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.

ICT vs. Educational Technologists

Relationships between departments, in any sector, can be difficult and HE is no exception. But this came as a bit of a surprise to me whilst enjoying a tipple in the evening at the UCISA Support Services Group conference. Apparently some ICT staff are not keen on the educational technologists at their institution.

I’ve used the name educational technologists though I know full well there are hundreds of different job titles. You may call yours digital education developers, learning technologists, elearning technologists, technology enhanced learning advisers, online content developers and so on.

I’ve never felt any animosity (or any extraordinary animosity) from my colleagues in ICT. There is the usual “that’s not our job” tension but that’s nothing unusual. Perhaps I am oblivious to it or we never work with people who feel this way. I imagine it is an equal mix of the former and latter. So it came as a shock to hear how negatively the Ed Techs are thought of by ICT staff in some institutions. So I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about why this might happen and how we can avoid it.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT are busy

ICT departments are incredibly busy places to work. They have a very broad customer base who pull them in a number of directions. Students, academics, professional services etc. are all vying for their attention. Not only that but they actually have to maintain all of the systems as well as put new ones in. None of these things are easy. We should remember and be mindful of that.

Dear ICT: We are busy too

There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Educational technologists float around messing about with new fun technologies. That we spend our days thinking up ways to make ICT’s life more difficult. I assure you we don’t mean to. Whilst we occasionally get to do fun stuff we are most often bogged down in supporting staff in how to use the VLE. Most often training staff on the basic functions.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT are under pressure

I have already mentioned the pressures that a diverse customer base causes ICT. Often it is whoever shouts loudest that gets heard. How many times have staff emailed your ICT Director to complain they weren’t being dealt with quickly enough?

Dear ICT: We are under pressure too

Technology in education has become more and more important. The TEF puts innovation at the heart of teaching. For some reason institutions think by sticking some technology in to teaching it will somehow become innovative. We all know there is no quick answer. Therefore, ed techs are seen as the people to transform teaching. That we can make everyone innovative with a click of our fingers. Unfortunately, we have to start making a significant change. To do that we need to have the infrastructure in place and ICT, that’s where you come in.

Dear Ed Techs: Stop asking for seemingly random stuff

To ICT it probably seems like our requests come out of nowhere. Sometimes they do. We know our rationale. We remember the conversations we have had with staff and students on the subject. We have looked at the alternatives. But ICT have a process they go through and trying to avoid it, because it’s usually long-winded and laborious, is not going to get it done any quicker.

Dear ICT: Let’s not argue

Sometimes it would be nice for us not to have to argue. Filling out your long-winded paperwork and endless meetings. Unless you plan on sitting down and testing all the options I’m sure you’re going to go with whatever we suggest anyway. Also we know our users so we may not go for the shiniest thing with all the features we might just go for what we know they’ll use. That may seem odd to you but we have thought it through I promise.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a limited budget

Although ICT budgets appear huge to an outsider they are not and they are usually allocated for specific projects. Enterprise infrastructure is expensive. So when you roll up with “its only 2k” that may seem insignificant but it’s not. It’s a lot of money when every penny has been carefully allocated at the start of the year. Find out when the budget run is and try to get your requests in as early as possible.

Dear ICT: We don’t have a budget

Our team doesn’t have a budget for technology and licensing. That doesn’t seem to be something the University thinks would be helpful. So we rely heavily on ICT. When we say we have no money, we really mean it. Let’s work together to secure an ‘innovation’ fund. So when we ask you for stuff there is some money set aside already.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT don’t want to install stuff just because it’s cool

We all want to play with the latest thing. If anything that’s kind of our job but ICT have enough to do. They can’t just install stuff because we think it’s cool.

Dear ICT: We need a way to play with the cool stuff

Technology changes quickly. Educational technology changes quickly and we need to be able to move with that change. If it takes a year to get something installed it’s often out of date by then. What would be great is if we could have some way of installing things, testing them and, retiring them if they are not well used or rolling them into production if they are.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a process

ICT sometimes appears to be being difficult for the sake of it. I know that is not the case. Many ICT departments use a framework called ITIL which help to process the vast number of tasks they have to complete. It also helps to prioritise what they are doing, when they do it and who does it. ICT go through a demand management process. They get so many requests they have to prioritise and schedule them.

