John Stokvis

December 8, 2021

On Imposter Syndrome

This tweet from Visakanv resonated with me.

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However you do it, preventing imposter syndrome from being a significant factor in your thinking and doing is one of the most important things you can do for your friendships, career, and life in general. It was for me.

This goes beyond the quaint realization that EVERYONE from the new kid in school, to the intern, to the CEO, suffers from imposter syndrome (the feeling that they are just pretending to belong and it's only a matter of time until they're found out).

Understand the feeling we call imposter syndrome is just that - a feeling. And understanding the mechanism by which it works to undermine the everything you hope to achieve. Paradoxically, by fearing we don't belong and have nothing to contribute, we bring those things about.

(fwiw - I'm speaking about my area of experience, software product management, but I imagine the following would also apply to other creative or knowledge-based pursuits)

Here's how it works: I was in a workshop once in response to what she was looking for in a product manager, the then chief product officer of Groupon, Sarah Butterfass said, "Two things: curiosity and the desire & ability to learn."

Curiosity and a desire & ability to learn. To find a good PM, you don't need past product experience, coding skills, or domain expertise. Those can be taught. In fact the strong the curiosity and learning skills, the easier it is to teach whatever it is that needs teaching.

With imposter syndrome: 
  • you don't ask questions because "stupid questions" would reveal you to be an imposter
  • you don't ask for help because that would show you can't handle your responsibilities
  • you don't propose creative solutions because they might fail and prove you don't belong
  • you're less likely to collaborate because then others would see "you have nothing to add"

Product management is about we need to enabling discussions (remember other people are likely feeling like imposters too). We're often dealing with ideas, and ideas are invisible. A PM can help make the invisible ideas more visible.

A PM's job is to ask dumb questions. Risk looking like a fool, like you don't know what you're talking about. That's how you uncover hidden problems and see around corners. If you separate your identity from having the right answer, you're more likely to find the right answer. In other words.
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"But HOW do I do this?" you might be asking. Unfortunately, the answer is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Only you can answer that for yourself. Here's how I answered it for myself. 

In a previous career, I was an actor, and like just about anyone who gets up in front of a group of people, when I started out, I had stage fright. There's something about having that much attention on a person that makes us feel exposed. It triggers that fight/flight response.

It's a natural response, but knowing that doesn't really change the fact that it feels TERRIBLE when you're in it. What did help was time. Doing it over and over again. Exposure therapy. I learned that even though I FELT like I was going to die, I never actually did.

That helped me separate the feeling (tingling in the hands, clenched stomach) from the thought (I'm exposed, I can't do it). Then, I could tie the feeling to another thought (I've rehearsed this, I can do it) or even no thought. Then the feeling would pass, like feelings do.

(I later learned that this is the basic premise of cognitive behavioral therapy, iydknyk.)

Several times during my acting career, before my first entrance, I would completely forget all my lines. Just gone. No matter how I tried to remember even the first word, I couldn't do it. The panic would well up in me. But I could recognize that as just "the feeling."

The words would come back. They always do. And sure enough, as soon as stepped out in the light, in my costume, hit my mark, and looked at my scene partner, they did. And the groove in my brain, the one that said "I'll be ok." got carved deeper.

Now, even if I HAVEN'T rehearsed something, I feel confident speaking in front of a group. I still get the feeling, but it passes through me. And I can focus instead on the conversation.

It's similar to the way that athletes who excel at extreme sports tend to start early. Before they know to be scared. The key is leaning into the danger. Their feet stay on the skateboard, balanced over the skis, shifted forward on the surfboard. That's what gives them control.

Imposter syndrome is like that. It's just a feeling. Like being cold, or having a headache. It's a cue that you need to do something (like put on a sweater, or take some advil). Imposter syndrome means "be curious and try to learn."

Or as visa puts it:
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