How a Facebook designer overcame imposter syndrome

4 min read
Emilia Dallman
  •  Feb 17, 2017
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Here’s what I know.

Going through a life-altering international move is hard. Starting fresh in a new city without any real ties is really hard. Accepting your first big-girl job you’re not sure you’re qualified for is almost unimaginable.

Going to this new, shiny job every day and feeling as though you don’t have a support system of people who really get you and will catch you when you inevitably trip and fall—that’s nearly impossible.

All illustrations by Matt Kissick.

Wait, so… how did you get here?

I joined Facebook in March of 2015 off the heels of the public acquisition of Teehan+Lax. After 5 years in Toronto, I accepted the offer to join the Facebook Design team, and I picked up and moved to the Bay Area—all in the course of 6 weeks.

“Trust yourself and take responsibility for your own success.”

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I’d had a cumulative 2 months at T+L. Before this, I took an 8-week front-end development course at HackerYou. HackerYou provided the front-end coding chops I’d always wanted, but I never gave myself the time to learn them. In 2 months, I learned HTML, CSS, Javascript, and responsive design

You could say I was green, and you’d be right.

Facebook took a huge chance for me, and I was excited to take a giant leap for them.

Related: How to overcome imposter syndrome

The Conscious Competence Ladder

And joining Facebook was everything I could have asked for: terrifying, challenging, and completely humbling. My first “aha” moment came around the 4-month mark when my manager at the time spoke to me about the The Conscious Competence Ladder. According to this model, we move through the following levels as we build competence in a new skill:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: You are unaware of the skill and your lack of proficiency
  2. Conscious Incompetence: You are aware of the skill and your lack of proficiency
  3. Consciously Competence: You are able to use that skill, but only with effort
  4. Unconscious Competence: Performing the skill becomes automatic

I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t know enough to realize how little I knew. (See: “unconscious incompetence” above.) I’d been sleepwalking through my day-to-day, doing what I was told, and saying what was expected. I was not myself but rather what others wanted. Survival mode had kicked in and I was attempting to simply blend in with the pack.

Oh, so that’s what rock bottom is

You’re thinking this is where I turned the corner and rallied, right? I love the optimism, but that’s not how this story goes.

After realizing how in over my head I truly was, I fell into a pretty big tailspin into paralyzing self-doubt followed by a wicked case of debilitating imposter syndrome. The kicker? I was on a team with incredibly experienced, charismatic male designers*.

(*For what it’s worth, I realize this topic is not without its controversy. I don’t mean to claim that all women feel all the feelings and all men do not—this is one woman’s experience. One that happens to have a lot of feelings… all the time.)

This wasn’t the kind-hearted group of single mothers I was raised by—these guys had back-to-back meetings, influence, and no clue about the paralyzing fear I was experiencing. I missed my support network and I needed to find a new tribe.

So here’s the punchline: yes, I found a handful of folks I felt I could be my full, uncensored self with, and I will always be grateful to them. But that’s not what fished me out of this slump.

I hit rock bottom 9 months after my start date during a trip home where I was convinced I’d done the wrong thing, that I shouldn’t go back to the Bay Area. I’d moved there to work, and I felt I was failing completely at even fulfilling the basic requirements of my job.

I was a shell of my outspoken self in meetings. I didn’t know what I could possibly have to contribute in a room full of PhDs and decades of experience. My opportunities to shine felt few and far between, and I left work feeling like I’d underperformed just a little more than the previous day. I perfected the art of the Shuttle Cry (trademark pending).

And then a switch flipped. 

This journey was no one else’s but mine. No one was going to pull me out, and I had to stop waiting. It wasn’t up to my mentor, my manager, or my handful of new friends to fix this for me. I did not want to be the damsel-in-distress of this story. I wanted to be the Oprah, the Sheryl Sandberg—the one who figures it out on her own, and owes it to no one but her own gumption and tenacity. 

“When you feel a distinct lack of belonging, reprioritize and find a tribe.”

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Surrender, it turns out, is what growing up feels like.Twitter Logo I stopped asking permission and waiting for someone to notice how I was feeling—after all, no one knew that better than I did.

I adjusted my expectations of myself, and found new examples of what I wanted my career to look like. I found strong examples of designers with similar strengths. I sought mentorship from senior women at Facebook. I asked for what I wanted.

Where do I go from here

I had a real conversation with my manager. Not a fluffy, friendly one like I was used to. This was planned, and it was real and honest. It was raw. I mustered confidence from the comfort of home, consulted my troops, and come up with a set of questions (shout out to my dad, Brendan Howley, for this).

The questions I asked looked something like this:

What do I want?

What steps can we take to attach me to a project so that:

  1. I’m engaged in work that is not only visible, but visible in my favor
  2. I am not only productive, but seen as being productive

What do I need from my manager?

What can we work on together to make sure that I see these things in my career:

  1. Real change in my role and/or responsibilities
  2. Personal growth
  3. My coworkers empower me, and I empower my coworkers in return

What are our next steps?

How do we collaborate on a plan that everyone agrees has a high probability of success?

“Ask for what you want.”

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When not clearly stated in black and white as it is above, it sounded a lot like, “This is what I want, and this is how I think we should work together to fix it.”

This is how I got what I wanted and brought my manager onside. It showed I’d worked to identify my problem, and a potential solution. In my case, it meant a move within the company.

Another leap

I made a move to a new team—one that happened to be primarily composed of women. It was scrappy, small, and off the radar—it was risky. I was ready and willing to work hard—and boy did I ever. I took every ounce of responsibility they gave me, and 2 months later we launched a product called Account Kit at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference

You could call it something like a comeback.

I took a risk moving to a new country to do work I’d never done before, on a scale I couldn’t imagine. I felt like an imposter, doubted my abilities, and felt completely unequipped going into each work day.

But I reminded myself that the only way through was to trust myself and take responsibility for my own success.

Despite some turbulence upon take-off, I now go into work every day and feel empowered, respected, and understood by my team. Facebook gave me the platform, the time, and most importantly the opportunity to find what made me, me and what I needed to kick ass. I couldn’t be prouder to call myself a Facebook Product Designer. It’s only the beginning, but now I have a strategy to handle what comes next.

Take that, Oprah.

Thank you to those who heard me out, and helped directly or not in guiding me on this journey. A special thank you to Matt Kissick for the illustrations, and to Jonathon Colman, Tanner Christensen and Jasmine Friedl for their editing expertise.

This was originally published on Medium.

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