Overcoming imposter syndrome as a self-taught designer

Why I started to write about design

Originally published at https://jesstan.me on October 26, 2019.

I’ve sat down to write my first blog post more times than I’d like to admit. Starting a blog to document my progress has been a goal of mine since starting college a year ago. I’ve tried using any and all benchmarks, milestones, and completed projects as triggers to start, but life has given me plenty of excuses to procrastinate.

Recently, I realized it’s not lack of time that’s been holding me back from writing — it’s fear. Fear that I’m not qualified enough to write about topics I’m still learning about. Fear that I’ll be exposed for being self-taught, “fake” designer. Fear that my thoughts will provide no value.

All these fears are collective symptoms of imposter syndrome, the constant feeling of not being good enough, or the fear of the being exposed as a fraud or imposter. It can make you feel like the more you achieve, the luckier you got and the less you really deserve it.

Developing imposter syndrome

As a college student

It’s common for students at selective universities like Penn to feel like they didn’t deserve their spot there. After meeting my classmates and learning about their previous accomplishments, it seemed like no matter what I thought I was good at, there were ten other people who could do it ten times better.

Throughout this past year of college, I’ve started to overcome this feeling of not being good enough to be at Penn. I found my niche as a designer. I discovered design by accident by trying to find on-campus jobs and clubs to join last year. In high school, I enjoyed drawing as a hobby, and graphic design seemed like the closest employable skill, so I decided to give it a shot — no portfolio, no prior experience.

Penn isn’t particularly known for it’s design department, and there aren’t too many people here who actively explore design. As a result, it wasn’t too difficult for me to get involved as an absolute beginner. I’m continuing to learn and practice design today, trying my best to focus on improving my craft rather than thinking about what others are doing.

As a self-taught designer

Even after making progress toward overcoming imposter syndrome as a Penn student, it began to manifest itself in my new passion for design. As a someone who taught myself the skills and tools I used, I constantly feared I’d be exposed for not being a “real” designer.

I learned graphic design through YouTube videos and experiments in Illustrator and Photoshop, then continued expanded my skillset as needed to complete new projects. When my interest shifted to product design, I taught myself the basics through Medium articles and design blogs.

My lack of formal education led me to question why anyone would trust me to execute design projects when there were plenty of other designers who knew how to design “the right way” out there.

For a while, feeling like a fraud in the design world pushed me to accelerate my growth as a designer, working twice as hard to compensate for my perceived lack of knowledge. I said yes to more projects, spent hours reading articles and case studies, and picked up new techniques and tools.

However, this growth was rooted in fear — an unsustainable motivation. I reached a point where I had learned enough to pursue more ambitious opportunities, but was too paralyzed by the fear of of being “exposed” as fake designer to seize them.

Overcoming imposter syndrome

While I still haven’t completely overcome the feeling, I’ve recently made some big steps in the right direction — cutting through the noise of my inner doubts and irrational fears.

At the beginning of this semester, a few friends and new freshmen asked me for advice on getting involved in design at Penn. I’d talk about my own methods and do my best to point them in the right direction, often walking away from the conversation thinking I did more harm than good. I’d think to myself: What good did I know? I learned all I know by myself.

After launching my first product design project, people have again started asking me how I got into design. Whereas I used to dread this question, I now have an answer. Design by doing. Find something, anything, to make and go design it! Did you make something? Then you can call yourself a designer!

Today, I take great pride in being able to act as a mentor in the design community at Penn. That’s why I’ve decided to start writing about my journey as a designer.

Where blogging comes in

My reasons for writing about design collectively work to combat my imposter syndrome, with the added benefit that my thoughts may have the potential to impact and educate others.

Reason 1: To reinforce creation over consumption

I’ve always made it a goal to create more and consume less, since it’s the fastest way to learn. Reading every article and book on a topic won’t teach you nearly as much as applying the learnings to solve real problems will.

Looking back on my progress as a designer, I’ve gained nearly all the skills I have today as a result of learning what was necessary to a project. I’ve learned so much more from designing for a real product than from the hundreds of design articles I’ve read.

That’s why I want to start writing about design. One of my biggest regrets from this summer is that I spent far too much time absorbing other people’s writing about design practices and not nearly enough time acting on what I learned.

Reason 2: To face my fear of writing

I never really question my ability to learn math and science, but I repeatedly doubt my ability to teach myself more abstract skills like writing and design. At Penn, I became even less confident in my writing ability after learning about the private schools with rigorous writing programs that my classmates hailed from.

For a long time, I used this as an excuse to avoid writing in college. When choosing courses for this semester, I was adamantly against writing any formal papers for classes out of fear that it’d be impossible for me to get a decent grade compared to my more talented classmates.

As I continue to gain more design experience and knowledge on my own, I’m realizing how the same self-learning approach can be applied to writing. Effective communication is an essential skill for designers, so it’s time for me to face my fear of writing.

Reason 3: To pay it forward

I recently started co-teaching a 6-week design seminar in UI/UX mobile design. Walking beginners through the fundamentals of product design has given me a whole new perspective on the value of mentorship. I used to see my short time in the design world as a handicap, but being a relative beginner has its merits.

The people taking my course and asking for my advice aren’t looking for expert responses from me — they’re aware that I’m not an expert. They want to hear about my experiences precisely because I’m not an expert. In Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work, he explains the power of teaching as an amateur perfectly:

“Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing… [They] might lack formal training, but they’re all lifelong learners, and they make a point of learning in the open, so that others can learn from their failures and successes.”

The fact that I’m temporally close to where I began as a designer gives me an an advantage when teaching new designers. The challenges they face when they’re getting started are ones that I’ve tackled recently.

Moving forward

I hope to keep chronicling my thoughts and progress as I continue to grow as a student and budding designer. While there are still moments where I feel like I know nothing, I strive to know a little less nothing than I did yesterday, and I’m excited to share that learning process here.

student @penn & designer @pennlabs | portfolio @ jesstan.me

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