Overcoming imposter syndrome

When I started public speaking, things didn’t go nearly as well as I’d planned. No one would accept me to their event because I lacked previous speaking experience.

It was my own version of the cold start problem, and it was annoying.

For my first talk, I convinced a company to sponsor my trip to an out of state event that still had a handful of TBD speaker slots in their schedule. Then I bugged the organizers on Twitter and in person, multiple times each day, to let me fill one of the vacancies.

They eventually let me speak. I used that event as leverage for an application to a local event at home. Then both for a larger event in Seattle. This list of events finally got me into a significantly larger conference in Portland where I’d be speaking to a break-out room of 50 or so people.

Or so I thought.

“Sorry, there was a mix up. You’re on the main stage. We expect at least 500 people in the room and up to 1000 if folks line the walls and sit on the floor. Are you OK with that?”

I was not OK with that, but I agreed anyway. My live coding demo broke in the middle of my presentation and, looking out at over 700 people who’d paid money to hear me speak I … somehow fixed my demo and carried on.

The next week I was invited to speak at an international event. Partly due to the supposed grace with which I handled the failed live demo. Partly due to my being a known expert in asynchronous programming. I accepted the invitation, acquired a 2-year visa in my passport, and booked a flight to Europe.

I had never endeavored to speak to a crowd greater than 50 people. I had never traveled internationally even to attend a conference. And I had no idea how to write an asynchronous program.

I was an imposter.

Not really an imposter

I know enough about tech to know what it is I don’t know. This is to say I can readily identify domains over which my mastery is lacking or entirely non-existent. I also know just how little a grasp I have on domains in which I’m considered an expert.

To date, I have presented at several dozen events spanning four continents on a multitude of topics. I’ve built blogs for individuals, marketing engines for the Fortune 500, and cryptographic systems for government.

On paper, I am anything but an imposter.

Yet I feel like one every single day.

Imposter syndrome is paralyzing. It drives you to doubt your skills, your ability to contribute, and your value to any team of which you’re a part. It holds you back from volunteering an opinion, taking initiative on a project, or speaking truth to those who need to hear it.

And it can impact literally anyone at any level of any organization. There is no way to avoid imposter syndrome. It’s merely an occupational hazard you must learn to overcome.

Tricks of the trade

There are three surefire tricks you can use to combat imposter syndrome:

Firstteach. Take time to share the knowledge you’ve already gained with someone else. Regardless of your career level there is always someone who knows less about a domain than you do. Take time to mentor and train them based on your experience. They’ll likely teach you even more without realizing it.

Second – find or form a “mastermind.” Meet regularly with like-minded professionals and share your experience with them. They’ll be able to do the same and, between you, everyone will be better for the experience.

Third – establish a habit outside of your day job. This should be something not at all related to what you do for a living. A hobby gives you a creative outlet that doesn’t look like “work” and keeps your head thinking about something else. When the imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, take a break and separate yourself completely from the task at hand with your hobby. It will help reset your expectations.