Move Past Your Comfort Zone: Use Imposter Syndrome to Your Advantage


When you're speaking, teaching, or coaching, do you ever suddenly feel like you're in way over your head? That there must've been a big mistake, because you're not qualified? Instead of letting this imposter's syndrome paralyze you, there are ways to embrace being outside your comfort zone and turn your self-doubt into a chance to thrive.

Several times in my agile coaching career, I have stood up in front of some group to speak, teach, or coach and wondered, "What am I doing here? Do I really have a clue how to help these people? What if they find out I'm faking it?"

This is an example of imposter’s syndrome, and it can happen to anyone. For me, it usually happens when I place myself in new and challenging situations. Crossing the boundaries of my experience can cause me to wonder, “Am I ready for this?”

What causes imposter syndrome? You might feel you are reaching beyond your knowledge. You might feel as if you are not good enough. You might know what you don’t know, which leads you to doubt yourself.

I’ve come across many articles that describe how to overcome imposter syndrome. However, I've found that it actually can be used to my advantage. I have discovered a few ways of thinking about the fear of going outside my comfort zone that have led to success and personal growth. Read on to learn how to turn your discomfort and self-doubt into a chance to thrive.

Understand that fear indicates growth. First, realize that the feeling of going beyond your boundaries means you are learning and growing. If you stay in your safe zone, you will never recognize new opportunities, and your safe zone may end up being compromised (or commoditized) to the detriment of your career. If you have not practiced learning beyond your boundaries, big shifts in your work like layoffs, acquisitions, or new processes can be difficult to recover from.

Realize that your experience is unique. Understand that while your work is similar to those of others, what you have experienced is unique to you. People value hearing stories. It helps them understand how they might apply the concepts you are trying to teach or coach. You cannot be an imposter about your own experience. Collect your stories about what you have tried in your work, where you failed, what you learned, and new things you tried because of that learning.

Recognize your accomplishments. We all have accomplishments, so take note of goals you set out to do and when you achieve them. You may even want to keep a journal or other record of your achievements to track your progress and detect larger accomplishments. These become future stories to tell.

When I set out to rebuild the Agile Orlando meetup group a few years back, I wanted to start with something simple that would be easy for anyone to run. I started with a lean coffee format, a simple way for people to gather for an hour, suggest topics, vote on their favorites, and tell their stories around those topics. Four years later, we now have more than five hundred members, many of whom have shared their stories at one of our three lean coffee sessions that happen each month. These sessions have even been used to inspire other lean coffee sessions for storytelling in different user groups across Florida. Storytelling can be simple and powerful.

Keep pushing your boundaries. It's critical that we keep learning and growing. As agile coaches, we should be teaching clients about continuous learning, and the best way to teach is to demonstrate how you learn continuously yourself. Sometimes sharing an experiment you tried and failed at—and what you learned—can be enough to inspire the next person.

Improve where you have passion. This lesson took me the longest to learn. As I was starting to gain experience as an agile coach, I thought I had to keep on top of all the trends in the agile coaching profession. It was exhausting as the number of industries, frameworks, methodologies, games, and simulations exploded a few years ago. That information overload and exhaustion gave more opportunities for imposter syndrome to creep in. I thought I didn't know enough to handle certain coaching situations, and I just felt stuck. Also, colleagues at the time were insisting I had to push certain boundaries, but they were not boundaries I had a desire to overcome.

Finally, I realized that I found it more valuable to keep a basic knowledge of certain areas and dig deep into areas where I was passionate to learn more. The desire to learn easily overcame the fear of crossing a knowledge boundary, and my confidence in a particular area quickly increased as I grew more educated.

For instance, early in my career I wasted entire workdays in meetings that had large groups of people with very few people actually collaborating. This inspired me to learn how to facilitate and take risks with different challenges (large groups, different formats, conflict navigation). Now, I can easily facilitate communication in almost any situation, and I even teach facilitation to others.

Always grow your network. Another thing I learned early in my career is that you should connect with others in your profession who have dissimilar areas of interest as well as similar ones. That way you have contacts in many areas of knowledge you can call on when you are in a situation that is beyond what you can handle.

I've found that most of the very successful coaches in our industry have extensive networks of trusted colleagues with whom they will ask questions, share new stories and concepts, and even collaborate on new opportunities. It's hard to be an "imposter" when you have a network of support you can bring into almost any situation. The coaches who stumble are the ones who fail to build this support network and, in turn, support others with their strengths.

Each of these approaches has allowed me to grow comfortable in my discomfort with new situations. I’ve gotten opportunities to learn new skills, drawn experiences to tell more stories, and been able to ask for help from trusted colleagues. The next time you feel unsure or nervous in a new situation, ask yourself: How can these ideas help me use imposter syndrome to my advantage?

User Comments

Leyton Collins's picture

Thanks for this Mark. Your point about having a trusted network helped me mentally solidify something I heard while watching a home improvement show the other day. The contractor was asked a question and he said "you're only as good as those around you". As managers our roles are to get work done through other people, and I've always had this sense in the back of my mind that it's those shared, and respected/trusted strengths that create the best teams.

April 6, 2016 - 9:58am
Mark Kilby's picture

Absolutely Leyton. In any profession, you must build a network to help solve the challenges bigger than you ... and there will always be such challenges.

April 7, 2016 - 3:33am
Catherine Valentine's picture

It's like you know me.  I'm very happy that I'm not the only one that goes through this. 

June 15, 2016 - 8:40pm

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