A reader named Patrice Embry, who is me, writes:
Hi. Love your advice column, I read it all the time. So, in a role like Project Manager where you really need to exude leadership and confidence, how do you deal with feelings that you aren't really as smart at PM as people think you are? I am able to participate in discussions about what to do in a PM situation, what tools work for what scenarios, how roles overlap, and whatnot. Yet I see others' responses and I'm like, who the F do I think I am??
Objectively, I know that I have a measure of success: I have worked a lot of "successful" projects, I have left a cultural legacy in many of the places I've worked at as an employee (like places that still do Thanksgiving potlucks or highly regard pranks or have a slack channel dedicated to peer praise), I have a lot of people who listen to what I have to say and say "that makes a lot of sense". I have written a bunch of articles that have been published, I have been on podcasts, and I've had people hire me to help them with their PM and process issues. I have a lot of PM thought leaders I consider friends, who have cheered me on and validated me. None of this stops me from sometimes feeling like, at any moment, someone's going to realize I'm all talk, I can't manage a project, and I'm actually a failure who talks good.
I'm trying to take on more work because one of my contracts has ended, and this means I have to go back out and sell myself and put myself out there, so I need to know how to cage this stupid demon for good. Feeling like I'm not as good as everyone else isn't going to do me any favors and I need to get my shit together.
You write an advice column, so surely you never feel this way. What do I do to stop it?
I am going to answer your/my question like someone else besides you/me asked it. I have heard the term "imposter syndrome" used quite often in the past 2 or so years, but in the last few months, I've heard more about how this phenomenon is either not true (...how??) or just your run of the mill, standard girl code for being okay with being insecure instead of just being a better ______ so you are more confident. Baloney. Lots of people feel this way and it's a thing. A real thing.
The harsh truth is, someone is smarter than you. Other PMs are going to have the perfect way to handle a problem and their answers to people are going to be better than yours. Another PM could open up any of your projects right now and point out things you're doing wrong or could do a lot better. All of that is 100% true. And that is wildly, immeasurably, unfathomably OKAY. It's okay for people to be better at stuff than you. It doesn't mean you're not good at it, someone's just better. It's fine.
What's also true is that YOU are that person to someone else. We all have someone who's better than we are at something, but we are all better at something than someone else. That's truer than ever in project management, where exposure to different experiences and projects and scenarios makes a huge difference in what you're good at.
If you get bogged down in thinking that other people could do your job so much better, or that your voice is insignificant, or that you are a fool to think that people care about what you have to say, you will never lose the anchor of imposter syndrome. And it is an anchor - a heavy anvil that makes you do stupid shit or make dumb decisions. God, the dumb decisions I've made because I think I'm a terrible PM - I can't even articulate them.
So, as we all know, it's not as easy as saying "Hey, I shouldn't feel this way! [5 mins goes by] Hey look, I don't feel that way anymore, simply by saying I shouldn't!" What you need to do is condition yourself to think differently, over time. You may always feel the pang of imposter syndrome when someone is better at something than you are. The goal isn't to never feel this way, it's to shorten the window of feeling that way to NOT feeling that way anymore, for any given issue.
When you feel like you are a terrible PM, or you feel like you aren't contributing anything meaningful to a conversation, stop and think about all the people who have asked you for advice and have come back to say "that worked, thank you!" When you see someone talking about something brilliant they did in a project that's like 100x better than what you would have done (and that will happen, often) just sit back and LEARN from it without comparing yourself. This last bit is so very important. Don't waste the energy in thinking someone did something better than you and how you are just masquerading as a good PM, just LEARN from them. Emulate them. Conjure up their answers when you are in a similar situation. If you're mature enough, you'll tell them you did this so that they too will feel smart, because that's how everyone supports each other.
And when none of that works, you just have to keep telling yourself "whatever, I don't care, Billy is a smarter PM than me, that doesn't make me less good at stuff." There's not some finite amount of good PMs, and you have to hurry up and make the cutoff. The only person who can cut the anchor of imposter syndrome from you is you, and the longer you take to get started in trying to think differently, the longer you're going to be stuck.
PS: I read this back to myself and instantly thought "I am positive that at least 4,534 other people have written this exact same stuff, and almost all of them a lot better than YOU have." I just have to give myself some time to say "who cares? It's still valid info."