Dear ICT: We can’t do it without you

We are not able, nor should we, nor would you like it, if we started building up servers and installing anything we like willy-nilly. Nor do you appreciate it when people buy stuff without your knowledge. So we need you to do stuff for us. Trust me there are times where we’d much rather just do it ourselves but we can’t. We have to go through you.

You know we need you.

Dear Ed Techs: What you think is important may not be top priority

Sometimes there are pressures on their time and activities that have to take priority. We may not agree with them but we have to be mindful that our priorities may not always be aligned. Take a deep breath and don’t chuck your toys out of the pram. Try and work within the existing systems rather than outside them. You’ll probably get somewhere much faster.

Dear ICT: Please acknowledge that teaching is important

I have acknowledged the diverse needs that constantly pull on ICTs time. But I will finish with my biggest frustration. That you don’t acknowledge that teaching is important and ultimately why we are here.

If teaching is terrible students won’t turn up. If students don’t turn up we won’t have jobs. Yes I know that the finance system, HR system and WiFi are all important. They underpin everything. But if a lecture theatre computer is broken that’s not a big issue in the grand scheme. But it’s a massive issue for that member of staff and those students. Acknowledge that when they call you. Fix it quickly. Don’t leave it for days.

Dear ICT: Let’s work together

You play a crucial role in the University. What you do, day-to-day, affects everyone. There are few departments who have such an impact on people’s lives. We rely on you. So let’s just start working together. Let’s talk about how we can work together. What we need from you and what you need from us. What we can do together to make a difference. Let’s stop focusing on problems and start finding solutions.


Should we employ staff who don’t have digital skills?

Job Interview Image

The question posed in the title of this post is a fair one. Why are we employing people who don’t have the digital skills that are needed to cope in today’s ‘digital world’? It’s a question raised with increasing frequency and one that deserves some serious thought.

I should start by saying that I fundamentally disagree with anyone who says that we shouldn’t employ people without the digital skills we ‘need’. I will spend the rest of this post explaining the various thoughts that lead me to feel this way but as an educator I cannot agree with it. I exist to develop people. You wouldn’t throw a child out of class for not knowing something when they walked in, that’s why we educate them, so they leave knowing more than they did when they walked in. Why shouldn’t that apply to staff?

Supporting people

This is the point that bothers me most about this question. Have we totally lost all empathy for people? Is technology really that important that we stop caring about the people we employ and work with? I hope not. I certainly haven’t. People first, technology second. See my post from the UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities event.

There is nothing more satisfying than helping someone gain a new skill. It’s one of the reasons I love what I do. Employers have an obligation to develop their people. If they don’t they have failed.

Apparently a lack of digital skills is costing the UK £63billion. Perhaps the issue is not just in HE.

Widening participation

We talk a lot about widening participation for our students. Striving to ensure students from all backgrounds have access to education. Why doesn’t this principle apply to staff?

What do we ‘need’?

So part of the argument is that staff ‘need’ a specific set of skills. What are they exactly? Who determines what they are? Who is the authority on this?

Let’s take academics in the first instance. Is knowledge of Microsoft Office skills enough? If they can do Office and Twitter is that enough? I don’t believe it’s possible to create a list of things we think staff should be able to do. Their work can be incredibly broad. Technology is constantly changing and so do the goal posts.

How do we measure it?

In an interview how do we glean someone’s skill levels? Sit them in front of a computer and watch them perform some basic tasks? That’s a potential answer. Yet again we have to ask what will the test consist of and who will design it?

Institutional Priorities

I had a great conversation with someone who said “I look for members of staff who will bring value”. They did not feel that digital skills were necessarily a priority for all roles.

Academics have a wide range of responsibilities from teaching to research. Institutions have to balance these priorities when employing new staff. If an academic is a capable teacher and researcher does it really matter that they don’t use Twitter? We can help people to get the skills they need to do their job.


Technology is not always relevant to people. Why should it be? If I know how to teach and research do I really need to know how to use Padlet? I would argue that we need to ease people in to the use of technology. It’s not helpful to vilify people. That will only serve to alienate people from technology further.

I’ve grown up with technology. Although, it’s worth noting that when I first went to school there was one computer for the whole school. I didn’t get a mobile phone until my teens. Not everyone grows up surrounded by technology and it’s naive to believe that everyone has the same experience.

Read my follow up post But what about staff that won’t or don’t want to engage in CPD?