What Does It Mean To Be An Imposter?

I don't want to call this "Imposter Syndrome".

While technically this is what I'm going to share my thoughts on, I think in some cases folks really are imposters, as they are both inexperienced AND in an experience-driven role; so they cry: "Imposter Syndrome". Instead, let's focus on how I feel like a fraud that's hit success and what I do to remind myself where I came from since that's my easiest fall back out of the rabbit hole. I want to then focus on what I did before I had any fall back at all, when I was truly an imposter.

It's Okay To Be Wrong

I'm wrong. A lot. It feeds into that Imposter Syndrome feeling heavily and it causes a lot of self-doubt, especially when peer-feedback tells me I'm doing well in spite of my best efforts to prove otherwise. My best way to fight against this, I think, is to remember that it's okay as long as I don't stay wrong. I constantly fact check my assertions, ask for help and clarification, and go in with the assumption that I may already be wrong on every topic.

From that view point, things can become a lot less combative and emotional when the facts come out and I'm * gasp * wrong! It also helps to remember that other people should simultaneously be made to feel that it's safe and okay to be wrong as well. Not just to be altruistic, but to engage in a way that can start a deeper conversation to determine what the salient points of a topic actually are.

If I'm going to be wrong, I better be wrong about the right things.

Through this exercise I can start to ferret out exactly what the people around me are actually going through, what they're actually thinking, and what actually matters. Once I can identify that, I can start to pull on my previous context around whatever technology or situation the conversation might be about. Then, I can better determine the paths I took on my own, previously, to bring up the people around me to the same level of context that I possess - and THIS is the thing that pulls me out of the imposter funk. I can share my progress with people in a way that matters to them as well, because I stretched to understand where they're starting in the same topic.

I imagine everyone ends up here for different reasons, but my own tend to be self-inflicted prisons of assuming everyone has at least as much context as I do and then they build from there; and as a result I have this bar of expectation for those people to be superior in literally every way. In the end, this thought doesn't matter, the perspective is just painful to everyone involved, and it doesn't actually help me progress. I withdraw, fearful of wasting the time of my betters, and knowing that whatever I know or can contribute they must already have.

Stripping away the confines of my own experience as a minimum bar for other people, that's my trick these days. It works because we're all individually wrong, all the time, until verified otherwise.

It all boils down to one question: "Before I start, what's your comfort on this topic, 1-10. 1 is an acceptable answer!"

Until I get to that most important follow up on what an acceptable answer is, I always see squirming discomfort. I think this is the manifestation of my own insecurities right in front of my eyes, and a great reminder that we're all suffering from the same concerns.

So on to the next question: How did I combat this before I had any context from which to derive understanding of my peers?

Quick upward progression early in my career left me feeling exactly like I do today, however it was probably warranted. I didn't have any context in comparison to my peers, I didn't have skill sets that my seniors had, I truly was out of my depth.

My problem, however, wasn't a lack of empathy. It was that I had taken my own perception of THEIR capabilities and applied that to the bar with which I held myself. They didn't bring me on their team or their projects because they thought me a leading mind. They didn't bring me on because they thought I'd revolutionize their space. They brought me on because they saw the potential to just contribute to their grander designs.

I set the bar for myself far higher than anyone else ever dreamed of it being set, and it caused years of grief and uncertainty, and held me back from achieving what I could have in the same amount of time.

I look at folks that are fresh out of school or new in the industry, and I see them for the potential contributors that they are. And those that take that and lean into their ignorance and dig for knowledge and context that they're able to accept they don't have, those are the ones that I marvel and envy over. I do this because these are the people to watch going forward, and are the ones that will set the stage for excellence in the coming years.

The thing about those admirable upstarts, though: It's not a default trait that they have. Someone, somewhere, at some point, instilled in these people a sense of safety in the unknown and a curiosity for the uncomfortable. This is a skill that all of us seniors, rife with inadequacies and insecurities, should foster and provide for everyone around us. Because someday, that kid's going to be our boss.

Edit: Along these lines I've been given a really great podcast episode that articulates a perspective of "living in the present" that I think gives a fantastic lense to this content.