Tactics to fight your lizard brain in imposter syndrome
"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" #70
This week’s toy: mending building failures in real buildings using lego bricks. This is a really good reminder to start by building with what you have to try to solve the problems you see at the moment. You might not need a better solution until your use cases change dramatically. Edition No. 70 of this newsletter is here - it’s November 29, 2021.
The Big Idea
It’s time to talk about things we’re #thankful for this year. I’m thankful that this year I got enough room between the negative thoughts that sometimes go through my head and my experience of what’s actually going on to get better at knowing when that warning light turns on. I’d like to put this marker down for the next time I feel a wave of imposter syndrome.
Adam Grant calls this out well: “when multiple people believe in you, it might be time to believe them.”
What’s imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome - simply put - is the feeling that you have no idea what you’re doing in a situation where other people might objectively view the situation and have a different viewpoint. It does not always mean being in a situation where you might be overwhelmed as a beginner. It does not always mean the feeling you get after you’ve made a mistake that could have been avoided. For me, this feeling hits as a wave of anxiety that crowds out other thoughts.
Katherine Caflish describes it this way:
Who do you think you are? You don’t belong here. Your intellect and experiences are leagues behind that of your peers. There’s no way you’re cut out for this! Just wait, your proposal will be a flop and then everyone will know that you’re a fake. Everything turned out alright, you say? (Again)? The reviewers must not have been paying attention. After all, if you can do it, then anyone can do it.
Most of the time, imposter syndrome is probably just some thoughts going through your head. These thoughts feel like lived experience, and you can’t always avoid them. But you can learn to identify them and then help yourself when this happens.
Another way to look at the “imposter” feelings
Here’s another perspective. What if the next time you experienced the feelings that accompany that feeling of being an imposter:
the idea that you don’t belong
an overwhelming desire to create a perfect solution
the belief that you have no idea what step might be next
You substitute a different story:
you must belong - at least a little bit - because you’re here now
perfect is the enemy of done, so what can you do to improve the current situation a small amount?
we all don’t know with certainty which step should be next, so pick one!
And then see how it feels. One thing is for sure. If you allow yourself to feel only the anxiety producing feelings, there will be no shot at making it better in the short term. Moving toward a situation where you promote neutral feelings has got to help (at least a little).
How do you avoid negative feelings?
In my experience, you don’t avoid negative feelings. They happen, and eventually recede, much like the weather. What matters the most to recovery is the speed at which you start to realize you’re in the middle of an emotional storm. At that point, you’re able to do things to scaffold yourself so that you get back to neutral or into positive territory as best you can.
Here are a few things I do to fight imposter feelings.
Bonus: I try to do them consistently to provide a fall back to the mental lizard brain. When the lizard appears, it’s easier to remind it “don’t bother me, I’m working on the stuff I always do.”
Spend time every day working on projects that are at least 30 days in the future. When you do this, future you is rewarded by seeing someone has already done some work. You don’t have to start from scratch!
Keep a list of things people have asked you to do, who asked it, and when. If you panic about not knowing everything on the list that has been promised, this will help. Also, if you run into a situation where the same person has asked you for multiple things, you are able to ask “do you want this one, or that one.” Instant prioritization funnel and stack ranking ;)
Establish a Kudos file of nice things that people say about you. When you’re having a rough day, this is one place you can look to remind you that you’ve done great work before.
Be quiet, lizard brain …
There’s one thing your lizard brain can teach you. When you’re in the throes of an emotional storm, you have the best ability to be critical of your own work. Take advantage of imposter syndrome to turn an eye toward one thing you’d like to improve. (Don’t stay there, but do spend 30-60 minutes writing down your ideas so you can improve them later.)
What’s the takeaway? Most people (some stats suggest as high as 70%) experience something that feels like imposter syndrome. When you’re feeling it, it feels like forever, but recognize it and it will be over faster. To pilot your way through, remember the consistent things you do every day, week, and month and the positive things other people have said about you.
A Thread from This Week
Twitter is an amazing source of long-form writing, and it’s easy to miss the threads people are talking about.
This week’s thread: on pricing power and price anchoring. There just *might* be a market in copying Apple accessories and pricing 20% under whatever they charge.
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my eye.
1/ Buy an AppleRepair to go with AppleCare - This is sort of a genius move of Apple to create a method of supporting frequently repaired items. They wouldn’t be supporting self-service repair without knowing: 1) this is going to be a huge business; 2) there’s amazing margin in selling parts to Apple products too; 3) from a regulatory standpoint, they are getting out ahead of any mandate for “right to repair.”
2/ Being a better engineering advocate - if you work in tech, you probably work with engineers. And there are some surprisingly simple ways you will be able to help them, especially if you are in a product-facing role. Being a better PM sounds a lot like being a more effective teammate, along with thoughtful ways to save time and remove friction. This is a parallel idea to how you gain traction with customers, by making it easier for them to do the things they might do already.
3/ How to build a bit of nostalgia - the flap-split display was a common sound to hear in train stations back in the day. Here’s one team’s DIY version; if you’d prefer a version you don’t have to build yourself, it’s about $3,000. When I look at these I can almost hear the clack clack clack of the wheels and flaps rotating.
On the Reading/Watching List
Thanksgiving Football (the American Football kind) wouldn’t be the same without the Detroit Lions. However, actually watching the Lions play football is no fun. I prefer this silly video from Mark Rober about making a robot field goal kicker good enough to challenge Matt Prater (former Detroit Lion and field goal record holder).
Reading: Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, by Alec MacGillis.
Just after Small Business Saturday, it seems important to consider the cost of free shipping, buying things online, and how to balance the inevitability of “just in time” demand with the costs of building that infrastructure. The cost of buying is not free. At the same time, we need to move goods across the country and to facilitate commerce. This is an interesting problem that needs more work.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
I’m grateful you read this far. Thank you. If you found this useful, consider sharing with a friend.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon