It seems like everyone who writes about imposter syndrome doesn’t know what it’s actually like to be an imposter
Julie Zhuo writes about it, Optimal Living Daily talks about it, and when you read it, you think:
“Obviously they can get over imposter syndrome, they’re not imposters!”
But you are a fraud. Right?
If you’re familiar with the dizziness of rapid change, the burn of inadequacy, or the suffocation of being crowded by those who are miles ahead, then you have met my dear friend imposter syndrome. Despite being especially prevalent in the tech world, it’s not at all represented enough in our everyday conversations — and oh how I love having conversations.
Equipped with my new favourite topic, I began reaching out to my peers, role models, and mentors to gather a piece of their experience. I was astonished and inspired by the honest vulnerability of each person’s reply.
It’s one thing to say that everyone experiences imposter syndrome, but another to show that. So here, may I present, snippets of each person’s adventure, as well as my own story of using imposter syndrome to my advantage:
The Budding Spark
In elementary and middle school, I was known as the art kid. My pride was guarded by that title. It wasn’t until the end of high school did I get my first bitter taste of imposter syndrome.
At the end Art 12, each student presents an hour-long spiel about their projects. The closer it got to the big critique, the more I compared myself to the breathtaking presentations of the previous year’s students.
Many of them brought their experiences of displaying at local art shows, winning national titles, and attending design schools. One student that stood out to me was Nina Chen. She had spent the past summer animating captivating shorts at California College of the Arts, and illustrated books from cover to cover. Her pieces always had a defined style, while mine felt juvenile with projects spanning unrelated mediums and miscellaneous explorations.
There mustn’t be anything she’s can’t create.
Nina Chen: “I never really ventured out of my comfort zone — which is why my range of artistic style is small, and my confidence low. I’m still working through things like imposter syndrome, but it’s the endless support that I have that keeps me going and growing.”
I was blind to Nina’s thoughts, but instead of brooding over our artistic differences, I became inspired to focus that hyperactive creative energy I boiled over with. I explored interactive installations, community murals, scalable pieces— and made public art my concentration. One of my first experiences of imposter syndrome became my drive to improve.
The Spreading Flame
Fast forward to September: I sat in the sixth row of my classroom in the Engineering building at The University of Waterloo. I was surrounded by 92 people overflowing with sheer talent and hard work.
Coming from a smaller school, I couldn’t help but feel gigabytes out of place. Everyone seemed so confident asking and answering questions, and that spark of inadequacy I experienced a few months prior became a flame.
The girl behind me, Vivien Ding, would look at the equations on the board like it was her native language, even after missing a week of class. She already had experience in research, and she clicked with every coding lab we tackled.
There mustn’t be anything she didn’t understand.
Vivien Ding: “No matter what my definition of success was, I could easily find someone already there and beyond. The thing about feeling like an imposter, at least for me, isn’t that I’m not good enough, it’s that I’m not learning fast enough. Milestones in my academic and personal career went from celebrations, to merely sighs of relief.”
The guy next to me, Aman Mathur, already had an internship under his belt, was strides ahead when it came to his design and development vocabulary, and pretty much could navigate life using polar coordinates.
There mustn’t be anything he couldn’t pursue.
Aman Mathur: “In my first front-end development internship during the summer before university, I had no clue how to get started. Even a practice project I was assigned to would leave me blank. I had to constantly make google searches or ask questions just to keep up.”
Me? Well I told you, I could talk in art class.
This is it. I thought. This is where my cover is blown. People were doing some impressive things, and I didn’t have much to compare with them to. The closest thing I got to blockchain development was getting chained to a block during improv club in Grade 11. So here in university, it was an eye opener when I had to put time aside to understand matrix multiplication. I slept next to textbooks, read over physics notes during meals, and began dreaming in code.
Though I didn’t come out the other side with a 4.0 GPA, or became a SolidWorks guru, I did come out with more knowledge than I thought I could gain in four months and a new found passion for discussing discoveries. Instead of being ashamed to ask question after question, I started to find a place to plant myself in the debates about different development stacks, and shared my perspective on sequences and series.
The Engulfing Wildfire
This fire was at a size I could still control, but little did I know, it had in store some plans I never expected.
I recently finished up my very first internship doing design at Scotiabank. I joined UW/UX (the school’s design club)’s executive team. I got to be a part of rebranding the engineering faculty’s annual hackathon — EngHack. I’m leading the design team for the University of Waterloo’s official TEDx event. I’m interviewing for some dream design jobs… All along this career path I didn’t know even existed eight months prior.
So what happened eight months prior?
I was always able to describe my dream career, but it wasn’t until September 20th, 2017 did I find a word that defined it — a designer.
