How I Overcame Imposter Syndrome as a Design Engineer

The imposter syndrome makes you feel like a fraud. While work experience is the best solution for an engineer, to overcome the feeling.

Every engineer I know at some point had the imposter syndrome. This crosses over to every field of engineering too.

To quickly overcome this feeling, I’m going to share 6 hacks I’ve created. Before I do though, I’ll go over my experience as a newbie design engineer. Also, I’ll dig into the imposter feeling, so you better understand why the feeling even exists.

My experience with imposter syndrome as a design engineer

As a newbie engineer, the imposter syndrome hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought the following to myself:

  • Why are people two to three times my age asking me for advice?
  • How am I in charge of designing this large complex project?
  • Why are they paying me all of this money as a freshly minted college grad?

starting engineering salaries in america

The funny thing is, I felt I deserved success as a freshly minted college grad. Yet, I still questioned why others didn’t have my position over me. I never told anyone this, but the thoughts rattled in my mind.

Imposter syndrome sourced from drastic life changes

The faster you climb an industry, the stronger imposter syndrome typically kicks in. Imagine an upcoming actor whose film becomes a box-office hit. He goes from a nobody to instant fame. People begin treating him differently overnight.

But when an actor slowly moves up the ranks, the imposter syndrome is weaker. Your mind can adapt, as you have time to absorb the oncoming changes. Instead of experiencing a new reality, while your mind still lives in the past.

In my case, everything happened fast. I directly went from studying in school to designing large real-world projects. My mind was still processing doing make-believe problems from school. This is one reason I believe engineering education needs reform.

I compare it to swimming. You’re at home reading about learning how to swim. Then the next thing you know, you’re trying to swim in a lake.

The below data from TeamBlind.com shows how even the top techies feel like phonies in their work. It’s more common than you’d think.

Tech CompanyPercent of tech employees experiencing imposter syndrome
Expedia72.88%
Salesforce66.88%
Amazon64.48%
Facebook59.31%
Microsoft56.21%
Google55.99%
Intel54.00%
eBay49.69%
Apple45.45%

Why do you feel like a fraud?

You may have attached too much prestige to a job position. Or, you hold the people in a profession on too high of a pedestal. This can be from the media’s larger-than-life sensational portrayal of figureheads.

So, you feel unworthy of the position. Because you’re only an average person…

Important Note: often, you think people know much more than you do. From my experience though, many people don’t know as much as you think. They’re just good at bullshitting or giving persuasive incomplete answers.

Feeling like a fraud stems from insecurities. The following are typical thoughts, newbie engineers think about their seniors:

  • Their resume spans three decades, while yours spans two years
  • Their white hair signals wisdom, and you’re decades younger
  • They’re the loudest in the room, while you’re quiet and reserved
  • They drive an expensive sports car, while you ride the bus to the office

When you think these illogical thoughts, your insecurities become bad habits. And frankly, it’s self-sabotage. You’ll always search for excuses to keep yourself down, while not setting high expectations. You stay in your comfort zone.

For example, we all have great ideas. We don’t often tell others though, due to fear of criticism. Also, we think others may know better without justification. Subconsciously, we’re placing others on pedestals.

Now think about this. Would you fear expressing your ideas to a room full of first-graders? Probably not!

You’d care less if any first-grader judges you or your ideas. You wouldn’t even care if you come off as an idiot. Because you don’t view first graders as smart as you.

The fear of getting posterized in the NBA

Have you noticed some NBA players never get dunked on?

It’s because they never try to defend a dunk. You can only get a block at the rim, if you accept the chance of getting dunked on. And some players fear trending on ESPN highlights as the posterized player. But, some players also don’t feel worthy enough to contest a dunk of a superstar player.

To point out, only confident NBA players understand you win some and you lose some. In one play you get dunked on, and in another, you get the game-winning block.

Dunking basketball in NBA - gain confidence to lose the imposter syndrome

So, the NBA shares many similarities with engineering. To maximize your chance for success, you can’t be insecure. You need to showcase your skill set and take risks. Someone hired you or works with you because they believe in you.

How to overcome the imposter syndrome

Over the years, I’ve come up with 6 ways to overcome feeling like a fraud. I use these techniques myself, and they’ll work in every industry.

While sometimes, feeling like a fraud never goes away. The feeling will subdue over time.

As a big disclaimer, these techniques will only work if you’re skilled in your line of work. Say you’re a computer programmer. No matter how well you follow my techniques, you’ll always feel like a fraud if you can’t program. Some can fake it, but over time the truth will come out.

#1) We’re all human

Do you ever stop to think we’re all human?

To state the obvious, we all eat, sleep, and use the restroom like clockwork. While each of us has fears and insecurities. Not one human is exempt from these behavioral patterns and feelings. Despite what Instagram may have you think.

Once I fully embraced this simple fact, I no longer viewed any one person above me. Especially, since we all circle the same fireball on the same spinning rock.

Steve Jobs famously said,

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world.

Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life.

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Steve Jobs with the Apple iPad

Steve Jobs’ best captured how you should never allow anyone to make you feel below them. Also, staring into the cosmos is a fantastic way to humanize everyone around you.

#2) Speak with your colleagues in private

Go speak with people who you respect and trust in your profession. Ask them how they got their start in the profession. You’ll get an inside look into the journey of people who you respect.

I find this to be a great way to strip the façade so-called experts carry. You’ll humanize them while finding they’re very similar to you. They’re not some mythical genius engineering whiz who’s unapproachable. No one is born an expert, and almost every confident person today once had imposter syndrome.

