Episode 023: Tara Hughes–Impostor Syndrome

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Tara Hughes head shot

Episode 023: Tara Hughes–Impostor Syndrome

Category:EDUCAUSE,introversion,Introverted Leadership,Leadership,Podcast

Episode 023 Show Notes: Tara Hughes

Introduction

Tara Hughes head shot

Tara Hughes and Ben Woelk talk about impostor syndrome. and her presentation at the 2019 EDUCAUSE Security Professionals Conference.

Key concepts

  • A presentation can be a self improvement project
  • Being vulnerable as a presenter can help the audience connect with you
  • Even experts can struggle with impostor syndrome
  • When there’s not a model and you’re doing research and going with your gut, you may be prone to Impostor Syndrome
  • Mentors can help assure you that you’re not an impostor.

Quotable

That willingness to be authentic and vulnerable is such a key part of having people walk along the journey with you and being willing to talk, being willing to hear about your journey. @benwoelk

Impostor Syndrome-for those of us who are so committed and care so deeply about the work that we do, that has I think an extra level of importance to be seen as legitimate. @TinyTara

If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you’re likely not going to be talking about it because you’re afraid that people will find out that you’re an impostor. @TinyTara

We think an expert has no gap in knowledge or experience. And there’s no way that you could know possibly know all of the things there are to know in information security because it’s rapidly changing. @TinyTara

Even if we don’t think we’re an expert, we may be the best person to in a sense stand in that gap and fill that role for a while. @benwoelk

Reframing your thoughts and your perspective is crucial to recognizing Impostor Syndrome. @TnyTara

Having diverse teams and diverse skills should help us feel like we belong and not feel like an impostor. @TinyTara

Resources or Products Mentioned in this Episode

Links

Transcript

Ben:  Joining us today is Tara Hughes. Tara is interim manager of administrative services at California State University Channel Islands. I met Tara at the 2019 EDUCAUSE Security Professionals Conference in Chicago where Tara spoke on, “You’re All a Bunch of Phonies: Impostor Syndrome and Information Security. “The presentation was standing room only, and the attendees described it as very impactful. Given the struggles with self confidence many of us have as introverts, I thought it would be helpful to chat about impostor syndrome on the Hope for the Introvert podcast. You can contact Tara via email tara.hughes@CSCU.edu or through Linkedin, Tara Hughes and Twitter @TinyTara. I encourage our listeners to visit HopefortheIntrovert.com where you’ll find complete show notes including a transcript of today’s conversation.

Ben: Hi Tara. Welcome back. It’s great to have you back on the podcast.

Tara:  I’m looking forward to chatting about the EDUCAUSE Security Professionals Conference. I was very excited about the presentation, because I was really interested to see what the population would be in the room and what the reaction would be, so let’s talk about that a little bit. And it was very funny, because I could tell you did not come across as nervous as presenting, but you did mention that how you had hoped it would not be a large turnout, and the room was packed and standing room only. So let’s talk a little bit about what led you to the conference, why you chose that topic. I have my audience view of what I saw going on with it, but it’s always interesting because your view as a presenter is very different in many ways. So let’s talk a little bit about this whole Impostor Syndrome issue.

Tara:  Yeah. So the same mentor who encouraged me to apply to LCI, encouraged me to apply to present at Security Professionals and the deadline had come and gone. And for other extenuating circumstances, I just didn’t get around to submitting anything. And he circled back with me and said, “Why didn’t you submit something?” And so I said, “It’s too late. It’s okay. Maybe next year we’ll submit.” He contacted Valerie [Vogel] and Valerie said, “No, she can submit still. I’ll give her a week.” And so I said, “What am I going to present on? I don’t work in information security. I’m more tangentially related because I run our IT Help Desk, but I’m not an information security expert by any means.” And he said, “You should talk about that. Talk about how you’re not sure that you fit in here and why should you present.” Because I said, “Who would want to come listen to me talk at a security conference? I don’t work in security.” So he had said, “You know, you should really look into impostor syndrome and you should talk about that. I think that that would be great and we would love to have some more diverse topics that aren’t just technically focused.”

