Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Making Competence, Making Confidence

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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: Making Competence,  Making Confidence
This article appeared in Make: Vol. 78. Subscribe today to get more great projects delivered to your mailbox.

Confidence in ourselves and our abilities is something many makers question in themselves from time to time. But a longer lasting dip in self-confidence can keep makers from making and sharing, and that can limit our fun, learning, and enjoyment of sharing our making with others.

Imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon and sometimes tall poppy syndrome are some ways that society pressures people to limit their self-expression, by stimulating feelings of inhibition and fear about one’s abilities. These can stop innovation, as well, if people affected may feel too afraid or anxious of other’s opinions of their work to share, market, or develop their projects. A maker with imposter syndrome might feel inhibited to exhibit a project at a local Maker Faire, share a how-to video or Instructable online, or even join a makerspace to learn new skills or to teach others what they know. This limits not just those who wish to make and hold themselves back, but also the rest of us who might benefit from great inventions and contraptions as yet unrealized that could inform new projects.

Imposter syndrome is broadly defined as when one does not believe that one is worthy of the position, talent, or opportunity one has naturally or has earned through practice, learning, and developing abilities. The term imposter phenomenon was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes to describe women’s confidence in the workplace, but the definition was described more broadly in 1993 by psychologist Dr. Joe Langford and Dr. Imes as “an experience of feeling incompetent and of having deceived others about one’s abilities.”

Pretty much anyone trying to do something who feels like they aren’t qualified to do it, with or without an educational degree, fancy title, or years of experience, can have a version of imposter syndrome. Makers can develop it as adults, or it can start early in childhood, if a family is unsupportive or dismissive of a child’s talents and natural gifts (or loses patience with them for taking apart household things to see how they work). John Gravois, a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote in 2007 that in the mid-1980s, Dr. Clance and Dr. Gail Matthews conducted a survey on imposter phenomenon, and found that “about 70 percent of people from all walks of life — men and women — have felt like impostors for at least some part of their careers.”

Hammered-Down Nails

Culturally, imposter syndrome can result from group behavior outside the family, too. Australia, New Zealand, England, and other countries have something called the tall poppy syndrome, which evolved in culture to reward those who are self-deprecating, and promote modesty in their achievements so as not to make others feel lesser — or threaten those in power, by being too capable. People who do not adhere to these social norms can be mocked or otherwise isolated in their social groups. Other cultures have similar notions. In 2017, comparative politics professors Dr. Cornelius Cappelen and Dr. Stefan Dahlburg described cultural ranges of these, such as that in Scandinavia, “the idea that one should never try to be more, try to be different, or consider oneself more valuable than other people is referred to as the Jante mentality,” and in Japan there is a popular phrase that “the nail that stands out gets hammered down.”

Some research even suggests that the kind of crops a culture grows can create individualistic or group based cultures. In 2014, associate professor of behavioral science Dr. Thomas Talhem and his colleagues conducted a study of farming in China that posited that the needy and finicky tending of rice creates more cooperative group-oriented cultures, while lower-maintenance wheat crops produce more individualistic ones. In these cases, cultural pressures to maintain a status-quo within a group can shape feelings of imposter syndrome as well.

Redefining Competence

One unfortunate way that imposter syndrome can manifest is when people become afraid that their “stupidity will be discovered.” These people make efforts to work extra hard so that people won’t know “how stupid they are.” Of course, their hard work proves they aren’t stupid, but people with imposter syndrome can have a hard time recognizing that they are capable. Some of this has to do with how people define competence. As a maker you may have ideas about what constitutes being a “valid” maker, and whether or not you measure up. Everyone has their own version of what competence means and there are no real “rules,” so if you would like to change how you define competence as a maker, you can create a new definition that is more inclusive and kind to yourself — and others.

Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome and adult education, created ways to help people understand how they frame their own competence and how to overcome imposter syndrome. The way we perceive our competence impacts our individual manifestations of imposter syndrome, and learning about a framework to understand ways people may define their own competence can help us overcome our own definitions and help us to find new ways to define what is authentic, valuable, and constitutes a “maker.” Hint: it’s you, just as you are!

Dr. Young stresses that these are not types of imposter syndrome, but rather ways that other people have defined competence:

Types of Competence Framing

  • The Perfectionist may not feel worthy if they slip up even a tiny bit in their projects.
  • The Expert needs to know the answers. Not having “complete” knowledge will stop them from finishing or even beginning a project.
  • The Natural Genius isn’t a “genius,” but rather describes people who think they have to be a genius at everything. They are unaware of the learning curve it takes for others to appear competent. People who have this type of competence framing struggle when their first efforts don’t measure up to polished versions they see produced by others who are further along the learning curve.
  • The Soloist only counts competence if they’ve done a project alone. This type of competence framing disregards group efforts as being meaningful contributions.
  • The Superman/Superwoman has a competence framing that extends not just from their work or workspace, but into all the roles in their lives, creating impossible goals and enormous pressure.

