Product School

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome in the Product World

Ellen Merryweather

Ellen Merryweather

January 09, 2023 - 7 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 7 min read

We’re here to teach you important skills and methodologies for Product Management, and having good mental health is as important an asset to any PM as data skills and tech know-how.

If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your teams. Numerous studies have shown burnout to be a very real and impactful threat to employee health.

A huge cause of burnout, alongside an impossible workload, is impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is the feeling of not being good enough or that you’ve somehow blagged your way into your job. You may feel as if you’ve tricked your colleagues into thinking you’re capable of getting the job done, despite not actually having the skills needed.

Women feeling sad

Different Types of Impostor Syndrome in Product:

“What I’m not good enough?”

The first type of impostor syndrome is all about how confident you feel in yourself. It’s something that can arise at any moment in a career, and you may find that even established Product Managers and people you greatly look up to often question their own abilities.

It’s also very common when you’re in the job-hunting phase of your product career. Product Managers can transition into their roles from all areas of business, which is a breeding ground for self-doubt. Someone with nothing but marketing experience, but with all the skills needed may fear their lack of experience in software development will hold them back.

A lack of technical know-how can also be a source of uncertainty in your skillset. While it’s a myth that keeps being busted, there remains a large portion of people who believe that all Product Managers need a Computer Science degree. (While this is true for some more technical positions, many successful product leaders have absolutely no background in Computer Science.)

“What if my product isn’t good enough?”

Similar, but different, is the impostor syndrome that you may feel towards your product, or your contributions to it. Whether you’re building something for yourself (which we’ll get to in a moment) or if you’re only one of many PMs working on a feature for a well established product, it’s entirely natural to wonder if what you’re doing is right.

As an individual contributor, it can take a few years to feel confident in your work, as you slowly learn to trust your own instincts.

Impostor syndrome can also kick in after a failure. While failing in product is completely normal, it’s certainly something that can knock us back.

Broken phone

“Am I ready to launch my side project?”

So you’ve started thinking seriously about that side project you’ve always wanted to launch. It could be a blog, your own consultancy business, an online community, or even your own digital product.

If you have a product or business idea that you’d like to pursue, sometimes the very last thing holding us back is yourself. It’s very common to gather the resources, verify that the idea is good…but not quite have enough self-belief to hit the ‘Go’ button.

When a project is personal, it’s much harder to separate our analytical minds from our emotional attachments. Personal side projects reflect on us much more directly than our smaller contributions for larger products or services. This can be something that gives us pause and holds us back.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome:

Become more confident in yourself

While there are plenty of external steps you can take to prove your worth, the biggest change needs to come from the inside.

If you’ve just started a new position, it’s entirely natural to feel nervous. One tip is to trust your recruiting manager/the team who hired you. They surely met with other candidates, but saw something they liked in you.

No sane hiring manager would waste time bringing someone completely useless onboard!

If it’s your background that you’re worried about, don’t worry! Many roads lead to product, and having a team with a variety of background experience strengthens a team rather than weakens it.

If you’re an established Product Manager who has been working for a long time, but still suffer from waves of impostor syndrome, try asking your manager for a performance review. If you really have grounds for concern about your work, they’ll be able to give you some areas to improve on. Alternatively, they may tell you that you’ve got nothing to worry about and that you’re doing a good job.

Another tip is to talk openly with your colleagues about how you’re feeling. When you find out other kickass people on your team feel the same way you do, it’ll help you to feel less alone.

Mental health is no longer the taboo it once was and, especially in 2020, conversations around mental health in the workplace are beginning to open up. If it’s affecting your work, then it’s a conversation worth having.

Team looking out at a view

Take steps to prove your worth

It’s all very well having confidence in yourself and in your abilities, but at some point you need to be able to show what you can do with them.

It’s very much a chicken and egg problem. As author and product professional John Franck talks about in his book ‘Every Product Manager’s First 30 Days’, it sometimes feels like you can’t get Product Management experience without already having Product Management experience.

In his book (which we’ve actually reviewed, including an interview with Franck himself), he recommends joining a hackathon. These events simulate product development and are a great introduction to the tech world. The best part is that they’re open to everyone with the right skills, without having to present a fancy CS degree or 10 years in PM.

Curious about hackathons? Check out our guide on why they’re so great for Product Managers.

Another great step to take, no matter which level you’re at, is to get certified as a Product Manager. A certification is tangible proof that you have what it takes to flourish in product. It’s a great way to consolidate your knowledge and prove your dedication to the craft.

Validating ideas

The validation process isn’t as simple as ABC, because there are so many different ways to go about it, depending on what it is you need to test.

If you need to validate your business model for your new side project, one idea is to set up a landing page for your product idea and share it within your network. The feedback you’ll receive could be a valuable first step in validating your idea.

If it’s a product idea you need to validate, you could start building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This would work whether you’re building a feature for an existing product at a giant corporation, testing a startup idea, or testing your idea for a side project.

The MVP is the perfect way to start getting a feel for product-market fit, and determining whether your product idea solves the problem or fills the need.

Confused about product-market fit? Check out our guide here.

If you have an idea that you’d like to pitch as an individual contributor, you should always make sure to bring the data with you to back up your ideas. If you’re trying something pretty radical, be sure to test your hypothesis and bring proof.

Overcoming Your Impostor Syndrome: Next Steps

Rather than wallowing in negative thought, here are some actionable steps that you can take to start overcoming self-doubt and impostor syndrome:

Got some ideas for tackling impostor syndrome? Join the community and share what you know!

Updated: January 24, 2024

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