Tara: And so the more that I looked into it, and I know my husband kind of got involved and he was like, “This is perfect. This is absolutely something that you can speak to.” And sure enough, I think the more that I looked into it, the more it felt like a personal improvement project just as much as a presentation. And again, when my presentation was accepted, because I had talked myself into thinking that I will submit it, because it won’t get accepted. And so it’s not a big risk. And then I got accepted and I thought, “Oh shoot! Now I’ve got to–now I’ve actually got to do it.” But it really did become a personal improvement project, just as much for my own well-being as it was for other people.

Tara: The big thing that I kept in mind throughout was that really going back to that relationship building and that desire to connect with people and to help them–that counselor component of who I am– really helped me focus what I wanted to talk about and how I wanted to talk about it because I wanted to be–it didn’t feel right to try to come across as some sort of expert on the issue. I really wanted to be authentic and relatable and look for a way that if I can share my experience, and if that’s helpful to one person in the room, then it’s worth it.

Ben:  it’s interesting on so many levels because for many years I did presentations, and I was more irritated if it didn’t get accepted rather than any concern if it did get accepted. But that’s kind of a–just probably an INTJ thing actually for me, because of course I think I’m the expert! But what I found was that it was very easy to talk about subjects, different subjects. But what I learned once I started talking about introverted leadership, was that I had to be vulnerable and talk about myself. And that was terrifying in many ways. But I found it made such a bridge between me and the audience, that it was just incredible the connection and the conversations that I had afterwards. I felt like I wasted many years of not knowing that. But that willingness to be authentic and vulnerable is such a key part of having people walk along the journey with you and being willing to talk, being willing to hear about your journey.

That willingness to be authentic and vulnerable is such a key part of having people walk along the journey with you and being willing to hear about your journey. @benwoelk Click To Tweet

Ben: Now, one thing that was very clever that you did at this presentation, was that Tara opened the presentation with a series of quiz questions, and used one of the apps that works on the phone so that you can indicate your answers to things. She had all of these really technical questions around security-related subjects and would post a question and a bunch of people would answer. And many of the answers were clustered in certain areas. And so we have four of those questions. But why don’t you talk a little bit about those questions and what you told us after everyone had jumped in and says, “I think this is the answer?”

Tara: Yeah. So I was trying to think of how to effectively get the point across about Impostor Syndrome because not everyone struggles with feeling like an impostor necessarily. But I really wanted to draw people into understanding how it might feel, because I then felt like the rest of the presentation would be more meaningful and we could have a better conversation. So the questions were very technically focused on cybersecurity, and I didn’t want to have too many because I didn’t want to frustrate people, but I wanted enough to try to get the point across. And we used Poll Everywhere, but Poll Everywhere is dynamic and live. And so that was a little tricky to work with. But I wanted to create a sense within which people had a false sense of what the rest of the room was thinking. And so it was a really challenging technical question. And then I just picked one of the answers and gave fake results for each question and didn’t tell anyone that they were fake. So I made it look like the results were the live results. And I actually heard one guy on one of the questions say, “Oh, I know the answer, it’s ‘B.’” And I actually was mortified internally, because the answer that I had selected was “C,” and he’s going to totally know that something’s up.

Ben: So I have to ask you because this is the first I’ve realized this part of it, because I really thought that was live polling And I wasn’t sure why some of the answers were clustering the way they were. And it’s like, “What? That doesn’t sound right, but everybody else must think it’s right.” So, so I didn’t realize that until right now! So go ahead.

Tara: Yeah. So I just picked an answer and made it look like 75% chose “C.” And then at the end of the question, and I really wanted people to think in fact, it was even better if I chose the wrong answer, but made everyone else think that that was clearly what the whole group chose. It created this sense of internal questioning as to, “Well, maybe I don’t actually know the answer to that question or maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am in this particular area,” or even questioning the group and whether or not you belong or felt like you belonged. And so after all of those questions, then I said that, “You know, the poll results were not true,” and that I had faked them and I went to great lengths to make it look as though the poll results looked live. But I wanted to create that feeling of questioning whether or not you belonged in that room and whether or not the way to really do what you thought you knew presentation.

