Mentoring, and Imposter syndrome

#mentoring  #design  #advice  #leadership  #management 

Imposter Syndrome. That feeling when you doubt yourself, asking whether you’re deserving of your accomplishments. You can't help but feel it's only a matter of time until you’re exposed as a fraud. I suffer from it, and I’m willing to bet you have at some point as well.

If you don’t feel you’ve ever suffered from some degree of imposter syndrome, you might be exhibiting traits of either the Dunning-Kruger effect, or the more problematic Illusory superiority cognitive bias. I'm not purporting to be a psychologist in any respect, though I've seen real-world examples of both and they're not pretty.


Imposter syndrome in my humble opinion is a good thing... in moderation. Too much and you'll internalise fear, self-doubt and anxiety to the point where it will hamper your efforts. Too little and you’re likely unaware of what you don’t know (the D-K effect in full effect).

The irony of a great community

In this rapidly-growing digital design industry we call home, we’re lucky to have a nurturing community. We've hundreds of events and meet-ups to attend, and more thought leaders you can shake a stick at. Yet too much of a good thing can have negative consequences.

With someone on stage, an article or elsewhere sharing their perfect processes, experiences or knowledge, you might find yourself feeling inferior. You might wrongly assume someone always knows more than you, and that you’re not deserving of your position.

The reality is letting imposter syndrome define you won't get you anywhere. Eventually you have to say 'enough is enough' and appreciate what you know and what you don't know.

You need to appreciate that someone out there can learn from you, and you from them. You know more than you think. And what better way to exorcise those feelings of inferiority and help others in our community but to commit to a mentorship.

Mentoring is a two-way street

This past year as I questioned many things beyond my own Imposter syndrome. I finally accepted the following to be true (and sounding a bit like Tyrion Lannister):

I know some stuff. And it might be useful to others.

With 15+ years' experience freelancing, contracting and permanent roles in both product and agency-side roles, I went ahead and created profiles on both Revive and re:create. They're both excellent (and recommended) mentor-matching platforms.

I was fortunate to have my first mentee, Adelina (Addy), a junior designer based in Bulgaria. With a sharp wit and huge enthusiasm, I relished the 6-week engagement to help Addy improve her understanding of design & UX. Together we improved her portfolio, discussed design, and ultimately saw her secure her first permanent design role.

Currently I’m mentoring Belén, a thoroughly accomplished designer with a super-strong background in print and packaging, looking to move into more advanced UX & design leadership at her current workplace.

Both mentorships have been incredibly rewarding… hopefully for all parties, not least for me. I've found I have useful information and advice worth passing on. More importantly, I've learned so much from Belén and Addy. 

Mentors have as much to learn as their mentees. I've been able to hear about career paths and their inherent challenges. Difficulties in finding roles and opportunities. I've learned what it's been like for budding designers or experienced designers from different backgrounds. I've remembered that design as a job can be like a jungle, and that having someone to talk to - for both parties - can be incredibly rewarding.

In mentoring Addy and Belén, I’ve also realised that I’ve never had a definitive mentor; at least one that had bi-weekly, recurring meetings and set agendas for discussion, when needed.

That said, I’ve absolutely had mentors, they just didn’t know it. I’ve learned from friends and colleagues, managers and bosses. In some cases I learned precisely what not to do, which is as valuable as anything else. Considering I had no prior experience to go on as a mentor, I'm definitely winging it. It seems to be working, and I'd recommend you do the same.

Adding to the diversity and inclusivity of our industry

A happy coincidence in getting matched up to both Addy and Belén on revive and re:create has been meeting new (and experienced) designers who are without a doubt 'culture adds' to the digital design industry.

As a white, hetero male I've no doubt I've had things easier than many others. 

Helping Addy and Belén in any way I can just might break down some gates that can be prevalent in our digital design industry. These mentorships are another way of opening up opportunities to others who might not normally have a chance to break in. I can only hope I'm doing a tiny something to help in that regard.

Some lessons learned and links for mentors

As I said, I’m definitely winging it. To that end I can share some things I’ve learned so far, in the hope it can help others out there looking to do the same.

1. Find a reputable platform

I’ve had good luck with both revive and re:create. Although mentorships are easy to set up outside of any platform, their value in acting as a type of match-making service allows the mentee to choose who might be the best fit for their interests.

2. Set a cadence, topics and themes

Set up weekly or bi-weekly sessions to cement a routine. At Clearleft I have bi-weekly 1:1’s with my team, and mentorships don’t need to be any different.

It might be easy to have general, meandering chats, but this can prove directionless and not address your mentee’s underlying needs. Try to determine what those needs are early on.

Have the first sessions focus on motivations, desires and objectives, then map future sessions around those themes. Always allow for flexibility, for when your mentee needs to talk about something topical and timely.

3. Use this Google Doc to help you get started

Download the same Doc I’ve used to get to know a new mentee.

📄 Mentorship doc - Google Docs

It’s open-source, so feel free to make a copy, edit and add to it for your needs. Have fun, best of luck and you won’t regret it.

Let me know how you get on, find me on Twitter at @aizlewood

Let's work together. For fractional leadership queries, drop me a line.