FONC and the Impostor Syndrome

Last week, Caterina Fake wrote about a social observation she made at SXSW which she called FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out: people checking their Twitter and Foursquare feeds to see who was where, doing what, to make sure that they were in the right place at the right time with the right people. And if they weren’t, quickly switching locations.

I’ve never been much of a joiner, so I’ve rarely suffered from this condition. I’m usually not wherever is trending — a disdain for long lines, overcrowded rooms, and inaudible conversation attempts. Just being somewhere, standing there in the place I’m “supposed” to be, to see and be seen, has never been my bag. That’s because I suffer from something far worse:

FONC — Fear Of Not Contributing

I’m a giver, not a taker. My whole life it’s been difficult for me to accept the offerings of others and feel self-worth from what I have and who I’m surrounded by. The only way I feel whole is when I’m contributing to the universe in some way — building something, helping someone, improving somewhere. I think in a lot of ways I became a consultant because I didn’t feel I was contributing enough at a full-time job. I wanted to contribute more and I was being held back. I was told outright that I was overshadowing the contributions of my teammates.

My need to contribute is a compulsion. Every day that I don’t create something is a day I feel I’m worth less. String together a few days of feeling worth less and eventually you’ll feel worthless. Of course by “you” I really mean “I.”

I burn out after working myself to the bone, and then give myself the day off to relax. But while I enjoy the respite, by nightfall I’m in a panic that the Earth has continued spinning and I didn’t actually have to do anything to help it.

It’s here that my Impostor Syndrome rears its ugly head. If the Earth keeps spinning without me, if companies keep making money and employees keep getting paid, and customers keep buying things they don’t need and figuring out what they do, and people keep learning and getting inspired by the work of others, and User Experience keeps making the rounds in conversations over lunch tables and boardroom tables, well then what the heck am I here for?

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

My FONC, aptly named, puts me in a funk on a regular basis. It comes and goes, but it mostly creeps up when I’m alone, at home, choosing to sleep or read or watch TV instead of crossing off something on my to-do list. My to-do list symbolizes the areas in which I believe I can contribute. Whether it’s crafting a proposal for a prospective client, producing for an existing client, drafting a blog post, or answering emails, when information and insight flows out of me, I can prove that I belong.

Just knowing where to be and being there, the goal of someone inflicted with FOMO, isn’t nearly enough to sustain me. I need the constant feedback and praise and criticism of a soul who knows she doesn’t belong at all. Because in those brief moments, I know my voice is heard. I know I’m noticed and I matter. And I know I’m there, wherever I am, for you.

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  1. says

    I know I just tweeted that lately your tweets have made me want to say “Get out of my head,” but wow, this post makes me want to scream it. I was told by one of my peers in graduate school that the world will keep spinning if I take a break, and rather than the comment bringing me comfort, I almost started hyperventilating!

    Is this something you are wanting to change about yourself, or is it something you are coming to terms with as how you’re living life? For me, I’m wondering if it’s something I want to change, or simply accept.

    In any case, it’s kind of nice to know I’m not the only one.

  2. Fil says

    You should start considering the concept of inertia: the Earth keeps on spinning at night because we do our jobs by day

  3. says

    Oof! This is such a challenge for me as well.

    What I’ve also noticed is that often people who feel like impostors are actually pretty amazing at what they do. In other words, you’re fine :-) — awesome, even. *Says same thing to self.*

  4. says

    When I started out as a baby UXster I always felt like I was surrounded by people who knew so much more than me. I compensated by always over-delivering on my projects. I ended up learning lots of skills really quickly that way. IMHO it seems like a compulsion to contribute is great for your career if hard on you mentally.

  5. says

    Nicely put. I definitely recognize in myself the same kind of will-to-contribute you’ve described, and it’s both an asset and something I have to consciously manage.

  6. Eric says

    Apparently the imposter syndrome is a very prevalent issue within the technology industry (source: my doc). The way I’ve learned to deal with it is learn to recognize when it’s rearing it’s sneaky self and double my personal resolve to remain confident.

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