· 16 min read

I know nothing

Techniques for leveraging Impostor Syndrome to enhance your role as a manager while emphasizing the significance of embracing discomfort, fostering self-awareness, and cultivating a culture of continuous learning.

Techniques for leveraging Impostor Syndrome to enhance your role as a manager while emphasizing the significance of embracing discomfort, fostering self-awareness, and cultivating a culture of continuous learning.

Since I first became a Manager over 15 years ago, I don’t recall a day when I felt everything was “under control” or happening as expected, or when I thought I had it all “figured out.”

Every moment of confidence and sense of achievement was quickly replaced with feelings of uncertainty, questions, and doubts. It’s as if I’m perpetually living in a state of Impostor Syndrome.

Despite some evidence of my competence as a Manager, I always remain convinced that I probably got lucky, and that at some point, everyone would figure out that I, I just knew nothing.

I’ve been very fortunate that over the years, most of my managers were really good at helping me seek out new and interesting challenges. They supported me by providing increased responsibility and scope, which facilitated my growth. However, this also always added to those feelings of impostor syndrome.

Looking back, these feelings and the subsequent actions were probably the best things that have happened in my career so far, where most of the learning, good conversations, and value came from.

Fake it till you make it

If, like me, you experience Impostor Syndrome, you may find yourself going through three different modes in your mind.

The first mode is the “fake it till you make it” mode. It’s a state where you may have the knowledge and a good instinct to navigate situations, but you don’t yet believe that you are ready to act on them. This mode allows you to build yourself in a position where you truly believe in yourself, so that you can gain the confidence and experience to no longer feel like you are “faking it.”

The second mode is the “venturing into the unknown” or “YOLO” (for short) mode. It’s a mix of anxiety, excitement, and boldness that comes from stepping out of your comfort zone, clearly feeling that you don’t know what you are doing, but doing your best, by setting a plan and going for it. In this mode, you could maybe give yourself a 50/50 chance that everything could go as you plan it, and you are probably ok if that is the result.

Finally, there’s the “I have it” mode. This is when you feel a sense of confidence, competence, and assurance, especially when working on things that are familiar to you. This mode provides assurance and safety. It acts as a counterbalance to the other two modes, and gives a sense of familiarity, almost like being at home.

I have found that having a good mix of these three modes is key for me to maintain a positive outlook on my day.

On any given day, these three phases can intertwine and appear unexpectedly. You might start your day on the “I have it” phase. By checking your emails, following up with the team, and reviewing alerts from the production system. Then, later that day, during a one-on-one meeting with one of your team members, you could be presented with a complicated topic that quickly puts you in the “fake it till you make it” mode. This is where most of your learning as a manager and the value of working with your direct reports will come from. After lunch, during a few product updates meetings, you would probably go back to the “I have it” mode, later to be presented with a new project complicated project that has a strict deadline that will put you in the “YOLO” mode.

Understanding yourself and gaining insight into your own “modes” is key to maximising their benefits. Personally, I have discovered that a good day for me, is a nice blended mix of 33% / 33% / 33%. At the end of that day I would probably feel a sense of growth, achievement, and reassurance.

The interesting part is that 99% of the learnings have always come from the “fake it till you make it” and “YOLO” modes. These are the experiences that encourage you to persist in your work, learn from your mistakes, and continuously improve in a given area.

Learning to Type

In the 1960s, psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner studied human performance and skill acquisition. Fitts and Posner described skills acquisition in three stages: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. In the cognitive phase, individuals start off slowly, familiarize themselves with the task, and explore new ways to accomplish it. In the associative phase, they become more efficient and make fewer errors. In the autonomous phase, they can complete the task well without conscious effort.

They examined studies of people learning to type. Initially, typists improved quickly, progressing from single-finger pecking to using both hands and typing without looking. However, they eventually reached a point where their speed didn’t improve, regardless of how much they practiced. This was unexpected, as Fitts and Posner anticipated that with more practices there will always be continuous improvement. Years later, in a study by psychology professors K. Anders Ericsson and Nina Keith, it was found that intermediate-level typists who practiced typing quickly, actually were the one that improved the most.

This insight was also mentioned in Joshua Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein.” While attempting to improve his memorization skills, Foer was advised by Ericsson to use a metronome set 10-20 percent faster than his current memorization limit. This approach resulted in more errors initially but ultimately helped him overcome a memorization plateau.

Further research has shown that high performers in various fields use similar strategies consciously to move beyond the autonomous stage of learning, similar to athletes who incorporate speed workouts to enhance their performance.

In other words, to achieve a significant improvement in performance during the autonomous stage, you need to set an uncomfortable pace for yourself.

More Cowbell

So, how do we bring More Cowbell to our roles? How do we consciously increase the tempo, aiming to maximize learning and opportunities?

Build Self Awareness.