The following are some questions to ask experts:

  • How long have you been working in the field?
  • Are you always confident about the technical subjects you discuss?
  • Did you have any insecurities when you first started working? If yes, what did you do to overcome these insecurities?
  • How do you suggest I improve my self-confidence at work?

And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Looking vulnerable isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength.

So, learn how senior engineers think. You’ll find their thinking patterns aren’t anything too alien. In fact, you may discover you even share some character traits with 10x engineers.

#3) Speak up and don’t stand in the shadows

Don’t sit silent and hide in the shadows. Speak up!

A great hack is to start by speaking on smaller subjects. For example, in a meeting, ask about the project schedule. This will get the ball rolling, to give you the confidence to say more.

In the process, you’ll gain more respect from your peers. Because you’re invested in the project and providing input for the betterment of the team. This then creates a positive feedback loop. The more you speak, the greater your confidence grows. Then the weaker your imposter syndrome becomes.

Also as an added bonus, you’ll receive feedback on your ideas. This will sharpen your engineering skills, and further boost your confidence. And from everything I’ve seen, most engineers enjoy providing feedback. This even includes the grumpy-looking engineers.

#4) Crack the imposter syndrome code and gain confidence

Know your enemy, the imposter syndrome. As we learned, imposter syndrome comes from drastic life changes and insecurities. Not surprisingly, imposter syndrome aligns with every journey to success.

So much so, I view imposter syndrome as the gate key to success. You must overcome the imposter feeling before you reach greater heights.

For example, in weight lifting, you’ll feel the burn with every last rep. You’ll want to drop the weights and sprawl yourself on the ground from exhaustion. But, it’s those final reps in a set, which build you muscle. So, over time you learn to push through the final reps because you want muscle growth.

Similarly, in engineering, you need to push through the initial imposter syndrome stage. The result is then gained confidence and soon mastery of your field.

The key is though, to immediately recognize imposter syndrome. By identifying the feeling, you can better control it. I’ve programmed myself to push through the beginning difficult stage of any new work I do. I know the imposter feeling is the right of passage to leveling myself up.

#5) Fake it until you make it

We’ve all heard the aphorism “fake it until you make it” at one point in our lives. Because there’s truth to these six simple words.

We all subconsciously adopt these words in our daily lives. We try to look smarter, richer, bigger, and the list goes on. As social creatures, we judge each other by what we see.

If I see you acting and looking a certain way, I may view you as more credible. And now, you’ve won half the battle. You’ve made me a believer. In return, I’ll speak with you differently and this will boost your confidence.

Also, by faking certain actions, you’ll feel empowered. Because these actions will turn into winning habits over time.

So properly sell yourself, to speed up the process of overcoming imposter syndrome. The caveat is, you do need the necessary skills to perform your job. Without any skills, you’ll get exposed and lose your edge.

For example, you may win a contract to build a bridge by talking the talk. But, if you don’t have the skills to design the bridge, you’ll only end up with a lawsuit.

Assuming you’re skilled, go study the top people in your industry. Then copy them, and add your personal touch to set yourself apart. The following are ideas of what to copy:

  • Wardrobe
  • How to start discussion subjects
  • How to treat colleagues and clients
  • Study habits
  • Design habits
  • Demeanor

Actor acting in movie - similar to imposter syndrome in real life

Imposter syndrome as the U.S. president

Imagine the U.S. president position. A handbook on how to run the country doesn’t exist. I bet almost every person would feel like a fraud running a nation of over 330 million people.

As the president, you certainly need to fake it until certain actions become a habit. This is how a senator becomes a president. Then post-presidency, returning to being a normal citizen. And all these big life changes can trigger imposter syndrome.

As I discussed, the key is to repeat certain actions enough until they become a habit. I’m sure all new presidents study past presidents to learn what to do and not to do. Then over time, they add their personal touch to the position.

#6 Learn more and more

Not surprisingly, the more knowledge you gain, the more confident you’ll become.

As an extreme example, imagine the game of chess. As a new player, you’d feel like the biggest imposter if you had to play against a chess grandmaster. But, what if you had the knowledge of every chess move mapped in your mind?…

Like a computer, you could do rapid calculations to always pick the right move. I guarantee the imposter syndrome would go away faster than you could snap your finger.

The key takeaway is, to learn as much as you can. With any new line of work, I absorb as much knowledge as humanly possible by doing the following:

  • Buy books and endlessly read
  • Search and read through countless online forum pages
  • Search and watch Youtube videos
  • Find and speak with the top minds
  • Read project case studies – both successes and failures

This learning approach never fails me. In a matter of no time, I get myself up to speed with so-called experts in a field. And they say it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Look at my table below, on how you can hack the process.

YearCASE #1: hours worked/Year (40 hour work weeks)CASE #2: hours worked/Year (80 hour work weeks)
12,080 hours4,160 hours
22,080 hours4,160 hours
32,080 hours4,160 hours
42,080 hours-
52,080 hours-
Total hours10,400 hours12,480 hours

By working 80 hours per week, you can hit the 10,000-hour mark in 2.5 years versus 5 years. A small sacrifice goes a long way to building amazing confidence. Even more, use these resources I’ve written to further level yourself up:

Conquering the imposter syndrome

Shakespeare didn’t come out of the womb writing plays. Everything worthwhile in life takes time to master. In every journey, imposter syndrome sits on the bottom step waiting for you.

So, push yourself in the beginning stages to quickly adapt to your new work. My goal is always to overcome imposter syndrome as fast as possible. This way, I can more quickly reach my goals.

If you quit too soon though, you’ll allow imposter syndrome to get the best of you.

Did you ever suffer from imposter syndrome? If yes, how did you overcome it? 

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