The cure to imposter syndrome

Why do people suffer from imposter syndrome?

It’s the fear of being found out as a fraud, the discomfort from not knowing everything, is common among new designers.

I have felt it, feeling like I have to overexplain and rationalize why I am good enough—especially when I started to do client work to start out my career.

Since then, I don’t really feel it anymore. And I am only wrapping up year two of my product design career.

I’m gutsy enough to have strong opinions about how good product design should be done I have even disagreed with more “experienced” and “senior” members of the product industry.

I write articles, posts and record podcast episodes on the topic.

When someone feels imposter syndrome, the self-talk may go something like this:

Using this kind of self-talk as a “devil’s advocate”, you have every right to tell me, “Caden, who are you to have a podcast talking about how product design should be done so early in your career? Who are you to write articles about how to have a successful career in product design?”

Am I a narcissist? Am I full of my self?

Maybe, but here’s my argument for why I am not, and why you could do the same thing I am doing and without being egotistical.

The “expert”

I argue that the reason people feel imposter syndrome is that they set the unrealistic expectation that they need to be an “expert” when they just got started in their career.

That you need to be a “senior” before you can develop opinions and run the strategic direction of an initiative.

A symptom of “I need to be an expert first” imposter syndrome is the need to overlearn and read just one more book, take one more online course, or get one more certification or heck, one more degree until the individual feels like they are “ready” to be an expert.

The first step to curing your imposter syndrome is to realize that expertise isn’t a state of enlightenment, it’s a journey, and it almost always comes with time on task and years of experience to establish expertise.

The title “expert” is originally meant for someone with “experience” — aka more time on task than a novice. The title is not for someone who “took a bunch of online courses”.

In Brazillian Jiujitsu, it takes the average person about 10 years to acquire a black belt.

There is no amount of YouTube videos, books you can read, or certifications you can take to speed up that process.

Those things may help, but the only way to progress is by putting the time in and practicing on the mat.

You have to train consistently over the years to develop the expertise a black belt has. So there is no point in rushing for the average person. You really just need to show up week in and week out.

Of course, there are obvious exceptions, professional fighters have been known to get a black belt in three years, but you are not a professional fighter.

The thing is, the tools and skills used between a senior designer and a junior designer are not that different, the difference is the experience the senior has, which, in turn, makes them more effective with the tools and techniques.

Okay, you are probably thinking, “So what’s the second step? You still haven’t made a case for why you aren’t a narcissist!”

Hold your horses, I was getting to that.

The “Journalist”

There are two types of authors. “Experts” and “Journalists”

Here’s a quick list of “expert” authors:

  • Gabor Mate
  • Patty McCord
  • Marty Cagan
  • Larry Page

Here’s a list of “journalists” authors:

  • Robert Greene
  • Malcolm Gladwell
  • Simon Sinek
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Adam Grant

Malcolm Gladwell studied successful individuals, underdogs and misunderstood historical events and documented them to create insightful books that make you think about a subject. A journalist is a collector of information that disseminates it to spark conversations.

Journalists report insights.

Marty Cagan, and expert in product management, tells you how things are done in the best product org, and he gives actionable advice based on his years of accumulated wisdom in the field. Experts don’t share ideas, they share tried and true practices and models to be a top performer based on their experience.

Journalists don’t need to be an expert, they just need to be opened minded and be willing to learn about a topic and synthesize insights from the expertise of others.

I don’t feel an imposter syndrome because I am a “journalist”, and do not think of myself as an “expert” (yet).

Be a journalist early in your career

I have strong opinions and disagree with more experienced product professionals because I learn from experts who disagree with those exact product proffesionals. They are successful at their job without doing trendy workshop formats and lean approaches, so I feel like there is truth to what they say.

My podcast is a journalistic pursuit. It isn’t about me sharing my expertise, it is my findings based on what I learn at the feet of some really prolific product people.

Sharing these insights allow me to further internalize those lessons into my head as I teach them to you through my articles and podcast episodes.

I don’t have imposter syndrome become I am not pretending to be an expert. I am very aware of where I am at in my career, I am very aware of my value as a designer, and it is not a senior value, I simply do not have the experience.

But I have the right to an opinion because unlike most designers, I have more mentors and access to experts who can answer my questions about product and design. This gives me the tools I need to become a better practitioner and for me to develop my expertise in the field in a more refined way.

If you feel imposter syndrome right now, it may be because you lack the confidence to be seen as an expert right now.

Let me save you future anxiety and stress, what if you just saw yourself as a journalist who studies the craft? Acknowledge that you don’t have it figured out and instead develop a reputation as someone who is willing to figure it out over time?

You don’t have all the answers an expert has, but that doesn’t matter, you are a journalist, so you have all the questions and the research skills to go find them out.

Journalism as a fast track to expertise

As you work on being a student of the craft instead of posturing as an expert, you paradoxically speed up your progression to expertise.

You’ll make fewer mistakes by learning from the mistakes of experts.

You’ll make more wins by learning from the wins of experts.

In Robert Greene’s book, “Mastery”, he distilled how many masters of a craft were students of the craft first, meticulously taking years to learn everything about their field, looking for patterns, themes, best practices, and in some cases, inventing the best practice when they achieved mastery.

What he didn’t say in the book is that masters “faked it till they made it”.

What he did say was those masters where once patient journalists specialized in their chosen field.

Look at YouTubers who are in their 20’s and 30’s who speak authoritatively about a subject like personal finance or photography. They are seen as experts now, but if you watch their earlier videos, they were far from it.

The only difference between you and them is that they chose to be students of the craft and chose to report what they learn online. Making their world their teacher and the one they are accountable to. Is that any different than writing a book report in school? Your are just reporting what you learned!

I have a podcast because it makes me accountable to the world to keep learning and leveling up in my craft. It isn’t to posture as an expert. The paradox is that it is only a matter of time before being an expert is what I’m seen as.

Expertise, “mastery”, is the eventual result of years of journalism.

So don’t posture as an expert, be authentic as a journalist.

And be patient… obviously.

If this article resonated with you, give it a few claps so you can spread its message. And thanks for reading this!

Product Designer at Progressive Leasing and Host of “The Way of Product Design” Podcast