By starting with yourself, you can create an environment where everyone is self-aware. This, in turn, leads to mutual awareness among team members. Many people believe that management is solely about others. However, I believe that management begins with understanding your own strengths and areas for improvement. Your team will not be able to succeed if you are unable to accurately describe yourself and your contributions. Moreover, you will struggle to build a successful team if you neglect your own self-awareness.

Understanding what is important to you will help you make sense of how you work, what gives you energy, and what drains it. It will also help you identify triggers for strong reactions. With these insights, you can express your values and recognise when they conflict with each other or with someone else’s values.

Self Awareness also means asking “What’s important to you? Honesty, transparency, innovation? “. Defining what you stand for is the first step in being a self-aware leader. Your values will guide your decisions and set the tone for your team.

It will also let you seek for your skill gaps and weaknesses. You’re not perfect—and that’s okay. A crucial part of self-awareness is recognising where you excel and where you could use some help. This might mean developing new skills or delegating certain tasks to others who are more proficient, or to double down on building those skills.

A good tool for increasing self-awareness is to place more emphasis on understanding how learning works and how to maximize the learning process.

Accept the Curves

The Sigmoid curve, also known as the S-curve, is a concept borrowed from mathematics, particularly the logistic function, which is characterized by its ‘S’ shape. In the context of learning and personal development, the S-curve can be used to describe the typical progression of acquiring a new skill.

The S Curve

The Initial Phase

At the beginning of the S-curve, progress is slow. This is when you’re just getting familiar with the new skill. The effort you’re putting in is not yet resulting in significant improvements, which can be frustrating. This phase requires persistence and resilience as you’re laying down the foundational knowledge and understanding.

The Growth Phase

After the initial learning period, you enter a phase of rapid growth. This is the steep part of the S-curve, where practice and continued effort lead to a much faster improvement in skill level. It’s a rewarding phase where learners often feel motivated by their progress, which in turn encourages them to keep practicing and improving.

The Plateau

As you become more proficient, your rate of improvement slows down and you enter the plateau phase at the top of the S-curve. The learning doesn’t stop here, but the gains are smaller and harder to come by.

Understanding the S-curve has greatly helped me manage my expectations and gain a better understanding of myself. It also helps me assess whether I am still growing and maximizing the potential of that curve, or if I have reached a plateau and need to redirect my energy elsewhere.

Seek Discomfort

Professional growth often occurs when you’re challenged. Sticking to what you know and what feels safe rarely leads to significant improvement.

Seeking discomfort can help you overcome challenging situations and build resilience. This helps you handle stress and uncertainty better, which is crucial for leadership roles with higher stakes and more impactful decisions. It also increases your adaptability skills, allowing you to be more flexible and responsive to change instead of being overwhelmed by it.

Any given day will present you with numerous opportunities to step out of your comfort zone. These opportunities may arise from colleagues seeking your support, your manager sharing an intriguing idea for a new project, or your teammates discussing a technical topic that could be interesting for you to engage more. All it takes is for you to say yes, let’s look into that. To accept the fact that you are probably not 100% prepared for that topic, or that you probably don’t have the most amount of time, but that is okay. That is all it takes to start.

Putting your self in uncomfortable situations is hard, as it makes you feel like an idiot most of the time. Especially if you hold yourself to the expectation that you should already know all of this, you know, because you are “the manager”. Being okay with feeling like an idiot is the key here, and this takes time to develop. It is only through this experience that you will build resilience to carry on during the initial phase and learn from it.

I have seen many examples of this when managers want to go back to coding after years of being a hands-off manager, or when managers are increasing their scope and working with roles that they are not very familiar with. Sticking through that phase, enduring the challenges, and accepting that it’s difficult are the only things it takes to make progress.

Imperfectly perfect

I enjoy being scrappy because it means things are moving quickly. It may not be organised or polished, but ideas are flowing. Most creative processes are not neat and tidy,

Albert Einstein’s desk is also famous example of this.

Albert Einstein Desk

Picture of Albert Einstein's desk shortly after his passing.

However, a quick glance at your browser tabs after a productive work or research session will also be a good example of the same.

Embracing a scrappy approach means you’re resourceful and proactive, willing to make the most of what you have without waiting for the ideal conditions or resources. This attitude helps you fosters a mindset of action over contemplation, allowing you to gather real-world experience and learn from practical challenges.

Avoiding perfectionism is equally crucial. Perfection can be an enemy to progress, often leading to paralysis by analysis. By aiming for ‘good enough’ and iterating from there, you learn to prioritize effectively, focus on what delivers value, and avoid getting bogged down by details that may not impact the big picture.

Essentially, it helps you move faster and say yes to more things, even if most of them are not delivered to perfection.

Foster a Culture of Continuous Learning

Another way to increase that curve and up the tempo is to promote an environment where learning is part of the daily routine.

I believe that making professional development a priority should be high on every manager’s list of responsibilities. By doing so, you can encourage your team to dedicate time to activities outside of their comfort zone and to support each other. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for you to get involved.

