My personal cure for imposter syndrome

Frank Chimero recently published an incredible blog post reiterating a lot of not-oft-discussed issues that came up during the recent XOXO Conference. One section in particular stood out to me:

Let me give you an example of a story I’ve been telling myself. I have a tendency to change my work every couple years. I’ve gone from packaging design, to user interfaces, to illustration, to writing. I’ve always shielded myself by saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It makes for a funny meme, but you know what? I’ve tried this for years and it only trips me up and makes me feel worse. Fuck it.

How about this? I do know what I’m doing, because I’m writing for you guys, and I feel like I have a firm grasp of what’s going on and what you all think, and what you’d be interested in reading. And years before that, I was designing books, so even though I didn’t know how to ship a book when I sat down to write one a couple years ago, I knew how to make one, and figured out the rest. [emphasis added]

It's refreshing to hear a man like Frank Chimero say these things because people often incorrectly assume that individuals who are wildly successful are a) "raking in the dough," and b) extremely confident in their abilities and know exactly what they're doing at all times. Chimero explains that this couldn't be further from the truth; but in his second paragraph above, he mentions his own version of knocking-the-sense-back-into-himself is the fact that he continues to write for others and that people shockingly (I think not!) continue to seek out what he has to say. After reading this, it hit me that I've recently discovered my own personal imposter syndrome antidote.

Earlier this year, I approached the Head and Assistant Head of my former high school and explained that, while the more back-end development-focused classes that were a part of the current software development curriculum were important, it's almost more important at the high school level to be teaching design classes and front-end development. The latter two are simply more accessible, particularly for high schoolers, and in my opinion will more likely be the ones that attract students to coding who might not otherwise be interested in development of any kind.

After enough of my nagging (in the form of emails containing videos like this one) , they finally asked, "Well... do you  want to teach?"

Gulp. Me? 

Being a self-taught designer and mostly self-taught developer, I immediately thought, "Oh no, there's no way. I have no idea what I'm doing." Had I actually given that response, it would have shielded me, just as it had Frank Chimero: not in a positive, protective way, but in a way that would only hold me back.

So, I said yes. I did my best to forget my self-doubt ("But I've never even taken a class in UX design!") , and set my sights on September when I would be standing in front of a room of high schoolers telling them what I did know. That had to count for something, right?

The year is broken up into three trimesters, but instead of smashing all of the material together and teaching the same class every trimester, I wanted to do a more in-depth study of UX, UI, and front-end development (predominantly HTML & CSS) with a bit of overlap in between. This way, some students could take every trimester as a part of an overall course, or others could come and go as they pleased. One former high school web design teacher (now graduate school professor) told me this was going to be an impossible feat. That only made me want to prove him wrong.

It's now the end of September. This week marks a full month of teaching something I previously felt unqualified to teach. But, I'm happy to say, I have surprised myself. I talk about things. These things (appear to) make sense. Kids are doing projects and seem to be learning. But what's most important to me is that they seem engaged and excited about the material and how it's so different from what they're used to. Yes, it feels like I'm making it up as I go, but as other teachers have told me, that just means I'm a "real" teacher (ha!).  But in all honesty, as Frank said above, I'm figuring it out, and so far I feel like I'm succeeding.

I can't help but compare this experience to when you're learning how to code and you're getting your first freelance clients. You're at an initial client meeting and they want something specific for their site. They ask if you're able to execute it and of course you say yes because you don't want to lose such a great opportunity. But then you walk away from the meeting and panic—you now need to do whatever it takes to figure out how to build that specific thing that you have no idea how to build.

But the thing is, you'll do it. You'll build it. No matter what. Because you must. Because people are counting on you.

The kids are counting on me. My former teachers (now colleagues) are counting on me. And I'm counting on myself to prove all of my personal doubts wrong; to find a cure for my fraud mentality.

I'll probably talk more about teaching here on occasion, and once this trimester is through, I'll try to publish my "UX for high school" curriculum here so if anyone else is interested in tackling design thinking for 9th through 12th graders you'll have some stepping stones to guide you. Or you're welcome to make it up as you go. That method seems to be working for me.

Paige PauliComment