Throwing Impostor Syndrome a Bone

What I do

I am a member of a Customer Advisory Team (CAT) at Microsoft. CATs at Microsoft are branches of product engineering teams that focus on making sure large enterprises can achieve their goals using the product we focus on. We also help to make sure our colleagues who work directly on the product itself understand the goals and priorities of these large enterprise customers. Basically, think of some of the largest companies in the world… yeah. We help them.

How I tend to do it

The quality of my work tends to be high. Even just in the past few weeks, I have received four emails in which someone was praising the quality of my work and the leadership I show while getting that work done. People who shirk responsibilities and perform poorly don’t get to where I am. I say this not to put myself on a pedestal, but rather, so that when I tell you my brain decided on Friday that I was on the verge of being fired, you will understand my full meaning.

[Morgan Freeman narrator voiceover]: Mark was not on the verge of being fired. Not even close.

Not this time

On Friday, I received some negative feedback on my performance of one of the projects I was working on. Basically, I did not do a great job in confirming my understanding of the scope of the project. The result is that the work I have already done falls short of what was expected. And this will cause delay in my being able to deliver the output.

With my new understanding of the scope, there is no way to get it done on the original timeline my manager and I agreed upon. My manager had checked in with me several times offering clarity, etc., and each time I was so certain I knew what needed to be done I always said No Thanks. In short, I had several chances to proactively prevent this delay and didn’t take advantage of them. Instead, I let my assumptions wear the disguise of certainty instead of actually seeking that certainty.



Enter Impostor Syndrome

This is when my Depression decided to call its cousin, Impostor Syndrome, to come and kick me in the junk. The fact that my work is consistently excellent didn’t matter. All that mattered was that one negative bit of feedback and the knowledge that I had let my manager down by failing to properly communicate. I had failed. And I was going to be fired because my manager would finally see through my disguise and learn the awful truth that I didn’t belong on the team… and never did. Impostor Syndrome was right all along.

[Morgan Freeman narrator voiceover]: The Impostor Syndrome was not right. Mark just had a great learning experience.

What I really want to share with this post is how I dealt with this bout of Impostor Syndrome. And it is only because of the therapy “work” I have done in the past few years that I was able to deal with it so effectively. I’m not saying it was easy, but it was feasible. The much healthier relationship I have with emotion (more on that in a future post) was essential in my rising to the challenge.

Friday evening, I worked late trying to do at least a part of this project in the way that my manager had originally expected. But I was still feeling the panic of the Impostor Syndrome telling me I had to make sure to get it right or I was going to have to sell a kidney to pay the mortgage. What do kidneys go for nowadays? The quality of my work was still not where it needed to be. So, I stopped working on it.

A bone

I decided that I would give my Impostor Syndrome some time to do its thing. It was like it had created a surge of energy, and that energy had to go somewhere. I could work really hard to suppress it, possibly causing a nice ulcer or something, or I could let it vent. I went with option B: letting it vent. It is similar to elementary school children needing recess.

I gave Impostor Syndrome Saturday. On Saturday, I did no work on this at all. I just let my Impostor Syndrome run free for a bit. I ran some errands, watched some TV with my wife and otherwise relaxed. I had decided that I would start in on Sunday to have my plan for how I would move forward with the project with the appropriate expectations on mind. I gave it one day. Then I would take the feedback as a learning experience: Own it. Learn from it. Move on.

It worked

It is Sunday afternoon as I write this. This morning, I did just as I said I would. I put Impostor Syndrome away and got some quality work done on this project that I am happy to show my manager tomorrow. I am in a much better place with all of this and excited to keep working on this project with this fresh clarity of what is expected. And my manager’s vision for this project is so much cooler than the one I was executing on.

I want to close that I am super fortunate to have a manager that was able to clearly communicate how I had fallen short of expectations. And, in good faith, gave me time to come up with the plan for getting it right. Sure. I will need to set a new deadline, but my manager approached this situation more as a mentor. And that was huge.


Impostor Syndrome is not easy to deal with. But at least for me, particularly in this one experience, giving into it a little bit, throwing it a bone, really help me to overcome it. While this means of overcoming Impostor Syndrome when I screw up is still hard, it is not complicated: Own it. Learn from it. Move on.

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