Impostor Syndrome is a Superpower

Impostor Syndrome (IS) is a ‘phenomena’ in which an individual doubts their abilities and lives in fear of being exposed as a fraud. Severity varies between individuals but impostor syndrome is perceived as negative. Ironically, as a shortcoming. I propose embracing your impostor syndrome. Your doubt is your strength.

This is my first post in 2019 and I thought, to make a change, I would write something positive.

Forbes released a good piece on this recently “Why Imposter Syndrome Is A Good Thing“. I have meant to write a post on this for some time, so here we go. (Annoyed I spelled it wrong in the tweet but NVM)

What is impostor syndrome?

I can only describe how IS manifests itself in me. It’s not something I feel all the time. It’s certainly not something I am always consciously thinking about but when I do, I have noticed a physiological reaction. If you’ve ever thought you’d lost your phone, then found it in a pocket other than the usual one, you will know what I mean. It’s a kind of dropping sensation in the pit of your stomach. Fleeting but palpable. Like a load of adrenaline has been released in to your system all at once.

Then comes a brief but all-consuming wave of self-doubt. “You’re rubbish”, “you’re going to screw this up”, “you’ve no idea what you’re doing”, “how did you even get this job” and other similarly critical thoughts.

I feel IS most acutely in relation to my management skills. I’m new to line management so this is an area I’m particularly conscious of. I think management is an area where it’s very easy for you (and for others to make you) feel deficient.

What makes impostor syndrome particularly troubling, is the ingrained belief that everyone else knows it, is saying it behind your back and will at some point (they are waiting for when it would be most devastating/embarrassing) expose you for the incompetent fraud you are.

How IS manifests itself in Learning Technologists

I think learning technologists are particularly susceptible to IS. We constantly compare ourselves to other people and institutions. We have awards, qualifications, publications/research and conferences that make us feel inferior. “I don’t have X qualification”, “I’ve never won X award”, “I’ve never written a book/journal/done research” and “I’ve never been asked to speak/keynote at X conference”. These are all measures of success in our world and we presume, if we’re not doing any of them, we’re not worthy of the learning technologist title. Don’t underestimate the value of good, solid hard groundwork. Not everything needs to be innovative or disruptive.

There is also the issue that nobody quite knows what a learning technologist is. We all have different titles, areas of responsibility and levels of technical skills. With such an undefinable role, is it really surprising that we question whether ‘we are one’ or not? There’s no ideal. No shining paragon of how to do this job. Revel in your accomplishments, however small they may feel. That’s the good stuff.

Why we need to re-frame IS

Not everything in life is a problem to be solved. Not everything is a weakness that we need to eliminate to succeed. We need to re-frame IS so it doesn’t control and consume us. IS shouldn’t hold us back. It shouldn’t make us cautious to the point of paralysis. Instead, we should look at it for what it is.

Impostor syndrome is not a fault in an individual.

We should also consider that IS is exacerbated and caused, by external factors. By societal expectations or behaviours. It can be born of workplace culture. It can simply be caused by the way other people treat us. I could name three people right now who I feel consciously and deliberately contribute to my work IS. Some people get a kick out of making other people’s lives difficult. Some people draw their power from dragging down other people. Some people are just dicks. IS should not be framed as a problem of the individual, instead we should be asking why our colleagues, friends etc., feel IS at all. What is causing it? Who is causing it? Is there a culture that perpetuates it? What’s the root cause? IS is being pinned on the individual as something they have to deal with, to avoid the more difficult and worthwhile task, of finding and dealing with the root cause.

Put far more eloquently here by Rosie and Valorie. Great comments follow.

Consider the opposite. What would someone devoid of impostor syndrome be? I imagine they’d be an insufferable egomaniac with little self-awareness. I bet we’ve all met someone like that. I don’t want to be like that.

IS causes a lot of positive behaviours (although they are born in a negative place) that we should embrace.

IS as a positive trait

Here are a few reasons, I think IS is a positive thing.

  • You are empathic, you care about other people and your impact on them,
  • You are able, and willing, to reflect on what you do,
  • You are self-aware, you think about who you are, what you’re doing and what impact you have,
  • You care about doing a good job,
  • You strive to improve.

There’s a belief that without confidence you can’t succeed. There’s some truth in that. You do need the confidence to push yourself to take risks but I would argue feeling IS means you’re already doing that. Confidence can often be accompanied by lethargy. If you’re in your comfort zone, what are you learning? How are you challenging yourself? There’s nothing to be gained in your comfort zone.