Ben: And I’m really wondering now how many people still don’t really realize that the poll was fake and not necessarily the answers. And no, I thought it was brilliant, and I think it was a very good way of kind of rocking everybody just a little bit, and taking them off center a little bit to say that, “Well maybe I’m not sure of what I think I’m sure of.” So yeah that part was great. So talk a little bit more about what you told us about impostor syndrome and what I’m–one thing I thought was really interesting with some of the questions that came up at the end and some of the reactions–but tell us a little bit more about this whole impostor syndrome thing. Because you have a lot of–and I know this is a group that’s normally happens to, too. You have a lot of, for the most part, highly educated people who are–many of them are really experts in these subject matters. Or some of them think they’re experts, whichever way we want to go with that, [Tara laughing] but who are really experts in these subject matters. And even so, they still struggle with this whole idea of do I really belong here? Do I really know what I’m doing? Is someone going a see through me and know I’m a fake at some point.

Tara: Yeah. Yeah. So impostor syndrome is that feeling of not belonging and thinking that you are fooling everyone into believing that you belong, and then eventually they will discover that you’ve been faking your way through and you’ll be unmasked as a fraud. And the fear of being discovered is I think just as bad as feeling like you don’t belong, because I think it’s both very much–and then what the consequences might be once everyone discovers that it, you know, it could be the loss of reputation or loss of respect or losing your actual job. And I think for those of us who are so committed and care so deeply about the work that we do, that has I think an extra level of importance to be seen as legitimate. And again, I keep–I would keep bring preferring back to authenticity. And I think again, as an INFJ and that’s a really big, big part of, of who you are is you care about authenticity.

Impostor Syndrome-for those of us who are so committed and care so deeply about the work that we do, that has I think an extra level of importance to be seen as legitimate. @TinyTara Click To Tweet

Tara: And so if you are approaching something new, and this is even ties back to my area where I’m developing this program, then there’s not really a model to base it off of. And so you’re doing research, but then you’re also just going off of gut and intuition and a variety of things and it can feel like you’re just making it up as you go and someone’s going to figure out that you’re a fraud. I think that’s true in any kind of industry, but especially in fields where there’s a lot of change. And a lot of new things coming at you, because like with information security, it’s really hard to keep up. The threats change constantly and it’s hard to ever feel like an expert. How could you possibly be an expert? Because I think in our minds, when we think of an expert, an expert has no gap in knowledge or experience. And there’s no way that you could know possibly know all of the things there are to know in a field like information security because it’s just rapidly changing.

We think an expert has no gap in knowledge or experience. And there's no way that you could know possibly know all of the things there are to know in information security because it’s rapidly changing. @TinyTara Click To Tweet

Ben: Yeah, and I think also it’s the situation where to the general public or people outside the field, “Oh, you’re absolutely the expert. You’re doing information security work,” and for those of us in the field or close enough to the field to understand it, we have a good sense of how much we just don’t know. And I think that happens– again, it happens in many fields as people become more expert in fields.

To the general public, “Oh, you're absolutely the expert. You're doing information security work” For those of us in the field, we have a good sense of how much we just don't know. @benwoelk Click To Tweet

Tara: Yeah.

Ben: At least for my experience in talking to people, we have so much more a sense of how big that gap, it just becomes bigger and bigger… what that means in terms of the people we relate to and what their expectations are. But that doesn’t–just because we know there’s a gap–it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a certain level of expertise or probably more importantly, we may still be the best person to be doing that. We may be the best person to in a sense stand in that gap and fill that role for a while. And I know for me it’s always felt, and I don’t–I mean the idea of calling myself an expert or calling myself a thought leader–and it’s like there’s all this stuff about thought leaders and people self identifying as thought leaders, and it’s like, well you don’t really want to do that. Maybe other people will identify you as that, but it’s a very weird thing, and I think that falls into the introversion piece, too, as you just don’t self identify that way. How could I possibly self identify that way? But I think this understanding the gap, and then realizing that there’s, “Do I belong?” They’re going to understand–they’re going to realize I don’t know everything, that I’m not going to have the right answer. That the threats are always changing. That people aren’t always going to make the right decisions. In some ways it’s so easy. If people can do the right things, they’ll be relatively secure and will reduce risk, but there’s always something that’s going to come in that we’re not prepared for.