Working Through Imposter Syndrome

Dr. Young says that non-imposters think differently about competence, failure, and fear. She suggests that to overcome feeling like an imposter, people need to “stop thinking like an imposter.” That might seem challenging, but here’s what she advises:

  • Reframe your thinking. Non-imposters strive to do their best — but they do it because they want to improve, not because they are afraid of being found out.
    Maker Tip: You are doing your best to improve. That’s it!
  • Put in the time to learn and see it as growth: non-imposters understand there are times when they have to struggle to understand something or master a new skill.
    Maker Tip: Putting in the time includes setbacks; you will get better!
  • Learn from non-imposters, who know that nothing is going to be perfect the first time — or ever.
    Maker Tip: There is no perfect —enjoy the making!
  • Be OK with falling flat on your face, but the key is to avoid shame about it, and that it’s what you do with setbacks, mistakes, and failures that count.
    Maker Tip: Falling without shame transforms mistakes into learning!
  • Remember that it isn’t all about you by asking yourself, “What sort of difference would I make if fear was not a factor?” Thinking about how what you make connects with, or can help others, is a great way to appreciate your efforts and see that you are part of a system of cooperation, rather than solving big problems alone.
    Maker Tip: Making is about others, too. Find your connections!

If you’d like to dive in even more, here are other ways you can learn reframing:

  • Talk about your fears and confidence issues around making with others. Psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes suggest that finding support in a group of others often leads to a realization that in fact, one is not stupid or inadequate, and that engaging in the compensating behaviors of denying one’s abilities, or flattering others to gain acceptance, might be diminishing our true selves. Also, if applicable, an honest eye in a group setting that is supportive can replace the old family group (if it was unsupportive) and give people a new way to perceive their talents and abilities.
  • Dr. Young’ lessons on framing competences can help you understand how you categorize your idea of competence. Are you a Soloist? What would it mean for you to learn to expand your idea of competence to include working in a group or on a team project? Even if you are not able to do this yet, being aware of how you frame your competence currently, might help you figure out new ways to frame it that are more supportive and can open you up to accepting competence on your own terms.
  • Consider finding a skilled therapist to work through your history and current challenges with making.
  • If you have a makerspace, consider running a workshop on how to do things that seem hardest for makers who are fearful. A submission workshop for a local Maker Faire, or an “anything goes share night” or even a “fail night” can create space for people to learn how to more confidently participate on smaller and larger scales.

Hopefully this will help you to reframe competence, realize that making mistakes is part of learning, and that others sometimes struggle, too. You are not alone as a maker — the community is full of support (and we’ve got your back here at Make: and online at makezine.com too). Most importantly, remember why you make (to make!) and enjoy the process of creation, of sharing, and of seeing how what you create can connect to others.


Makerspace Hammerspace: “Many ways to learn tools and skills!”

According to Dave Dalton, the “proprietor of Hammerspace” (based in Kansas City, Missouri), some makers may have mastery of one set of tools, but are inhibited by others — so much so, that they don’t even know where to begin and feel overwhelmed. They might be a whiz in the metal shop, but when confronted with a sewing machine, it may feel insurmountable. Dalton mentions a few paths that people travel to get their projects done when they are stymied by new tools — or more often — new classes of tools.

The first one, which Dalton does not recommend, is to buy the tools you need and to try them alone at home. The path to maker projects often involves failing as an iterative learning method to find out what works. Buying new tools that end up being the wrong tools can be expensive. Someone might be certain that they need a table saw, but end up needing a radial arm saw. That’s a pricey mistake! It can hurt emotionally, too, and can feel lonelier (and stupider) on their own trying to figure out what is the right tool.

Dalton says Hammerspace helps overcome that in various ways: by hosting classes; through access to the experts in the makerspace; and through “help me” push- buttons which summon staff members that give advice and training on a tool, or point to the right person who can help. The most critical part of this approach is that the group is there to help someone get through the learning curve.

Makerspace Artisan’s Asylum: “Embrace failing!”

Massachusetts-based Artisan’s Asylum has had some history addressing confidence and failure in those coming to its space. Director of Education Anne Wright references one memorable instance that provided a “teachable moment” during an outreach program with non-profit Possible Project. The program’s high school students, working on their “Build Your Business” prototypes, visited Artisan’s Asylum to get feedback and mentorship on their projects from the wealth of diverse making talent in the makerspace. One student had mentioned feeling that “they failed” at something, and Wright flagged it as a worthy discussion point. Being able to teach younger students that failure is normal and an accepted part of the process of design and fabrication was an important lesson for young entrepreneurs. Wright says that Artisan’s Asylum was a perfect place for it, being a group that is diverse, supportive, and sees failure as a critical part of the making process. In such an environment, students can take those lessons back to their schools and communities to encourage a broader cultural change, too.

Wright is such a supporter of failure as a part of making that she hopes to have a “Fail Wall” in Artisan’s Asylum’s new space in the Allston neighborhood of Boston (slated to open in January, 2022). As one of their members, Tim, had said to the students that day, “fail early, fail fast, and fail often,” meaning that by doing so, you can move on to the next steps in your project.

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S.A. Applin, Ph.D.

S.A. Applin, Ph.D. is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of makers, social systems, and sociability. You can find more at @anthropunk and PoSR.org.

View more articles by S.A. Applin, Ph.D.
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