What We Learned: Imposter Syndrome

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Welcome to the first in a multi-part series we’ll be running over the next few months. The purpose of these articles will be to discuss how the program, and its staff, changed and grew over the first four years of running DESIGNATION.

Sometimes while discussing the program in admissions interviews or meetups, someone assumes that DESIGNATION launched fully formed right from day 1, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some changes were small and incremental, while others represented substantial shifts in the program’s content or structure.

This article is about the single most important thing I personally learned from being part of a bootcamp, and a concept that is well-documented at practically all levels of education and professional work alike.

Imposter Syndrome, Your Own Worst Enemy

The DESIGNATION curriculum encompasses such a large breadth of material that at some point throughout the cohort, almost everyone will at some point struggle with something. What that something is, and the depth of that struggle can vary widely from designer to designer. But because we work so closely and collaboratively, we find that the designers are always measuring and comparing themselves to one another.

And when you compare your work to examples created by professional designers, the result is often the dreaded “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that one does not belong and has not earned one’s place in the program.

There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

The irony of this is that most of our designers are doing this work for the first time! This is an educational program, and they’re literally here to learn how to do this stuff. But that doesn’t stop Imposter Syndrome from striking, and often at the most critical and inconvenient times.

A designer in the grips of this may be disengaged, unwilling to put forth their best effort for fear of failure or judgment. They may be unwilling to collaborate with teammates or staff. They may even have temporary feelings that joining the program was a mistake.

So What’s the Solution?

That’s a simple question with a complicated answer. There’s no one simple solve to a problem so pervasive and significant. But we found the following three things to be effective:

“I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” – Maya Angelou, Poet

Balanced Critique

The first thing was that in engaging with designers about their work, it’s critical to find the proper balance in evaluating both what was working and what wasn’t about their designs. Too much emphasis in either direction tended to skew the quality of future work. The reinforcement that they were doing some things properly is almost as important as offering feedback on that which they weren’t.

Process Over Product

The second thing was to not just look at the thing itself, but interrogate the designer about the process they used to get there. I’ll be talking much more about this in a future article as this is actually a pretty huge and significant topic. But suffice to say, the how is often more important than the what. And by focusing on the methodology, you can give the designer confidence and reassurance that even though the result may not have been what they hoped, that they were still on the right track.

Gradual Growth

Finally, each phase of DESIGNATION exists as a standalone project with increasingly more ambitious goals and scopes. By starting small and expanding outward in each successive phase, the designers simultaneously gain confidence in those skills which they are repeating, while learning new skills as well.

What It All Means

The list of celebrities, designers and other notable people who have spoken about their experience with Imposter Syndrome is astonishing. It’s a list that includes Tom Hanks, Sonia Sotomayor and Meryl Streep, not to mention billionaires like Sheryl Sandberg and Mike Cannon-Brookes.

And while it’s something that affects almost everyone at some point at DESIGNATION, it’s also something we’re keenly aware of, and take care to ensure all of our designers pull through it in the end.

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