For instance, you can allocate a few hours or days each week for pair programming with your team members, conduct mob code review sessions, organize team demo sessions, create show and tell meetings in your organization, and dedicate time to research and development. There are many creative ideas that you can incorporate into your team’s ways of working to support these initiatives.

No one is an island, especially in engineering. Collaborative environments provide fertile ground for learning from others, regardless of their experience level.Social learning theory suggests that we learn most effectively when we observe and interact with others.. Whether it’s pair programming, code reviews, or group brainstorming sessions, teamwork allows us to see problems from different perspectives, thereby enriching our own understanding and approach.

Speak your ideas out loud, but surround yourself with individuals who would challenge them. Encourage them to share their own ideas and create a culture where everyone feels open to contribute.

The Illusion of Mastery

It’s human nature to feel a sense of achievement when you become proficient at something. If you had to choose between feeling Imposter Syndrome and Proficient, you would likely prefer Proficient.

But especially in engineering, and in most fast moving fields, believing that you achieve a level of mastery and what’s considered cutting-edge today can become outdated in no time. Just as you think you’ve mastered a technology, new updates and frameworks emerge, forcing you to readjust your understanding. This constant evolution makes the idea of “mastery” a moving target.

The Illusion of Mastery poses a significant risk for engineering organisations. It fosters a false sense of security and can result in complacency. When a team believes it has completely mastered a technology or process, it may overlook early indications of industry changes, such as emerging technologies, innovative methodologies, or shifts in customer expectations. This leaves the team vulnerable to disruption by competitors who prioritize learning and innovation, or by malicious actors seeking to exploit any weaknesses or vulnerabilities.

On this topic, as a hiring manager, it has always been a red flag for me when someone describes themselves as an expert in a field during an interview. While they may be extremely skilled at what they do, the fact that they have this mindset suggests that they are probably not the best fit for the culture of continuous learning that we value in an organization. If you hire them, you will gain an expert in the field (maybe), but you will lose many learners.

That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else. ― Charlie Chaplin

As a leader, I have found that a good approach to address this directly is by putting myself in a position where I can demonstrate my efforts to learn about a topic. This includes sharing my experiences, even if it means that I am struggling, and showing my work.

Show your work

I am really bad at self promotion, in fact, I generally dislike the concept altogether. It often seems like self-promotion only highlights an individual’s positive attributes. But, what if you can use self-promotion to also showcase your mistakes, insecurities, or concerns?

In his book, with the same name, “Show Your Work” Austin Kleon explains that the best way to begin sharing your work is by considering what you want to learn and committing to learning it in front of others. It’s important to pay attention to what others are sharing and take note of what they’re not sharing. Look for opportunities to fill these gaps with your own efforts, even if they’re not perfect initially.

Don’t worry about being an expert or professional; embrace your amateurism openly. Share what you love, and you’ll attract like-minded individuals who share the same interests.

One of the best tools in a work environment is to constantly ask for input and feedback, even during unfinished work. This includes showcasing your insecurities or mistakes.

I have great respect for individuals, especially managers, who do this often, and share their insecurities openly. It shows that we are all humans at the end, trying to learn as we go, and that none of us have everything figured out.

As managers, besides seeking for constant feedback, there are many ways you can share your work more consciously. Here are some of my favorite methods:

  • By aiming to work as openly as possible, I allow everyone to access my document folders, Confluence pages, Idea boards, chat channel conversations, repos, etc. By default, most things should be public and accessible to everyone, not private.
  • By starting my leadership meeting with a Highlight and Lowlight rounds. During this round, we can openly share what has been going great and what has not been going so well during the week.
  • In a biweekly work update email, I provide an overview of my work and highlight interesting topics on the horizon to all recipients. I also address any current challenges or difficulties I am facing.

Teach what you know

The moment you learn something, take the opportunity to teach it to others. Share your reading list and provide helpful reference materials. Start a chat channel to facilitate the sharing of knowledge. Organize demo sessions where people are encouraged to do the same, aiming to help others improve in areas they want to excel in.

As a manager, part of your role is to be a teacher in various ways. When you teach someone how to do your work, you generate more interest in your work. People feel more connected to your work because you are sharing your knowledge with them.

Moreover, when you share your knowledge and work with others, you also receive an education in return. By sharing, you come across people whose opinions you should have sought before, and they will reach out to share their knowledge with you. This creates a cycle of free education that lasts a lifetime.

And this sort of brings us full circle. Teaching what you know, even if you claim to know nothing, is an interesting paradox.

In a way, by claiming that you know nothing, you are not admitting ignorance. Instead, you are harnessing the drive of impostor syndrome, the power of self-awareness, and the speed of scrappiness to accelerate your learning and seize opportunities. Not only will this be a great asset for you, but it will also have a huge positive impact on those who work with you.

The phrase “I know nothing” is not an admission of ignorance; it’s a declaration of openness to continuous learning and growth, and I truly believe that In engineering, the intent of remaining humble, curious, and always learning is not just an admirable quality but a necessity.

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