If you’re feeling IS, it’s because you’re pushing yourself, it’s because you’re challenged and that is something to be proud of.

If you’re feeling IS, it’s because you care about what you’re doing. Don’t underestimate the value of that!

How to cope with IS

First, embrace it. Don’t try to fight it, see it for what it is and make sure you put it in perspective. Are you really the worst? Are you really that terrible?

Remember, everyone has to do something for the first time. No one’s born with all the necessary skills and experience to do everything in life. So why should you be any different?

Find a confidant. I’m really lucky that I work for, and with, people who I am comfortable saying that “I’m struggling”, “I need support” or “am nervous” about doing something. I’m equally lucky to work for, and with, people who would want to help me not shame or abandon me. I also have a lovely network of other people in similar positions to me who I can go to for advice, help or for a good rant. I think this is so important. Bottling these feelings up won’t do you any good so find someone who you can talk to about it. It really is cathartic!

Get to the root of the problem. Is it you? Or is it something else? Is it a combination of many things? Once you know the root of it, you can see it for what it is.

If you’re feeling IS, go and put your (clean) pants over your trousers/tights.

We got 99 problems…

dinosaur

and the TEF is one. Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with the TEF.

Sorry if you came here looking for a scholarly article on the TEF. I’m afraid you will not find that here (or anything scholarly for that matter). Instead I will reflect on my Higher Education journey. I’ve recently moved institution and it seems like a good time to take a moment and think.

(The featured image for this post has little to do with the content but I liked it. I’m sure there’s some joke about dinosaurs and technology use at HEIs but I can’t be bothered to think of one. But a T-Rex chasing you would definitely put your problems in to perspective. But remember what Meat Loaf tells us, objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are. (Caution, this video contains some hard-core mullet game.)

As a student

I was terrible. I put no effort in to my a-levels and my results certainly reflected that. I originally applied to do ancient history but decided “I’d never get a job doing that” and took a year out to decide what to do with my life. It was the expectation that I went to University although careers advice at sixth form was poor at best. So I decided, in my infinite wisdom, that media was the right path for me. I like TV shows and film so why not do something I enjoyed. I naively thought it was really easy to become Steven Spielberg. I applied to a few places with my terrible results and eventually got in somewhere.

I did not become the model student. Despite being amongst the first cohort to have tuition fee loans. I am still paying that back now and will do so for what feels like the rest of my life. I imagine the Student Loan Company will be knocking on the coffin lid. Anyhoo, I turned up to most of my lectures but if I couldn’t be bothered I certainly wouldn’t force myself. I ‘phoned it in’ for most of the first year. I think it’s easy to underestimate how difficult it can be to make the transition from a-level to ‘academic writing’. I was really disappointed with my first essay mark. I’d always been good at essays. I really don’t remember there being much help with that but that might be my memory or more likely I just didn’t look for or take any of it up.

Second year I did put in more effort but again I wouldn’t say I pushed myself. I eventually came up with a bit of a formula for writing essays that seems to have helped me through to present day. I would admit that I approached every essay, project and took every test with the question “what’s the bare minimum I have to do to get a decent mark”. I did nothing in my spare time. I didn’t gain any of what we would now describe as employability skills. I didn’t practice, I didn’t make a showreel and I didn’t get involved in any voluntary projects. I did the bare minimum. I do kick myself for not trying harder on a couple of projects which would have pushed me up to a first but I got a high 2:1 without putting much effort in so I guess I got a good return on investment. By the end of my third year I was very ‘done’ with education. I did not want to do a Masters or step foot in education again. I was going to be a successful director don’t you know (despite not deserving or earning that success).

Working in Higher Education

So how ironic it feels now to be sat in a University and having worked in them ever since. Despite my sincere belief that the world owed me my dream job I was summarily disappointed. Surely the path to greatness is paved with negligible effort, a non-existent showreel and no experience? Apparently not. It would seem that a degree isn’t enough to be the next Steven Spielberg. Apparently you might also need talent. So devoid of talent, armed with only a piece of paper claiming some level of competency and with no clue what I was doing, I put forward my CV. You will not be surprised to hear that I had no success. So a change in approach was required.

I turned to graduate internships in the desperate hope that someone like the BBC would be stupid enough to employ me. When you’re going up against hundreds of other graduates, who are more talented and went to a better University than you it’s unlikely you’ll succeed. But I had the good fortune to get a job at Harper Adams University. A stop-gap I thought before Hollywood calls. Hollywood did not call.

