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Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you don’t deserve your success or that you are getting away with something. Its symptoms include feeling inadequate, the tendency to attribute success to luck, the fear of being “found out,” and generalized anxiety. Amy Silvers, an information architect and UX designer who gave a talk on the phenomenon with Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci, a senior user experience designer for IBM Smarter Workforce, feels that imposter syndrome crops up among UXers because, “a lot of our work is the thinking part, and it’s hard to show the thinking that went into the pretty part. We don’t have certifications or licenses. We can’t even agree on what our profession really is. This contributes to stakeholders not taking us completely seriously.”

“Before I got into UX design,” she continues, “I was an editor and a writer of children’s books. I spent the first 15 years of my professional life in a career I was born into. I grew up in a family of ‘word people’—think competitive punning at the dinner table. When I started as an editorial assistant, I never doubted my ability. But eventually, I felt like I was living in Groundhog Day.”

Silvers got interested in information architecture and was hired by an agency to work on a very large taxonomy and metadata project. As soon as she was hired, however, that project fell through and she was suddenly called on to be a UX designer. Just as suddenly, Silvers says, she felt like a giant imposter.

When she dug into the phenomenon with Widelitz-Cavallucci, they found many fellow accomplished professionals who said, “I feel like that every day.”  Because UX professionals are constantly confronted with mixed messages about the job and the field, it can be easy to give into pressure to be all things to all people. This is one reason that attending and participating in conferences can be so invaluable. “Maybe because Madison+ UX is one-track, everyone forms a real bond over a shared experience,” says Pamela Pavliscak. “I had meaningful conversations with three times as many people at this conference, than I have at conferences ten times the size.”

Widelitz-Cavallucci echoed Pavliscak’s assessment of the value of Madison+ UX to break down barriers and connect people in the UX field, “The intimacy due to the size of the conference and the one-track allowed me to get to talk to many more people than at larger conferences. I met many people, all of whom were interesting, and even made some new friends.”

“Impostor syndrome is something I still struggle with, even after 12 years in the industry,” says Madison+ UX 2014 attendee Catrina Ahlbach. “It hit me pretty hard two and a half years ago when I switched jobs. Having been a director of technical support for nearly seven years, my time spent doing actual development was diminished in favor of managing a team. Once I was in a position to get my hands dirty with code again, I had to constantly fight the feeling that I wasn’t able to learn everything I needed to in order to do a good job and complete my tasks on time.”

For those dealing with their own case of imposter syndrome, Silvers and Widelitz-Cavallucci advise getting a mentor, writing down your feelings, displaying your achievements, envisioning yourself performing well, and finally, remembering that you’re not alone.