This is going to get rant-y, so buckle up!
We’re living in a world where everyone is trying to sell their skills, knowledge, and experience. There’s a masterclass for everything. Heck, there’s a masterclass on masterclasses. In this highly unregulated knowledge economy, it’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “impostor syndrome” being thrown around.
There are tons of articles and YouTube videos on how to overcome impostor syndrome from the best self-help voices out there – usually trying to convince people they’re qualified to do whatever it is often without even knowing their audience’s background. We’re at the point where you can attend a masterclass and then the very next day start teaching other people the very things you learned in that masterclass – all because you heard somewhere that you just need to overcome this impostor syndrome and fear of not being qualified.
And while I’m all for making a living, there are some HUGE elephants hanging out in the room that everyone pretends aren’t there: the people that are actually impostors. Meaning, that fear they’re feeling isn’t a “syndrome,” it’s the real thing. They are posing as someone they aren’t qualified to be.
I felt like an impostor two distinct times in my career so far: when I was a freshly graduated nuclear medicine technologist and when I was a newly hired senior data analyst. The thing is, I was suffering from impostor syndrome in only one of those instances.
The difference between those two instances was this: in one case, I was a licensed nuclear medicine technologist and so I couldn’t possibly have been an impostor by definition – I’d completed the coursework, clinical rotations, and passed the certification and licensing exam. I was 100% qualified to inject people with radio-pharmaceuticals and take images of the part of the body in question. I was scared shitless, though. Classic impostor syndrome.
But when I became a data analyst, I was not licensed (because there’s no state license to be a data analyst) or trained in data analysis. I was definitely 100% an impostor. And what I was feeling: fear, sweaty palms, an inkling that I may get fired, scared shitless – were not symptoms of impostor syndrome, my friend.
They were symptoms of being a phony but pretending I wasn’t. Because the only training or experience I had with data analysis was my statistics 501 class in graduate school, during which I felt like I understood maybe 23% of the concepts and actually cheated on one of my exams :). Yes, I felt horrible and never did that again.
The point is this: At the time, I knew very little about statistics and data analysis and even the software used to conduct data analysis. Additionally, I could never figure out pivot tables and VLOOKUPs in Excel at the job I had prior to the data analyst job. And yet, I convinced a company to hire me as a data analyst. A senior one at that!
I wish I could say that after reading 10 articles about impostor syndrome I was cured. But you can’t sure a syndrome you don’t have. When I was actually in this new role, things got pretty dicey. I had to do the data analytics on a huge survey, using SAS and SPSS, performing statistical analyses like T-tests, chi-square, etc. And this survey was tied to financial incentives for the client. Uh-oh, spaghetti-o.
Since I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I went out and bought some books, Googled stuff, and watched some YouTube videos. When all was said and done, I learned two statistical analysis software programs, re-learned statistics, figured out Microsoft Access, and learned a programming language. I went from impostor to intermediate in a short period of time. Because I didn’t want to get fired, yes, but also because I no longer wanted to feel like a fake or like I was deceiving anyone. Oh, and I didn’t get fired because I worked my ass off to avoid being exposed. I say all of this to say…
It’s not always impostor syndrome.
It’s only a “syndrome” if you’ve done the work, gotten the experience, and received the credentials to get there and you’re just nervous because of the newness of it all. If you haven’t done those things, you are an actual impostor and the only way to overcome being an impostor is to gain the knowledge, training, credentials, and experience necessary to do the job or be the person.
Sometimes it’s a “fake it till you make it” situation like my data analysis experience (this is actually dangerous in some cases), but the key is to actually do the work. The cure to impostor syndrome is to get better at what you’re doing and who you are. The cure to being an impostor is to actually become what you’re posing as. In order for me to overcome impostor syndrome as a nuclear medicine technologist, I had to practice those injections and taking those images (and labeling them correctly, eek). In order for me to overcome being a data analyst impostor, I had to gain the skills and knowledge to 1. call myself a data analyst in the first place and 2. to actually be able to analyze data. It’s a subtle difference, but makes a HUGE impact.
Sometimes you are an impostor and that’s perfectly okay. No one is born an expert at anything. And it’s actually a good thing to be able to make money from your skills and experiences. The solution, however, isn’t to just to pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you’re qualified after having done nothing to be qualified. The solution is to actually become qualified. To learn, then do (more than once), and be coachable along the way.
And maybe it’s just me coming from a scientific background, but a one-off experience is a really small sample size. And when you’re getting paid to serve the masses based on one experience with no additional training, it’s actually a disservice.
Be willing to learn, do, and be coached.
See, I told you it would get rant-y! To be clear, I’m all for people making cash money and blessing the world with their skills. I’m not for people thinking that one class, one book, or one experience qualifies them as an expert worthy of getting paid said cash money. There are so many online coaches, advisors, influencers who are operating entire businesses based on that one time they were able to get a job, get in shape, make 6 figures, or pay off their student loan debt. A one-off anything doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to address nuance, which life is chock full of.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the knowledge economy and feel like the only way to happiness is to sell your skills and experience. If you go down that path, please know that you have to learn before you teach, do before you advise, and be coached before you coach. Often, these things take years. There are no shortcuts in life. And even if you think you’ve found one, trying to sustain something long-term that basically fell into your lap can be tough.
Most of the people that are admired these days for having “freedom” have been building the life you see them live now for YEARS. They were (and are) students; spending years learning the skill, being criticized and coached, and then building their dream that they can now sustain for the years to come.
Be a student first.