Misdiagnosed. A break from impostor syndrome

Written

August 19, 2019

by Isaac Campbell

Concern has been building lately as I continually hear people diagnosing self-doubt as Impostor Syndrome. In this essay I'll reflect on how negative feelings of being clueless, inadequate, and dissatisfied fueled positive direction.

Jocks 'n' tummy tucks

Clueless doesn't mean impostor.

This hurts to write about. At the start of my career I worked at a marketing startup and did random inbound work that nobody should ever pay for. Well, you be the judge:

I still can't believe I posted those!

Yes, I managed the social media accounts for that business and pinned underwear models to try to create leads for an underwear subscription. I had no idea what I was doing, and I felt it. Then I was told to design an infographic for the local plastic surgery studio. Clueless, I designed this. And then posted it to their blog. Why did no one stop me?

I'll spare you the whole thing. (Truth: I don't want to take up that much vertical space in this post.)

Thankfully, the infographic has been taken down since. But for some reason the Pinterest account is still up...

Don't confuse a lack of knowledge or direction with impostor syndrome, especially if you're starting on something new. It's okay and normal to feel like you don't know what you're doing because a great deal of the time you don't. Learn to ask good questions, research a lot, get inspired by people who have figured out a few more things, and then try a LOT of things. Sounds like time and work? It is.

You deserve what?

Every success starts with an undeserved opportunity, so just embrace it and be grateful.

After a year at the startup I got a LinkedIn message from Jeff Dance. Jeff co-founded Fresh Consulting and is still the CEO as I write this. He made the greatest contributions to my career. He made me the lead designer on several projects that pushed my knowledge and capabilities past my maximum, forcing me to adapt and grow. He hired me because he liked a button style he saw on my portfolio. How did that make me eligible? Who knows.

You don't deserve your success or opportunities, so just be thankful.

Some other people who did more for me than I deserved:

  • Joel DuChesne, who worked at the design firm in the floor above me and let me invade his office to ask for infographic feedback.
  • Mark Sandeno, who candidly critiqued my first website design so I could get better.
  • Tony Lael, who let me in on his idea for a marketing app and partnered with me for UX design.
  • Keith Eneix, who had the foresight to tell me I needed to find an environment where I could develop from a beginner.
  • Johnny Rodriguez, for sharing his enthusiasm for good work and new ideas.
  • Brett Polonsky, for trusting me with a new level of responsibility and position.
  • My dad, who taught me piano and other stuff.
  • My mom, who told me to care about nuances and reputation, despite my youthful opposition.
  • My wife, who was a very good friend for some tough times before we ever dated, and is still my best friend.

I don't deserve any of these people. I'm fortunate to know them. Without any one of these people and others I probably wouldn't have gotten a job at Microsoft. That sort of realization doesn't make you a fraud or impostor. You don't deserve your success or opportunities, so just be thankful.

Maybe you're lazy

"Impostor syndrome" assumes you've done excellent work but feel like a fraud regardless.

There are people who start zero-waste product companies and spend 12 hours per day managing details while applying for pre-seed funding. There are people who work a fulltime job, but do it with excellence and seek out opportunities to grow in and out of work. There are people who work the bare minimum but do so intentionally so they can spend their lives traveling and experiencing new cultures. There are students who initiate connections on LinkedIn and conversations with professors while posting concept work on forums for critique. There are a millions of people spending their time deliberately on the things they care to be good at. This section is not for these people.

It wasn't impostor syndrome; it was crappy work. My work is better now.

Then there are people who don't concern themselves with growth or excellence but expect high wages and accolades. If that is you, what you feel is not an "impostor syndrome" because you are in impostor. Self-diagnosing impostor syndrome may only validate a fixed mindset that is preventing you from growing and pursuing excellence.

These are some questions to consider. They are not intended to divide the industrious from the lazy (they don't); they are simply based on my experience with myself and others:

  • Have I watched more movies or read more books lately?
  • Do I own any clothes, mugs, or otherwise that advertise a coffee addiction (e.g. "OK, but first coffee")?
  • Do I spend more time playing video games or enjoying the outdoors?
  • Does my conversation with people default to TV shows or to ideas?
  • When did I last write down a journal entry or a thought for later?
  • Have I made most of my recent meals or do I usually eat out?
  • Am I usually early, on time, or late?
  • Do I care about or consider my reputation when doing my work?

At different points in life I've asked myself those questions or similar, more personal versions of them. I recall realizing at a point in my career that most of my work wasn't at par for a portfolio. It wasn't impostor syndrome; it was crappy work. My work is better now.

How do I feel?

My career has taken me all the way from the marketing startup where I posted celebrity tummy tucks to Microsoft where I work as a senior designer on their corporate websites. But I don't feel like I deserve that success because I don't, and it's okay. So if that's impostor syndrome, sign me up. I don't want to be satisfied; I care more to be growing and creating my best work so far.

Be content but stay dissatisfied.

So here's the truth:

😪 Good work is strenuous. That builds patience.
😫 Your work can improve a lot. That's the journey.
🙄 You aren't the best. Be inspired by those better than you.
😏 Confidence goes a long way, but so does humility.
🤯 Struggling to find your style and purpose is normal.

Be content but stay dissatisfied.

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Author

Isaac

I'm a designer of visual experiences. I do web & app design and branding using my philosophy and process for inherent beauty. Thoughts are my own.

My Story

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