We're not impostors—we're people

Written by Steve Fisher

January 26, 2014

Everyone suffers from the impostor syndrome. That feeling, those moments you think everyone around you will discover that you don't know what you're doing. That you're faking it. You're an impostor who can't continue to do their job, run their business or lead an organization. It’s difficult to shake off, but it’s bullshit. Your feelings aren't bullshit, but the idea that you can't do great work is.


p>I attended the Dare Conference in London this past September. It billed itself as a conference to help digital workers with people skills. I went in not fully understanding what I’d gain or learn, but my partner, Shannon Fisher, was presenting on finding courage in vulnerability. A talk that impressed and inspired.

Shannon talked about her fight to move past the voices that tell her she can't struggle, be open about it and be great at what she does. I'm not talking multiple personalities, but rather the passengers on our buses that tell us we're not good enough or smart enough and to play it safe. Nina Burrowes talks about the bus and passenger metaphor on her blog and in her Dare talk.

The bus metaphor isn't about wrestling with my vulnerabilities, controlling them, or changing them—it’s about recognizing that it is normal to feel vulnerable but that I can feel vulnerable AND still choose to live my choice. My passengers might shout in my ear—but I don't have to do what they say..

I’m in my current position because I put myself here. I chose to collaborate with others or not to. To be someone who learns, grows, and takes on challenging and difficult situations or not to. Either way, I’m here! So why do I so often believe I’m an impostor?

Karen McGrane gave the opening keynote at the Dare Conference, setting a tone of openness and honesty. It was refreshing. Here was someone I respect, a friend and a colleague. Someone I see as very successful. And she shared that experiences the same doubts and struggles I do. How could this be? She wrote a book, she’s the keynote speaker at many events, she travels the world for work… she’s Karen fucking McGrane!

But she’s also a person just like me and you, surrounded by real people and real problems.

Karen shared a great quote from Steve Furtick.

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.

Facebook and Instagram are highlight reels. We share the great moments, funny quotes and quippy thoughts. Sometimes we share minor annoyances (I hate my cell phone provider!), but we don’t go much deeper than that. How often do you see a non-smiling selfie? Duck lips don’t count.

Wholehearted perspective

As an experience architect, it’s my job to look beyond what people say and discover what they need. To see what human connections they’re trying to make, and to help them make those connections online. I really do believe in creating a more wholehearted web.

This means I listen, ask questions, and observe both what people say and do. Last week in NYC while everyone around me was taking pictures of the Statue of Liberty, I was watching them take those pictures. (No, you’re creepy.) I mostly saw people who were cold, hungry, tired, and overwhelmed. Basically everyone was grumpy and possibly hangry. But when the cameras were pointing at their faces, it was all smiles. As if the camera itself was a vessel of happiness.

These are the images we share: pictures full of magical smiles. I’m not suggesting we share every moment and every mood, but we should remember that most of what we see is the highlight reel. Karen worked her ass off to get to where she is. I worked my ass off to be great at what I do. Generally, we all work our asses off to become great. Take a moment to let that sink in. You know what you’re doing enough to have arrived where you are. You are not an impostor; you are a hard-working learner. Celebrate that hard work, all the things you’ve learned, and keep going.

What about what I’m not good at?

It’s important to acknowledge the things we’re not good at and ask for help. I’m frequently tempted to learn and do all the things. I can try (and have), but I will fail (and have). I need help and I need it often. This is a good thing! It brings opportunity to connect, collaborate, and learn from others. Basically, it’s the open source way. We do what we do well and let others do what they do well in a collaborative environment. I believe this is the key to success.

In the summer of 2012, Shannon needed a new design for her blog. It was starting to take off and it was on a free WordPress theme that wasn’t cutting it. During a week off, I taught myself how to build a WordPress theme. It was a horrible week. I learned enough to finish it and make it look pretty, but I knew that its foundation was not something I was proud of.

I asked Shannon to evaluate the new theme and work on the content strategy for the future needs of the blog. Within a week I had a list of things that needed to be updated, implemented or changed. I decided I would dig in again and learn more, but my holidays were over and I was busy with other projects—work I knew and was good at. After months of putting it off, I had to admit I needed help. I reached out to my friend and amazing WordPress developer, Jesse Friedman, who wrote the Web Designer’s Guide to WordPress.

I had the content strategy work done, documented content models, a complete design built out using html, CSS, and javascript, but I didn’t have time or the skills set to anchor it with a great theme. In a fraction of the time it took me to build the first theme, Jesse had something far more sophisticated and functional built. This is because he’s amazing at what he does and because we were both able to focus on our strengths. It was fun! (Also, he was stung in the eye by a bee during the project and still finished on time.)

We are great and need help

It takes courage and vulnerability to recognize that you are both great at what you do and that you need help. But this leads to amazing outcomes: belief in yourself and others, opportunities to learn and, best of all, dropping the highlights reel and connecting behind the scenes.

We are good at what we do. We're not good at everything. We're always learning and growing. We are not impostors—we are real people.