Even if we don't think we're an expert, we may be the best person to an a sense stand in that gap and fill that role for a while. @benwoelk Click To Tweet

Ben: So I think it was a great topic for the conference and obviously it was packed. The room was absolutely packed and just seeing all of these people who are probably seen as experts at their universities. They don’t feel like it. They feel like, “I’m just faking it.” And I think information security in some ways, or cybersecurity, makes a little bit harder because it’s a relatively new field and many of us, there was no preparation for this kind of job at all. It’s all–we’ve learned it, we’ve brought other skill sets into it. Maybe we work towards getting a certification at some point in time, which I did, but I know in my mind that I did that certification for me as much as anything. So that I would feel more secure in what I was doing and I don’t really think it changed anyone else’s opinion of what they thought I could do or couldn’t do either way. Helps on the job market for sure. Because a lot of things are, “Nope, you need that certification”. And so there’s value in that sense in having it. But for me it’s always been very much feeling like I need something that shows me that I can do what everyone else knows that I can do.

Tara: Yeah. I think what’s interesting, and you know, maybe this is partly of being that introvert is you want to somehow just fit in and, and I so much care about–I like rules. I like structure and you give me rules, I will follow them. Um, I, I’m not going to be the creative type that can just create my rules as I go. Um, and so whether it was having an untraditional path towards my bachelor’s degree or having kids at an earlier age than I thought or getting into it, even though that wasn’t what I had initially planned. Um, and having not an IT background and not being technical, but being a relational person and trying to figure out what space can I occupy authentically with the skillset that I bring, I think every step of those ways you feel like an impostor because this isn’t what it normally looks like to be in these spaces and do these things, right? I’m looking for some sort of gauge to compare myself against and I think with information security, that gauge doesn’t really exist. I mean, I think it’s being created, but so much of the impostor syndrome is that comparison piece. And if, if I can fit in or if I do these things where I look like this, then maybe I can convince myself and convince other people that I’m the real deal and I’m not just faking it.

Ben: Yes, and there was in a sense palpable discomfort with some of the people who had come in and done security awareness-type presentations, because that’s typically–there are technical people who come into that field, but that’s not normally their interest and it’s not normally something they’re necessarily good at. But you bring people in who are relational or maybe they’ve got a graphics background or they understand communications in general and they understand audience type or personas and things like that. They can still very much struggle over, “Well how can I fit in around all these super bright technical people who are speaking a language that frankly I do not understand.” And it’s so jargon laced, and the jargon that’s used means different things sometimes depending on the context you’re in, or in another field it means something totally different, that it can get very, very unsettling.

Ben: So I guess one of the questions I have for you is that you talked about it, what do we do about it? How do we handle this impostor syndrome? What do we look for that makes us feel–maybe we know that we’re not the expert? What gives us that comfort level or centering in a sense on how we can still perform well and maybe not feel like we know everything, but also not feeling like we’re a total fraud.

Tara: Yeah. Right? So there are a couple of things. I think first just the fact that we’re talking about it is key because impostor syndrome and all the research that I did, which is not nearly as exhaustive as many other experts, but a lot of the research suggests that if you suffer from impostor syndrome, you’re likely not going to be talking about it because you’re afraid that people will find out that you’re an impostor. Right. And so it’s this kind of self-fulfilling, horrible cycle. So until you’re really willing to put yourself out there and be vulnerable to talk about it, you’re more likely to continue suffering in silence. So I think having that conversation is critical. I think it helps if someone can be the first to admit it, right? Because even at the presentation that really, it was a domino effect. Once one person says, “Hey, I struggle with this,” then other people feel more comfortable to chime in and say, “Hey, I struggle with this too.”

