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Overcoming not-imposter syndrome

uxdesign.cc – User Experience Design — Medium | Vivienne Kay Illustrated journey of a beginner growing into an expert.

For a long time I thought I had imposter syndrome, a phenomenon where high-achieving individuals feel like frauds. Problem was, I was making the common mistake of confusing imposter syndrome with the reality for every beginner.

Instead of actually feeling like I had faked my way into my position and would soon be found out (like imposter syndrome), my insecurities were part of the naturally slow process of growth.

We will all experience these struggles at various stages of our careers — because if we’re doing things right, we will constantly be challenging ourselves to learn new skills.

It’s natural to feel insecure when you’re a beginner surrounded by experts. We must become comfortable with the discomfort of being a beginner.

Even though it’s commonly understood that being the new kid on the block is challenging, it still takes courage to admit when you’re feeling unconfident, especially to coworkers. If left unspoken, these feelings can block growth and cause a boat-load of anxiety. ☹️

To help myself open up to my coworkers, I came up with a metaphor. I hope that it’s helpful to others who need a vehicle to help have this kind of candid conversation.

I call it the foal metaphor, because the difference between a newborn (beginner) horse—called a foal—and an adult (expert) horse is drastic and very visible.

The beginner (foal)

In this metaphor, beginners are like mis-proportioned, gangly-ass newborn horses (foals) that are passionately ambling around fields of opportunity. They’re excited to be in a new subject-area, but unsure where to start. They ask the obvious questions, often repeatedly. They need to lean on others for support or guidance. They get exhausted much faster than if they were playing to their strengths in a familiar field.

Let’s be real here for a moment. It totally sucks to be a beginner foal (designer, developer, content strategist, PM, kickboxing student, public speaker, cook, whatever). It feels like an uphill battle — a slow progression of growth where all you’re trying to do is not trip over your own damn legs.

Meanwhile experienced teammates often appear to be effortlessly racing into enchanted forests and scaling enormous mountains in a few graceful bounds. From the beginner’s perspective, it’s easy to compare yourself to the experts and feel like a total loser beside them. They have an innate sense of direction, the stamina to explore challenging terrain, and the strength to hold their ground in the face of adversity.

The expert (full-grown horse)

As a junior designer, this self-comparison translated to watching master designers in their element. They gracefully present compelling solutions to complex problems, weaving data, logic, and technical insights into a narrative supported by carefully crafted mockups. The master designer is also a master storyteller; they are able to show stakeholders a glimpse of a better future, and to get individuals and teams to believe in that vision.

It’s like with every word, their coat was glistening and mane sparkling. I would watch them at work, and then remember my gangly foal legs. The poorly named and disorganized photoshop or sketch file. That poorly-timed question during a key stakeholder meeting. The likelihood that I would have a lower impact than my teammates with years of specialized experience. Sigh.

While self-awareness is important, it’s critical to also be compassionate with ourselves and realistic about our progress. This classic rookie mistake is common, and I’ve made it many times before — comparing myself to people who all happened to have spent years building subject-matter expertise, and beating myself up for not being more excellent or impactful or insightful like them.

It’s easy to forget that there was a time that they also had wide eyes and disproportionately long legs, but they put in the time and sweat to grow into the experts they are today.

As a beginner it can be easy to lose confidence and wonder if you should just give up — but remember, every foal eventually grows into a horse. And every beginner, with enough focus and persistence, eventually grows into an expert.

If you’re surrounded by experts, then you’re in an extremely privileged position. They’ve been where you are before, and are in the best position to help you navigate forward. If you feel insecure beside your teammates, that’s a sign that you’re pushing at the boundaries of your own limitations to keep up — which means you’re probably growing at an accelerated rate! When I find myself in this scenario, I often imagine myself as a teenage horse, cantering behind my full-blown-horse coworkers who are galloping ahead (every now and then kindly slowing to a trot so I can catch up, which I appreciate).

If you’re the fastest horse in the paddock, you’re in the wrong paddock.

To summarize, if you’re a beginner in a new project or career, and are feeling shitty with how slow and discouraging the learning process is, here are a few tips:

  • Compare yourself to other people at the same level as you to accurately gauge your progress.
  • Push yourself to your limits by aiming beyond your current capabilities, but stay realistic about your progress. If you’re struggling to keep up alongside horses, you’re probably growing 10x faster than other foals at your level who don’t have the luxury of that guidance. In this respect, experiencing the struggle to keep up is a privilege.
  • Remember that everyone, and I mean everyone, started as an awkward beginner once. No one is born a subject-matter expert — that comes with hard-work, persistence, commitment, and time.
  • While your coworkers might be adding a lot of value right now, there will always be fresh opportunities for you to have a positive impact on your team. If you stay dedicated to solving the problems in front of you, and remain open to learning along the way, you’ll naturally start carving a path towards having your own unique brand of impact.
  • The journey matters as much as the destination (if not more). And besides, once you reach your “destination”, another challenge awaits! Being hard on yourself along the way only slows your progress — try to enjoy the bumps and surprises that happen along the ride.

Horsies!

This horse metaphor helped re-frame how I thought about imposter syndrome vs. the natural process of growth. But more critically, it helped me be vulnerable by using a light-hearted metaphor as a tool to open up to and my teammates about my insecurities. They in return, were able to give helpful advice and support my growth.

Every now and then I still feel doubts creeping up, but knowing these are natural discomforts is reassuring. In such moments, I take a moment to visualize the glistening horse-biceps that I will have one day if I keep pushing myself forwards. 💪🐴🤘

If this resonated with you please tap the little 💚 below and share with any foals you know.

Vivienne wrote this story to share knowledge and to help nurture the design community. All articles published on uxdesign.cc follow that same philosophy.

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