of folks with all the bits and bobs of adulthood that we couldn’t rely on to water a cactus.

But to get to the meat of your question, W, let’s talk about imposter syndrome.

In Buddhism, there’s this concept of shenpa. Pema Chödrön speaks about it a lot. It roughly translates to attachment, but it’s deeper than that. It has to do with emotional addictions, with predictability, and with identity. The hooks in our lives. Sometimes, we do things because we know what the outcome will be. Predictable is comfortable, and the body craves comfort. This means that sometimes, we do things that are bad for us, that make us feel bad, things that we actually have control over because we know how they’re going to turn out.

Imposter syndrome is real, don’t get us wrong. But consider for a moment, that you’re addicted to the predictability of it.

You get a project, you sweat it out, and make yourself sick with worry. You keep all of this a secret because you’re afraid of being found out. Then you deliver to the client, and everyone thinks you’re great. Crisis averted until next time. You’ve been doing this for how long now?

Your identity as a designer is tangled up in imposter syndrome. You don’t know how to be a designer without the imposter-y part. You’ve never done it. Your brain starts to believe that you have to feel like an imposter, that you have to feel like your team will figure it all out, and that you have to feel under threat in order for you to perform.

No, it’s not a good feeling. And no, it’s not conscious. But there it is.

We do this all the time in our field. And it starts when we feel obligated to follow a path. You want to be successful, and every successful designer you’ve ever heard about has talked about imposter syndrome—this nagging doubt and the beautiful moment when they broke through and became rock stars. So, for you, the imposter thing becomes something you have to do. You have to suffer through it to get to success.

For others, it’s working 90-hour work weeks or building an app. You have to do it because that’s what everyone else does. You have to move to San Francisco. You have to learn to code. You have to feel more empathy. You have to like whiskey and find Hall and Oates ironic. You have to give a TED Talk and spend too much time on social media. You must stress out about work-life balance. You have to do this or that. You have to think this and you definitely must feel that. You have to feel you are not good enough and then reveal it to others in secret and wait for them to tell you that they feel it too. That’s the path. That’s the Only Way to Get There.

But we’re here to tell you that all of that is bullshit.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, there’s this whole movement in design that’s saying that you can do whatever you want. You should be a digital nomad and hate whiskey and celebrate big data and reject design school and say fuck you to anyone who tries to tell you what to do or think or feel. That if you’re a real designer, you should never feel imposter syndrome because you should be waking up in the morning feeling like a genius because You Are One.

And that’s all bullshit too. Bullshit disguised as expectations. You can’t prove any of it. You can’t A/B Test your life. We can’t split you into two people and ask you to not feel like an imposter for six months so that you can track the difference. You’re just taking someone’s word for it.

But it’s your emotional baggage, and we here to tell you that it doesn’t matter how rich or powerful or successful you are or how much people love you or your work or how many people follow you on Instagram because at the end of it all, it’s just going to be you at the top of the mountain with your baggage.

We’d tell you to stop feeling like an imposter, W, but really you need to stop thinking that you feel like an imposter because that’s “part of being a designer.” It’s become part of your process out of obligation, and you have no idea how to design things without that emotional feedback.

So try a thought experiment. Imagine what things would be like without feeling the way that you do today. How would a project go? How would it feel different? (And don’t be cheap about it: It would be awesome isn’t tangible enough to work with.) How would you feel two weeks in? What would your calendar look like? What would you eat for lunch? Be specific. Imagine who you could be without that feeling. You’re just waiting around for the imposter thing to go away so you can be who you already are. Who is that person?

Normally, we’d give you more suggestions, but that would just feed the narrative. And that narrative traps us just as neatly as it traps you: This is a stage you’re expected to go through, and we’re expected to reassure you and recommend a thing that will work. We all play a role in this narrative around feeling like an imposter. When really, none of us have to do any of it. We’re free to feel what we want.

We do not have to feel like imposters in order to be designers. We don’t have to be digital nomads or build apps. We don’t have to feel terrible about certain things and fantastic about other things. We simply don’t. But we also can’t get that permission from anyone but ourselves. Sure, there’s biochemistry and taxes and stuff weighing in, but we have so much more control over our lives than we think. It’s just a question of whether or not we’re prepared to deal with the anxiety of not being the person we were before. Of not having that old imposter feeling to fall back on.

Most of us are not ready for that. We’d even wager that a lot of the industry is not prepared for who they could be if they could move past these expectations. Not to give up on what’s expected of them—far from it—but to be emboldened by it. To stop thinking about expectations as the highest bar to be met and start thinking about them as just the beginning. Everything after expectation is the mountain we must climb. This beginning, W, that mountain. They’re already yours.

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. Expect this advice to be replaced on July 1, 2018.