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How I beat impostor syndrome

REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
A guide is reflected in the installation Mirror Maze by artist Es Devlin, at the Copeland Park in Peckham, south London, Britain September 21, 2016.…
  • Deb Liu
By Deb Liu

VP of Marketplace, Facebook

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

At a recent event, someone asked me a question I get a lot: “Do you ever feel like an impostor?”

“Every single day,” I responded.

Nearly everyone feels this way, but almost no one wants to acknowledge it. We are constantly worried that people will find out that we aren’t confident in what we’re doing. But there is a flip side: if it is true that we all feel this way, then at least we are all in this together and can help each other out.

Fake it until you make it

Throughout my career, I have taken on many roles even though I felt under-qualified to do the work. I more or less stumbled into a job in product management at PayPal. I didn’t entirely realize what this role entailed, but the people I met seemed great and I liked the product, so I accepted. When I arrived on my first day, I asked the VP what I was expected to do. She patiently explained my new role and showed me the ropes. To this day, I cringe thinking back to how inexperienced and naive I was.

Becoming great at something often requires a learning mindset rather than substantial or direct experience. In the early 2000s, when I joined PayPal, product teams in tech were a fairly new way of working because so few people had extensive experience. But somehow, we were able to build transformative products together.

Be open

I have worked on a number of tech products in industries I didn’t at first understand. But rather than let my lack of expertise paralyze me, I’ve used it as an opportunity to look at problems differently.

My career at Facebook is an example of this. In 2012, a handful of us were asked to work on mobile monetization. No one on the team had worked on mobile or in advertising before. After iterating on an idea through mostly trial and error and customer feedback, we released our first mobile ads product.

After it launched, one of our partners in mobile gaming called me and shared that he was surprised that we’d managed to send him “real customers” who had seen our ads. I asked, “What other kinds are there?” Afterward, I asked a friend who worked in the industry what the “real customers” comment meant. My friend told me all about charting, bot farms, and students in Asia who are paid to download and install apps.

Not having the baggage of worrying what the rest of the industry was doing freed us up to do what no one had focused on before—build a platform for app discovery for mobile app advertising.

Learn to learn

When I ask someone to step up to manage a team, their response is often that they can’t do it. When I ask why, they reply: “How can I teach someone if I’m not better than them at the job?

But think about CEOs. How many of them are better at finance than their CFOs or understand corporate law better than their General Counsels? They’re not better than their direct reports—but they know how to learn from them.

The most important skill I have learned is how to continue to learn.

Early in my Facebook career, a manager said to me: “In order to be successful in Platform teams, you will need to be able to code. That is the only way to build empathy with developers.” Having last coded in college, where I studied civil engineering, I definitely could not meet that requirement. But a couple years later, I was leading the Platform team, which created products and services for mobile app developers around the world.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if I was truly qualified to do so. But not knowing much about developers was liberating because I had no preconceived notions of what they wanted or needed, and it allowed me to have a beginner’s mindset. It also taught me to listen to developers’ needs. While we were good at adding new features, what developers really needed was stability and predictability, and we spent the next several years ensuring those needs were met.

As an expert, I’m an impostor. But as a learner, I’m always growing.

Keep a beginner’s mind

There is a freedom in being the student rather than the expert. Building great products is often less about experience and more about the ability to test, learn, and iterate. Having a beginner’s mind allows you to explore the problem in new ways and not be trapped in a fixed way of thinking.

There is a set of interesting studies that show that kindergartners outperform CEOs and MBAs when asked to build a tower out of sticks of spaghetti and a marshmallow. Why? Because the kindergartners don’t have a preconceived model of a solution. Instead, the kids test and iterate over many options, which get more and more successful. By contrast, the MBAs argue and go all-in on just one option, which often collapses.

Believing you are an expert fools you into believing you know the answer. Thus you are less likely to be open to new information and less willing to do things in a different way.

I often wonder if someone will finally figure out that I’m learning as I go. But I decided long ago that letting that feeling dictate my actions was counterproductive. Instead, I choose to reframe my mindset from one of impostor to one of explorer, because that is one role I can truly own.

Deb Liu is the VP of Marketplace at Facebook.

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