On Friday my friends Amy Silvers and Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci spoke at Madison+ UX on Imposter Syndrome. (This was also the talk they presented at IA Summit, and you can see the summary here.) Watching and listening to their talk over the web kicked up my own feelings on this matter.
In short, for years I waited for the other shoe to drop and to be found out as a fraud. Years. Even when I was a young, good programmer, a part of me held on to a fear that one day someone would basically shoot holes in whatever I was doing, and as a result I would feel incredibly humiliated and embarrassed.
During that time, there was a direct impact on the way I worked. It might not have been so noticeable in the darkroom or in the code, but the part of me that was a vocal critic and on alert for being called out was always present. It was always there. As a result of this, I rarely spoke about my work - and promoted it even less. That's because there were enough parts of me saying, "This isn't all that good." It might have truly been good stuff, and to be honest, probably was! But I had a hard time recognizing that and an even harder time taking a compliment. (I mean, people were complimenting me on my work? My internal barometer on that was just way off!) This is also part of the reason I preferred to work by myself for so very long.
But I've had to adjust
Good design work is people-focused, whether it's research or life design or aesthetic design. And that means it's far more open to criticism - but it's also far more open to connection and appreciation, as well. The risk is higher and the reward is higher too.
The biggest things that I've had to account for are my own self-confidence (which is only emerging due to intense work on the self) and my experience.
My experience is something I can now count on, and it appeals mostly to my brain and not so much to my heart. It's relatively easy for me to justify design decisions based on decades of work, including what works well and what doesn't. I say this not to brag (my ego will chime in momentarily!) but I say this as a point of fact: when you work in a field for a very long time, you simply start to see the broad patterns and gain that understanding. I considered it to be table stakes when it came to myself, instead of giving it the true honor it deserves. (It was hard work!)
But the self-confidence is the much, much harder piece. It has required sustained, intense focus on my self, identifying who I am, and being able to even get to a place where I see my work having value and being worthwhile - even to myself.
For instance, it is only within the past 6 months that I have been able to hear a compliment from someone about my work, take a moment, absorb it, and thank them instead of doing the knee-jerk "thanks!" response. I would do the latter because it was polite (brain-focused, other person-focused, society-focused) and not really do what I needed to do to truly hear the other person and take that in (me-focused).
In addition, working on Designing Yourself has given me ample opportunity to promote this great thing I'm doing. On the one hand, it may look easy to post a tweet saying that the show is great. On the other hand, it stirred up a lot of conflict in me. I was overly concerned about appearing too self-promotional, too selfish, too... lots of things that I saw as negative. That, in turn, would make me more vulnerable.
But as my work has continued to get closer and closer to me (less of an abstract), this vulnerability goes part and parcel with it. I can't hide behind code when I'm on stage talking about my experiences. It leaves me totally open. And that's where I want to be because that's where I need to be. Even if someone in the audience, or someone online, thinks I'm a total fraud.