If you suffer from impostor syndrome, you're likely not going to be talking about it because you're afraid that people will find out that you're an impostor. @TinyTara Click To Tweet

Tara: The other thing, there’s so many, I think different things that that can be employed to combat it. But I think reframing your thoughts and your perspective is crucial. And it’s not like there’s this list of  special, crazy things that you have to do. It’s really holding yourself accountable to some degree, and having real internal dialogue about, “Well, why shouldn’t I be presenting at this conference? Who’s to say that I don’t have something valuable to say?” I think even the way that we approach situations. So when we’re thinking about reframing our thoughts, I think part of that is holding yourself to the standard of pushing back and questioning when those doubts come through, of just asking yourself, “Why, why not?” But then also being able to look at things from more than just your particular vantage point.

Reframing your thoughts and your perspective is crucial to recognizing Impostor Syndrome. @TinyTara Click To Tweet

Tara: I think, for instance, in working in IT, “Why aren’t I a good fit? Why can’t I bring the soft skills?” And maybe that’s exactly what we need. Why  is it not acceptable in my mind to bring in something a little bit unique, especially as we’re starting to talk about having diverse teams with diverse skills. If anything that should make us, I think, feel a little bit more comfortable and more empowered to not necessarily have to look like the person to your left and the person to your right. But it’s really acknowledging it’s okay that you don’t look like guy to your left and the gal to your right, but you have to have those honest conversations I think.

Having diverse teams and diverse skills should help us feel like we belong and not feel like an impostor. @TinyTara Click To Tweet

Ben: So you mentioned one thing in that you have the internal conversation you have to manage. I think you started to go there. But part of this, and you mentioned it when you talked about prepping for this presentation to start with, was the encouragement from your husband that this was something you’d be absolutely great at doing, and with the job also. I think the role of a mentor, whether it’s internal to an organization, but also probably better, external to the organization because you have the feeling they’ll be more objective and your job isn’t at stake when you’re talking to them. I think there’s a real role around the mentoring piece on this also because you get that sanity check in a way.

Ben: And I know for me, I do a bit of mentoring–and usually introverts who are interested in leadership, but most of them are struggling with how maybe to handle specific workplace-type things, but also in that whole, “How do I feel comfortable in my own skin” in a sense. “How do I feel like I’m not an impostor?” That I can talk to them and reflect and we can study different things and talk through different scenarios, and it’s really valuable because I’m not in their workplace, they’re not losing their job by talking to me or putting something at risk. So I think the mentoring piece is really critical.

Ben: What’s interesting for me is I don’t have many people that I–there are a few–that I would consider to be mentors that I talk to or that I looked at, “Oh, that that’s a mentor up from me.” I have several people who are more peer mentors, and being able to talk through the stuff that we deal with in the workplace and things like that. Or even too–in some ways I feel like it’s a sanity check–is really important, to be able to get that other perspective. And sometimes it’s like, “You’re right, this isn’t the way it should be,” but at least having someone else be able to talk to you about that I think is really important as well.

Tara: Yeah. Yeah. And I think so. You keyed in on something that I touched on in the presentation and I think the mentorship both ways, right? Being mentored by someone who can keep you in check and help you make sure that you’re keeping your thoughts and your perspective  in check, but then also that you’re paying it forward and mentoring someone else. I think both are really important because they help you see things outside of yourself, and they help you see how others might see you. Because we’re so hard on ourselves, right? The mentorship and coaching that you can provide other people– the students that I work with–I’m a first generation college student. And so to be able–our school has a really high percentage of first gen college students. And so I care about that and I can speak to it.

Tara: And it might not look like I can, but I can. When I’m talking with students about how to manage their time or how confusing it might be to fill out a financial aid form, I get it on a very real and personal level. And I think that’s important because they see that things are still possible for them. That even though things might not make sense with what they’re struggling through now, that there is someone else who struggled through those things just as much as did, and they’ve come out the other end and they’re in a career that they love and they’re doing meaningful work. And so to be that representative is really, really important. And I think it does kind of help you get the focus off of whether or not you’re legit, right? Because you’re  giving back to someone else and hopefully helping them avoid, maybe not entirely, but to some degree helping them avoid those doubts that creep in should you not have taken the opportunity to be real and to coach them with that.

