Podcast  |  Balance,

1.8: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Tech: Insights from a Former NASA Engineer

imposter syndrome in tech - scared egg

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“People think imposter syndrome is a lack of confidence. It’s not. It’s a limit of confidence.”

Feeling like a fraud? Maureen Zappala, a former NASA engineer, joins us for this episode on imposter syndrome, where we explore why so many smart, talented people believe they aren’t either of those things. Listen in as we explore the psychology behind this limiting mentality and learn:

  • Which groups of people feel imposter syndrome the most
  • How to recognize when you’re slipping into distorted thinking
  • The simple visualization that can help you overcome feeling like a fraud in a group
  • How to change your mindset by asking questions
  • What fighter pilots can teach us about the power of pushing our limits


Who’s on this episode

Host: Jennifer Tribe
Guest: Maureen Zappala, Author, Pushing Your Envelope

Maureen Zappala, author, Pushing Your EnvelopeMaureen Zappala, a former NASA propulsion engineer (aka, “rocket scientist!”) and founder of High Altitude Strategies, is an award-winning speaker, author, and presentation skills coach. She works with high performers to overcome the secret self-doubt of impostor syndrome so they can match their confidence to competence and have more influence. She lived in Cleveland for over 36 years before moving to Las Vegas, Nevada in August 2019.

Episode transcript

I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Workflow, the podcast about growing a happier, healthier MSP. More profit, less stress.

Imposter who? Imposter you?

On the last episode of Workflow, performance coach Cameron Norsworthy and I talked about finding flow in your business – those nearly magical moments where everything just seems to click. If you haven’t heard that episode yet I highly recommend you check it out because there’s some really great takeaways in there on how to tap into your peak performance mode. One of the things Cameron said could hold you back from consistent flow is imposter syndrome. So this week that’s what we’re talking about… feeling like a fraud and what you can do about it.

I’m joined by Maureen Zappala, a former NASA engineer — a literal rocket scientist — who struggled with imposter syndrome for much of her early career but found a way out of it. She’s the author of Pushing Your Envelope: How Smart People Defeat Self-Doubt and Live With Bold Enthusiasm.

And that self-doubt she mentions? It will keep you and maybe your team too, afraid of trying new things. The flip side, if you can get the little voice out of your head, is higher performance, more creativity, more well-being and satisfaction with your work — you know, flow.

Imposter syndrome is incredibly common. Studies show that it hits up to 70% of high achievers at some point in their career. So chances are good you know what I’m talking about and not just from an oh yeah, I’ve heard of that perspective.

Personally, I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome a lot, especially in the earlier part of my career so I was really interested to hear what Maureen had to say about how to deal with it.

Imposter syndrome in tech is common

Jennifer: First, it’s important to understand what imposter syndrome is. Unlike a medical syndrome, it’s not rooted in reality. It’s not that you’re a fraud—it’s that you think you’re a fraud. It’s a distortion of your thinking and it happens at work.

Maureen: It’s usually is centered on your professional life, your professional expertise. We all struggle with self-doubt in all areas: in friendship, in dating, in parenting. Oh my gosh. It was nothing like having kids to make me feel stupid. But imposter syndrome really is focused on your professional journey. It’s when qualified, competent people that have enjoyed success and respect and achievement in their professional world don’t believe it. They think, Oh, you know, I’m here because of an accident or because I knew somebody or the planets were aligned or whatever. They externalize the reason for them achieving success. They don’t internalize their own success.

Jennifer: And guess which groups are most prone to imposter syndrome?

Maureen: There are certain pockets of the population that really feel it more than others, people that are in STEM fields. And I know, gosh, that’s where you folks live. People that are in science, technology, engineering and math, they feel it because there’s so much to learn and so much that is expected of them. People that are in creative fields, because now the creativity has to come from them. And so they have to wow their client with the new design or the new project. People that are in both fields, web designers, you know, it’s very technical and very creative, they get a double dose of it.

People that are entrepreneurs, they feel it because there’s not that kind of standing around the coffee pot, bouncing ideas, getting feedback from people. They kind of are lone rangers. People that are in C-level executive positions. The higher up in an organization you go, the more you tend to feel imposter syndrome because there’s so few people to really partner with, to unload with, to get ideas from.

“I was so excited to work at NASA”

Jennifer: People in tech and engineering. Entrepreneurs. CEOs. It’s like a Venn diagram of self-doubt and MSPs owners are in the middle.

