How I Overcame My Imposter Syndrome As a New Designer

Michelle Chiu


This article was originally published on Medium.

Michelle Chiu

Recently, MongoDB held a design meetup that focused on imposter syndrome and, more importantly, how we deal with it as designers. I was asked to speak on behalf of my own experience and share advice for those who may also be in this headspace.

Personally, I suffered massively from these feelings of self-doubt as I was just starting out in product design two years ago. While I can’t say it no longer affects me, I can say with confidence that it doesn’t bother me in the same magnitude nor as frequently as it used to. I hope the advice that I share helps those of you that are trying to overcome it yourselves.

#1. Everyone starts off as a beginner. Don’t compare your timeline to someone else’s.

Tying it back into the definition, imposter syndrome is simply another term for navigating your career as a beginner. It’s a psychological phenomenon that arises from an incorrect assessment of ones’ abilities compared to peers. The panic that comes from the feeling of not knowing enough, and the fear that others will find out if you don’t know.

I’m sure this may be the case for those of you who are trying to transition into this industry or those of you who are also in their first roles.

For me, this hit home when I was switching into design as a college senior in late 2017. After realizing I no longer was as passionate about a role in computing as I had originally thought, I decided to pursue product design when I was at the cusp of graduating university. At this time, many of my colleagues were deciding between multiple job offers to amazing companies, accepted into prestigious graduate schools, or were wrapping up their interview phases.

For someone meticulous in planning various aspects of her future, I felt hopeless. I thought that after three years of college, those arduous semesters would amount to somewhat of a solid foundation for my career. However, the work experience I had accumulated up until that point consisted of mostly software engineering internships. Additionally, I had no concrete plans after school and felt so massively behind those who had actually studied a design discipline in college.

However, I knew that sulking about my situation was not going to get me anywhere. I accepted the fact that my timeline just happened to be a bit delayed than others. While some of my peers knew they wanted to be rocket scientists before they got to college, I just happened to find out what I wanted to do later. I was starting fresh and anew and I didn’t have to be so hard on myself. I just had to focus on what I could control — putting in the work.

#2. Keep learning and constantly create. Hold your standards high.

Product design is a field that encapsulates many other disciplines of design: visual, information, interaction, graphic, and user experience. It’s a balance of and consideration between these different pillars that truly breeds a great designer-- not to mention, crafting thoughtful, intuitive designs is never a one-person job. Learning how to consider business and user needs with product managers, engineers, and stakeholders is imperative to crafting the best designs. Thus, there’s always a plethora of knowledge to learn and grow as you navigate your career.

Luckily, we live in a digital age where there are a ton of resources online. My personal favorites include the Muzli Chrome extension, where new design inspiration and news is shown whenever you open up a new Google Chrome tab; Medium, a platform where writers from some of the best design teams share their processes and practices; and Dribbble, where you can get inspired by some of the most beautiful interface and graphics by creators worldwide.

Most days though I gravitate towards a good-old-fashioned book. Reading is a favorite pastime of mine and there are classics that all designers should read. To drop some names of recent books I’ve really loved, I’d recommend “Ruined By Design,” a novel that discusses designers’ responsibilities in our technology-ridden world and the importance of using our powers in the most respectable ways; “The Great Discontent,” a magazine series filled with interviews with individuals from a variety of creative disciplines, and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” which has inspired me to find happiness in the process of mastering my craft.

You should always strive to improve your skills as a designer and to raise the bar for what you consider “good work.” By raising your standards, you’ll create a reputation for yourself and your projects.

#3. Practice again and again. Trust the process (and handle rejections like a boss).

“Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

This is one of my favorite quotes of all-time, probably because it’s held a lot of truth in my own journey. Advice and knowledge are most valuable when you take action.

I can’t remember the number of times I stayed up late to work on my portfolio my senior year of college. I remember cranking out mockups on Sketch until my hand cramped and thinking about how to solve mock interview prompts on my commutes home. I also applied to any designer openings I saw and cold-emailed designers I admired to ask for their time.

While it felt like my efforts went to dust in the early beginnings, I started to notice myself improve. I felt so much more comfortable communicating about my former projects and I was no longer felt clueless when a company sent over product design challenges for my applicant candidacies. Rejections still stung, but confidence was slowly emerging in the face of my dedication.

During my job hunt, I kept a spreadsheet of all the companies I applied to. I’m pretty sure I still have it saved on my laptop at home. If I had to guess, there were probably close to 75 rejections; some companies didn’t even bother getting back to me on the status of my application.

It took six months to receive my first offer: a summer product design internship at BuzzFeed. I still remember jumping up and down after the phone call I had with the hiring manager that day in March. It felt like a total dream--my hard work had finally paid off. Two weeks later, I received my second offer: a fall product design internship at Wish. Again, I was pinching myself and couldn’t believe that I was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Although these two offers weren’t for full-time positions (as I had hoped), I was still thrilled knowing that I was moving in the right direction. If I had given up early on, I wouldn't have landed these amazing opportunities.

#4. Take full advantage of the opportunities around you. Everyone’s willing to help.

Remember how I mentioned I had cold-emailed designers I admired to chat? I’d say about 70% of them usually responded within a week and agreed to hop on a video call. I’d listen to them share their journeys as designers, ask for feedback on my portfolio and practice presentations with these wonderful people who offered their time. You will never know what kind of help you can receive unless you ask.

After every session, I’d revise my work and develop my interview skills. If it weren’t for these conversations, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten the feedback I needed to improve in the right areas and land my internships, and ultimately my job here at MongoDB.

During every internship, I’ve also tried to grab coffee with not only my team but those around the office. Learning about everyone else’s backgrounds and experiences not only helps build relationships, but it also teaches you so much about what they’ve learned and can share.

#5. Choose to work at a place with people that support and believe in you.

The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. Without a doubt, your coworkers are the people that spend the majority of your time with throughout the week (and maybe your life). Make sure that you choose a place where you’re valued and lifted.

I’m grateful to be surrounded by peers and mentors here at MongoDB that make me feel supported in all of my endeavors. I’ve gotten approval for proposed side projects in collaboration with different teams. I’ve had my blog posts shared by others on LinkedIn. I’ve gotten applause after a presentation at a design review meeting. Sharing these wins, big and small, with my colleagues are what make coming to work that much more enjoyable for me everyday. Although I know it is a privilege to choose between different jobs or companies, if you do have the choice, just make sure you champion the importance of who you get to work with.

With that being said, I’d like to conclude this article with a question for you readers— what actions will you take to overcome your imposter syndrome?

Special thanks to the rest of the design team who came out to support me at my first talk. Also, thanks to Sean, our VP of Design, who extended me the opportunity to give this talk, and Dan Zhu, who organized the event.

If you’d like to reach out, you can find me on my website or on Instagram.

Interested in pursuing a career at MongoDB? We have several open roles on our teams across the globe, and would love for you to build your career with us!