I joined my current tech company straight out of school, for a creative role that wasn't really restricted to the traditional norms of a designer. I was the most junior person on my team, and I could sense that there was no expectation from my team for me to deliver right out of the gate. But even though I had no formal experience working in an extremely fast-paced, target-oriented, product group before, I felt the need to contribute to my team right away and help them as much as I can. Naturally, I couldn't keep up with my more experienced teammates, and I took it as my personal shortcoming. I felt that I wasn't getting up to speed because I was lacking because I wasn't good enough. And partly because of the lifestyle I was used to at graduate school, I pushed myself more.
The Fraud Syndrome
I later learned what I was going through was officially called imposter syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that those around you have a deeper knowledge than yourself. It makes you doubt that you actually earn your accomplishments and often leave people wondering how they, in fact, got to where they are, say, for example, a workplace or university. Imposter Syndrome is a term coined by psychologists at Georgia State University, researching this trend of self-doubt among high achieving women. The term slowly bubbled into public awareness thanks to professional women's conferences and discourse; this was the primary reason identified for lack of confidence in workplace situations. It is now extensively studied and discussed, not that it's helped formulate a golden solution for the issue.
As designers, we are extremely prone to it. Probably because the feeling of being lost is part of what makes us good designers. Design is an intersection of art and technology, and that causes it to have more people facing imposter syndrome than probably any other creative field. Designing and creating for the future don't have any specific rules and boundaries, and everyone can't be knowledgeable of everything. If you think you're supposed to know everything in your craft, you're facing a huge uphill struggle.
Not necessarily a problem that needs to be solved...
A few months after I had started working, I got the opportunity to do some qualitative user research at a customer's site. I was working with a small team for this, which was led by a veteran designer (let's call him Jim) who has been in the field for more than three decades. It was my first big research outing, and I was equally excited and nervous, as I'd get to see how the "pros" do it. Since the plan was to hold a loose interview, I made a 7-page worksheet a week in advance that I had constructed myself, pouring through company records and expert articles and stitching together a guide that covers all the bases.
On the day of the offsite, while we were heading to the location, I asked him about strategy." What do you mean?" "Don't we have to follow a script? Plan for contingencies if the customer doesn't know what to do?" I showed him my worksheet. "No, no, really. I've been visiting this guy for a while now. He knows exactly what he likes and what he wants to see." Then Jim pulled out his 'worksheet,' which was just a set of questions on a sheet of paper. "After 30 years of doing the job, I know that there's no telling how an interview session is going to go, so at some point, you just learn to accept it. Listen to what they say, rather than ask a lot of questions. Don't worry about it now, you'll get the hang of it soon." I trusted him and went along with accepting what came. The research session went as he'd predicted. Clearly, conventional wisdom doesn't always translate to experience.
I thought I needed to be prepared like a "professional" out of fear derived from the imposter syndrome I had in me. I felt like I had to master the craft of user research and thought there had to be some sort of a "professional" way of doing it, which due to the imposter syndrome, I was going to mimic it somehow. No, there wasn't some professional way of doing it. Even a veteran would know it's more important to focus on what the customer says.
Impostor-ism can be your ally
Working in tech, it is not rare to feel like you're a fraud. The real challenge is in being able to control it and use it to your advantage and making sure that it doesn't affect your mental health. But what do you do in such a case? Combat it by using it to your advantage, or just learn to live with it. I read thought pieces about this phenomenon every other day, and people from all walks of life live with this. Often it motivates them, pushes them, and helps define them. In this case, Imposter syndrome is a double-edged sword, as the day you stop feeling Imposter Syndrome means you're at risk of falling behind. If you've let it guide you for so long, then make sure that you don't lose the will to keep learning and keep fighting. I leave you with a quote by author Steven Furtick that is very apt for this situation:
"We see our blooper reel while we see other's highlight reels."