It was this job that got me hooked. I enjoyed talking to academics about teaching. I enjoyed talking to them about technology and how they might use it. I even liked training. I was able to combine my love of making stuff with a wage. Like Honey Nut Corn flakes Higher Education was ever so moreish. I was hooked.

So here I sit writing this post in my fourth HEI and despite MANY challenges over the years I still love it.

So how did I get here?

At Harper Adams I was part of a team of graduates who were tasked with introducing new tools and assisting staff to make effective use of them. I also learned more than I’d ever need to know about sheep. I’ve worked at the University of Portsmouth as an Online Course Developer and Assistant IT Trainer. At the University of Lincoln as a Digital Education Developer. I am now an Academic Technologist at the University of Warwick.

I think I am here more through luck than judgement. I realised after my internship at Harper Adams ended that I would be more likely to get a similar role at another University. I was lucky that the University of Portsmouth Business School was looking for someone and on the day of the interview a load of people dropped out. So with little competition I got the role there. After a while a job in IT services came up and I thought, “Hey, I like training so I’ll give it a go” and I did. It gave me so many skills that I am so grateful for now. Confidence to stand up in front of people, techniques to persuade the most negative trainees and the opportunities to work on other projects. After a couple of years I felt it was time to move on. I also knew I’d never be able to afford a home in Portsmouth (ironic given where I now live) and needed to find somewhere more affordable.

After a search of areas we settled on Lincoln. As luck would have it the University had already tried to recruit three Digital Education Developers. The lucky part was they had only recruited two. So they advertised the third vacancy again and they were silly enough to give me the job. I had a wonderful time at Lincoln, and while every place I have worked has shaped me in some way, Lincoln has by far had the biggest effect on me. I joined a new unit tasked with improving all aspects of teaching and learning, including the digital aspects. The digital element was a part of teaching and learning not adjunct or as a ‘thing’. I worked with the most dedicated, hard-working and intelligent people. They were also great fun and pleasures to work with. Each one of them has shaped me in some way, challenged me and supported me. I would not be who I am today without them. They made me question my assumptions, made me read and broadened my knowledge. Sadly after a review of the department and other changes, that I will not detail here, I felt Lincoln was not the place for me anymore.

I selected a number of Universities that I wanted to work at and Warwick was one of them. Again as luck would have it an internal promotion resulted in the perfect vacancy for me. So here I am, in my 7th week at the University of Warwick. I am very comfortable here. I work with great people. The biscuit banter is top notch…

Is the grass always greener?

Nope, but as someone said to me, the grass is always greener if you have no grass in the first place. Moving jobs is scary. You have no idea who you are going to be working with, interviews are no indication as everyone’s on their best behaviour, but in my experience people in this ‘business’ are usually lovely people. You have no idea what you’ll be walking in to but everywhere has its challenges. I don’t think you’re ever going to walk in to a University that has it all figured out. If anything  I would find that quite boring.

99 problems…

So, after that long read, I finally get to my point. Every University I have worked at, this is my fourth, has the same problems. Every person I speak to at conferences etc. has the same problems. Fundamentally our problems are all the same. When I came to Warwick everyone would tell me something then say “oh I don’t mean to put you off” and I would laugh and tell them it didn’t. It didn’t. In HE “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps” should be on the job descriptions. You have to embrace the lunacy or you’ll lose your mind. If I had a Pound for every time I’ve asked why something is done that way I’d be a millionaire. Rarely does the explanation make sense but hey, you have to live with it.

Few of us have enough funding to do anything interesting. Few of us have the senior support required to really make fundamental change. Few of us have enthused and engaged staff. Few of us have technologies that work perfectly for everyone. Few of us have it all figured out. Few of us have got it all sorted.

Culture is a hard thing to change. It is an incremental thing. Small victories. It’s gentle, it’s thoughtful and it’s supportive. Some are braver than others but I’d rather make change the right way and it take longer than do something knee-jerk and ill-conceived to get the job done quicker. Here is the challenge we all face. How do we bring about change quickly, to satisfy management, but do it the right way? We’re all working this one out at our different institutions. Our approaches will differ but we can all learn from one another.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, every university is weird. Every university has its problems. Every university is still working on it. Some are traditional, some are running before they can walk but their problems are the same. Some have managed to cover the poop in a little glitter but deep down they’re still wallowing in the poop with the rest of us.