Ben: For many people, from the outside it often looks like it’s the mentee who is the beneficiary of everything. I’ve found that it’s amazing being the mentor also, because you learned so much from the people that you are–actually becomes friends obviously, because you’re spending that time and you’re building that relationship and how important that is. One of the really exciting things for me.–most of the mentoring I do is virtual. It’s very seldom somebody who’s actually local. I was at the Society for Technical Communication Summit Conference the week before the EDUCAUSE conference. I had four people that I was mentoring and they all did their first conference presentations, and it was just so exciting to see them. So there’s definitely a huge piece in terms of what this means for both participants in the conversation.

Ben: As we’re wrapping up our conversation, what are the key takeaways do you think in terms of dealing with impostor syndrome or as an introvert in the workplace or whether you’re an introvert or not?

Tara: Yeah, I was looking up something recently to see, are introverts more likely to struggle with impostor syndrome? And I think–I just don’t think there’s enough research to really give a Yea or Nay on that. But it does seem like, especially if you’re an intuitive person on the scale, you are much more likely to, because you have that self reflection going on already. I think that if you know that about yourself, that helps you already, right? Because then you can better understand how to either mitigate, or take care of yourself, or like I said, mitigate issues that might crop up.

Tara: I have bounced around in a lot of different physical locations where I’ve been in kind of an open area where lots of people would come by and come chat. And then I’ve been in an office that was really dark and people didn’t come by, and it least had a door and barely a window. I’m in a current office that’s bright and sunny and really right next to the main entrance, but I don’t have a door. And in each of those physical locations, I’ve had to pay attention to how can I be productive in this space because it’s requiring something different of me then if I just had everything set up perfectly the way that I wanted. Right? So I think again, as an introvert trying to adapt and figure out how can I do well, even though I can’t always dictate the space that I find myself in. And I think that relates to feeling like an impostor because you know, the more that you do something– I’m sure you’ve heard it. There’s that “Fake it til You Make It,” right? And I think that can get us in a lot of trouble, because I’ve faked it till I’ve made it and I still feel like a faker.

Tara: So that didn’t help, right? That just kind of reinforces that feeling of being an impostor, because there’s this illusion that if you achieve that title, where you achieve that promotion, that that will make you feel legitimate. And it doesn’t. I saw someone recently posted on Twitter, and I loved it. They said, “Instead of fake it till you make it, own it while you hone it.” And I love that because you’re owning what you’re doing. You’re not saying that you’re perfect or that you’re the expert, but you’re still honing your craft and you’re still on that journey. I don’t know that we ever reach a place where you can wash your hands and say, “I’m done. I’ve arrived”. Right? So you’re constantly going to be crafting whatever it is that you’re doing and learning.

Tara: Again, I think in the presentation I talked about how it’s a lifelong journey. So everyday should be viewed as an opportunity to learn something new. And you know, we work at higher education institutions, a place of learning. We encourage and foster that vulnerability to say, “I don’t quite know something,” and hopefully I come out of this class knowing something I didn’t know. And yet  as professionals, we don’t have that same enthusiasm or curiosity. We feel like we’re expected to just know everything every day at 8:00 AM. And I think if we can approach work regardless of the space that we work in or the field that we’re in, to have that enthusiasm and curiosity to say, “What am I going to learn about today,” and be excited about that. I think that makes a really big difference in how you approach things, whether you know them or not, because you don’t take it as an indictment against your capability. I think that, at least for me, I have found that that has been a big difference-maker, even as of late, to continue to just be willing to be curious and vulnerable in that space. You don’t have to know everything, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the right person to speak to this issue or represent.

Ben: Awesome. Well, it has been an absolute pleasure having this conversation today. Looking forward to sharing it with our listeners. And I’d like to thank you again for being on the program.

Tara: Thank you so much. And I have to just say real quick, a shout out to my kids, Emma, Felicity and Sophia. They were so excited that I was invited to be on a podcast. So thank you for giving me a rare opportunity to look cool to them. There are two teenagers in that bunch, so I’ll take every opportunity I can to look cool.

Ben: Oh, absolutely. That’s a rare opportunity with teens in general.

 


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