UW/UX’s first event of the semester introduced me to the fascinating world of design and it’s ideologies, resources, tools, and most importantly — people. In fact, the more I learned about this career path, the more I realized I’ve been living under its definition my whole life. Newly enlightened (I don’t say that lightly), I dove into the deep end, soaking up every opportunity I could get my hands on. I transformed my lifelong desire to solve problems into Daily UI challenges and mini case studies. But everywhere I turned, there was someone already more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more talented. I started to struggle with my confidence, grappling onto any form of reassurance. And when I was able to land that first design internship just a month later, I couldn’t help but feel like I didn’t deserve it. That flame in my head had engulfed me.
Kevin Chan was one of the first people to fit me into my new designer shoes. While critiquing my resume at a UW/UX event back in September, he taught me to revisit my intent on each design and content decision. His attention to detail and mastery of craft is something I’ve looked up to since that day.
There mustn’t be anything he’s afraid of, I thought.
Kevin Chan: “Even throughout my second design internship, imposter syndrome was a factor that added to my stress and reduced my self-confidence, but I didn’t really let it define the things I do. Over time and through experience, I’ve become more comfortable speaking up when I don’t know something.”
Since UW/UX made such a huge impact on me, when Jeremy Kim approached me about joining the team, I was both unbelievably flattered and extremely uncomfortable. As someone so kindhearted and just as smart as he is kind, Jeremy immediately became a role model for me in both design, and in life.
There mustn’t be anything he’s intimidated by, I thought.
Jeremy Kim: “Especially earlier on, even with my interest and explorations in design, I would think things like “What do you know? You haven’t even had a design co-op yet”. So when I joined UW/UX, I felt really out of place and unqualified to share my thoughts. Even now, I still compare myself to others in my class who get these cool internships at amazing companies.”
Not to mention, also on the team was Simran Jassal. Her work is something I learn from, and look up to. When I ran into something I was unfamiliar with, such as my first design project walkthrough, I immediately jumped to her for advice. It looked like her pathway to design was laid down perfectly. Even within UW/UX, we’d pass everything by her thoughts.
There absolutely cannot be anything she’d worry about. I thought.
Simran Jassal: “I’m almost always comparing myself to students from well-known design schools, and those with a keen eye for visual design. I would wonder why I was even hired , thinking that it was probably due to a lack of competition. This nasty voice built from worry and putting myself down has been the toughest hurdle I’ve been facing in my career. I skipped design critiques, and worked on my laptop instead of my large monitor to hide my work-in-progress. I drove myself crazy fidgeting over pixels in fear that my lack of visual design knowledge would peek through and my manager would regret hiring me. It took a long time to realize what I was doing, but by being honest to myself and my managers, I’ve been able to direct my growth and overcome some of these issues.”
Because I wasn’t able to peek into others’ brains, I had these misconceptions about people’s perfect journeys that fed the fire of my existing imposter syndrome. I started to think that I was the only person who hosted these feelings of shame. People’s conversations began to scare me off, and I shied away from showcasing what I could do. I was so so reluctant to even consider attending a design conference (for students, might I add) because I didn’t think I’d belong. I thought I was taking a spot away from someone who deserved it more than I.
I forgot that my job wasn’t to be perfect, but to learn and grow.
I wanted so badly to be just like everyone else. So I listened to Design Details and Overtime for breakfast, dove into Muzli, UX Planet, and TechCrunch for lunch, and devoured 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People for dinner. I began to immerse myself into awesome communities like DesignX Toronto and DesignerChats KW, flow into conversations about Sketch vs. Figma, and get giddy over cool releases like Google Material Design or Spotify’s updated state cues.
I began to let the discomfort of imposter syndrome be a motivator to get closer to what I expect myself to be. Though I still have strides to take towards my goals, the things I’ve been able to learn so far have inspired me to keep on going, and I cannot wait to see where I can get myself.
The Optimistic Aftermath
There’s no happy ending where I tell you that I’m confident in all that I do, but there are a couple of things that I ended up learning. Here’s my turn to send you some wise words.
Instead of letting imposter syndrome take it’s peck at my work and my spirit, I began to leverage it and ask myself this question:
What can I do to make myself feel like I deserve it?
I can lie to myself. Or, I can live up to my own expectations.
So yes. Let yourself feel that way. Tell yourself you are an imposter, and then learn, experience, and do the things that will make you into the real thing. What you have is only not right for you if you decide that it’s not right for you. It’s harder said than done when it comes to “getting over” imposter syndrome, but its the path you take to be over that self-doubt that is the most exciting.
Some seeds need wildfires to help them burst, so take that imposter syndrome flame and let it push you to become who you want to be.
Just like a wildfire, imposter syndrome is overwhelming, but also more widespread than you think. So along the way in your journey, I encourage you to open up the conversation to anyone and everyone you meet. People have the coolest stories, and you’ll receive some amazing advice like these below.