5 minute read

This is the third post in a planned five-part series on Impostor Series among IT Pros. Previous posts can be found here:

Do I belong at this table?

I Hope they don’t find out

“For the first exercise Dr. Gervais asked us if we were interested in having an extraordinary individual experience. We all nodded yes. Then he moved on and asked for a volunteer to stand up. Only no one did … But Dr. Gervais was curious: Why wouldn’t everyone jump up? Wasn’t this a high performing group? Didn’t every just say they wanted to do something extraordinary? … The answers were hard to pull out even though they were just beneath the surface. Fear of being ridiculed; of failing; of not looking like the smartest person in the room …” - Satya Nadella, Hit Refresh, Chapter 1

In the first chapter of Hit Refresh, Satya recounts an early team building exercise with his senior leadership team. He had recently been named the CEO of Microsoft. The senior leadership team was made up of some of the most experienced professionals in our industry. They are all well-known and well-respected leaders whose careers have been nothing short of extraordinary. They were given the opportunity to do something else extraordinary, but none of them volunteered. In the book Satya described the awkward silence, shoe-gazing, and unsure smiles the team exchanged. Eventually the silence was broken when Amy Hood, Microsoft’s CFO, volunteered.

Most of us can identify with this situation. Self-consciousness and doubt can be paralyzing. How many times have you not answered a question even though you were confident you knew the answer? Have you avoided volunteering for a demonstration, even though you wanted to take part?

I’m sure I’m not alone – but I am virtually incapable of raising my hand when a presenter asks for a show of hands in a conference. They could ask the most inconsequential question like, “Who is wearing shoes?” or “Who got out of bed this morning?” The voice in the back of my head keeps me from identifying myself. There’s a nagging feeling that if I raise my hand that someone may challenge my position on how I tie my shoes, or if I made the bed before leaving the house (spoiler alert: I didn’t). It’s irrational. Anyone could clearly see whether I am wearing shoes. The casual observer could probably guess with a reasonable degree of certainty that unless I stayed up all night that I did, in fact, get out of bed in the morning. If the subject is more advanced, I am even less likely to respond. At best I will be able to muster half a raised hand – but I do my best to avoid standing out.

As Satya stated in his book, the reason senior leadership team members were slow to volunteer was just under the surface – “Fear of being ridiculed; of failing; of not looking like the smartest person in the room.” Even the CEO of one of the most valuable companies in the world is afraid of feeling exposed. I don’t want it to sound like I believe Satya experience Impostor Syndrome, but the self-doubt he described in the first chapter of his book is a feeling that many of us can identify with.

This feeling is both relentless and damaging. If we are constantly afraid of being exposed, we will avoid taking the measured risks that help us to grow. There are countless anecdotes and sayings that tell us that the best lessons are learned through failure. We grow through experience – both successes and failures. How can we grow professionally or advance in our careers if we don’t take chances?

There have been a lot of people whom I have encountered in my career that have had a very profound impact on me professionally. I’m not sure that they always understand their impact, but one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a friend who works at Microsoft. He gave me the following advice about taking risks being necessary for professional growth. During a discussion about career opportunities he mentioned that he views career growth as a three-legged stool: “Whenever you’re looking for new opportunities you should be looking for opportunities to grow. You want one leg to pivot on, one leg to land quickly, and one leg to land more slowly and grow. Then when it comes time to move again, you repeat. The first leg should be something you know, the second should be something you know a little bit about but can learn fast, and the third should be something you know almost nothing about and can learn slow. When you learn all three you will be amazing!”

This model of career growth requires taking chances. We must stretch ourselves in ways that may not feel comfortable. There’s a level of introspection to understand our skills and be honest about what we know. It’s important to know our strengths and understand how solid our foundation is. Once we have accomplished that we can look for areas we want to improve on, and finally set stretch goals.

It’s important for any professional to be self-aware, but when that awareness prevents you from growing, pivoting, and pushing yourself, it has very real consequences. The important part of recognizing your self-doubt is that it helps you to address it. It doesn’t take much time on Twitter to find a dozen IT Pros talking about Impostor Syndrome. We all know it’s real. We know we experience it. We even know that it has hindered our professional growth. Real solutions are hard to come by, but the consensus is that the first step is to talk about it.

In the last few posts in this series on Impostor Syndrome I will discuss some of the strategies that have helped me to be more confident and to fight through these feelings. It’s a struggle that I face every day in my career – but I am determined to not let it define who I am in my personal or professional life.

I’m ready to raise my hand, stand up, and talk about my experiences.