A lot of the time, newcomers in infosec (or any profession for that matter), have a difficult time knowing when to speak up. This could happen around senior coworkers, or even the other new folks. Most commonly people have trouble in meetings, or at least I do. This sensation can be extrapolated by the fact we are all working remote now. Reading social cues is not possible such as body language. But don’t let this feeling fool you into writing it up as another excuse. What you are probably battling is imposter syndrome.
Everything you know about imposter syndrome has already been said before, many times. The name, “Imposter Syndrome” is not controversial by any means, in fact, it’s one of the most uniting things about many professional skills based industries. From art and science, to engineering and infosec it’s all the same. The definition is pretty standard but let’s run through it real quick. I’ll be stealing the definition from Wikipedia if you want to follow along at home.
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
Well absolutely nothing new being said here. However if you look very closely you may have missed the most important part of the entire definition.
…and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
While we have all been told perhaps a million times by parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, mentors; it is completely normal and human to doubt your skills every now and then. What is not discussed as much is why we do this. The operative word in the above quote is fear. We are acting or thinking a certain way only because we are afraid of something. As the definition says we are most afraid of being exposed as a fraud in our given profession. Many of us feel privileged to be able to make a living doing what we do and the fear of, “sounding silly” or saying something that may be, “inaccurate” in front of people we respect during a situation we are an, “expert” in can be debilitating.
I hope by the end of this using a home-grown example we can end with a decent strategy for overcoming this one day.
What imposter syndrome may look like
Imposter syndrome will look different for everyone that’s no surprise. For me personally it is at its worst when there is a discussion of a topic I may know a thing or two about but refrain from contributing at all because my words may be inaccurate or, “miss the point.” In the moment I typically feel my contribution will be inadequate as the people whom are discussing are already saying all the right things and I couldn’t possible have anything to add that will make them think differently. I then start to feel even more anxiety as saying nothing will surely prove I am a fraud and don’t even follow the conversation as is. Then the conversation ends with me saying nothing and the feeling never never going away.
My fear in this example is two fold.
- I’m a fraud because I have nothing worth adding to the conversation
- By saying nothing in the conversation I’m proving I’m a fraud
As you can plainly see it’s a vicious cycle. However it is only extrapolated by the fact I said nothing in the first place. Getting over this initial hurdle for me has been difficult and I don’t always succeed. In fact, I recently have been failing more than I succeed. But constant improvement is the name of the game. And with these types of things, it is driven by making the right choice one day at a time.
Finally, an actual technique to try
This is a technique I actually picked up from reading, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Long story short I was recommended it by a mentor of mine and there are a lot of useful teachings you can draw from in day-to-day business. The one that personally changed things for me is as follows. Paraphrasing of course.
Carnegie goes on to say, while it may be your goal to get people on your side during a debate or discussion there is a fine line between dominating them to get them on your side, and coming from a humble place get them to agree with you naturally. Adding, “…and I may be wrong, as I often am…” can be the difference maker.
This seems simple enough, just humble yourself to admit to your peers that your idea may be straight up wrong, inaccurate, or misplaced but then say it anyways. Staring an idea or contribution with, “I may be wrong here, as I often am, but…” can have huge impacts. This does a couple things as I have observed. Mostly, putting the pressure on your respected peers to either:
- Make a learning experience out of the situation. A good leader will jump at the opportunity so if they instead make you feel small just know they could use some leadership training or mentoring of their own.
- Listen! This can also prompt them to listen if they are inclined to consider more view points than their own. And if they aren’t then refer to #1 again.
Two small concession
The humble yourself approach may not be for you if after you try a handful of times you are still struggling to gain your confidence. This should only really be used as a soft transition into getting involved in the conversations in the first place. If used for too long you may come off to others as unsure, or indecisive. At worst people may think you just suffer from low self-confidence that all your ideas are weak or not worthy. Your ideas are worthy and this is just a means of getting you the platform to start expressing them.
It is also very important to make sure you avoid talking in circles. For some it is difficult to know when your point has been made so to compensate you reiterate your point multiple times in different words. This is most commonly because we fear awkward silence. To that I say embrace the silence. Let your colleagues come up with the response and actually consider you point of view. It’s almost always better to say a clean and concise statement, then rely on others to probe and ask the questions if even needed.
There is no permanent solution to imposter syndrome. In fact, people high in their fields often suffer from it the worst. However, for new people, you need to start somewhere. Sometimes that’s just getting involved in the day to day operations of your team. When you feel the desire to speak up and speak your mind, prefacing with a simple, “I may be wrong here, as I often am, but…” will get your foot in the door. It shows your superiors you are engaged and can also help you leverage the knowledge you have underneath those feeling of uncertainty.