Even when you’re in a dream role — or maybe especially when you’re in a dream role — doubts creep in. Can I really do this? Maureen knows all about that inner voice.

Maureen: I got my dream job coming out of college. My dream job was to be an engineer. I got the degree as an engineer, but I was so excited to work at NASA. When they hired me, I remember thinking, Why are they hiring me? Did they not notice that my transcript I was not a straight-A student, even though I wanted so much to work for them. And I realized later on… originally I thought it was because I was a woman, they needed more women. And it was true but there were many parts of my world that the transcript didn’t show. I mean, I was good with people. I nailed it in the interview. I had some great experiences in undergraduate working for an Air Force base in Dayton where I learned about jet engines.

That was my first love, so when NASA hired me, to them it made sense to me. I was like, Really? Are you sure? Took me a long time to realize, Oh yeah, I am a good fit here. I became invested and involved in jet engine testing in a place called the Propulsion Systems Lab, which is in Cleveland at one of the NASA centers. Back then, it was NASA Lewis. Now it’s called NASA Glenn. But the Propulsion Systems Lab we call the PSL, still there, still churning out great stuff. That was my sweet spot, my happy place. I loved it.

And I eventually became the facility manager, kind of like the plant manager of the complex. So it was a great journey. Loved it. But I also will say every day I still felt a little bit of… I don’t know, am I the right person for this job? Because I didn’t know about imposter syndrome back then. I didn’t know how to overcome it. Now I do. And I wish I had back then because I think I would have been a lot more peaceful and a lot more willing to understand that that hesitation was just simply part of the journey. And it didn’t define me. It didn’t have to derail me. Too many times I let it derail me and hold me back. I wish I hadn’t.

“Imposter syndrome screams loudest in times of change”

Jennifer: I’ve always found imposter syndrome so ironic. It’s always the people who have the least cause to doubt themselves who end up suffering from it. Why is that? Why do so many smart, capable people feel like they’re neither of those things?

Maureen: There are probably, I don’t know, two dozen, three dozen reasons that are legitimate reasons for you to feel like an imposter. But I think one of the most significant things is that imposter syndrome screams the loudest in times of change and transition. You graduate from college, you’re heading into the professional world. There’s a change. You’re moving from one company to another. There’s a change. You’re moving from one level in the organization — you got a promotion, you’re into management. There’s a change. So change and transition, we feel like we’re in over our head.

But there are also messages that we receive from our childhood, the way we were raised. I was one that was raised to achieve perfection. Nothing short was acceptable. So I strive to, I have to be perfect. So there’s so many different sources of imposter syndrome, situations that can exacerbate it.

“Step number one is learning what the symptoms are”

Jennifer: Times of change, that made a lot of sense. And in tech, everything is always changing so that trigger might never go away. You might finish one transition only to start another or be going through multiple changes at once all the time. And when I compare that to my own experience, I felt that in my soul. And then childhood beliefs coming in too? Yeah.

It has always felt like a very persistent and sticky problem for people to overcome. So I asked Maureen where do we start?

Maureen: It is persistent, but it’s not unovercomable. Well, there’s a word I just made up. It’s not a once and done thing. It is not a I’m going to take a Tylenol and be done with it. It’s not like a headache you get rid of. It is a chronic condition, and because it’s ongoing, it takes ongoing discipline to change your thinking. Now, you can substantially and dramatically change your thinking to make it a little easier to get over it. There’s symptoms that kind of identify the experience. And step number one is learning what the symptoms are.

Jennifer: What are the symptoms?

Maureen: So there’s probably, I don’t know, half a dozen or so symptoms, taken as a cluster they point towards imposter syndrome. Things like you tend to overwork and overprepare. And on the flip side, sometimes you procrastinate because you’re like I’m not really sure exactly what to do or how to start. Sometimes you may use charm or humor to deflect in conversation what you think is a perceived stupidity. And this is what I do. This is my kind of default. If I could keep you laughing, you won’t notice I’m stupid even though I’m not stupid. But I am funny. And there’s nothing wrong with being funny and charming. But when you use it as a deflection, you know it always comes down to motive.

Another symptom would be the one who chooses to not delegate. And it’s not because they think, well, there’s nobody here to do it. And I really am the only one that can do it. But it’s more of a if I’m really that smart, I should be able to do it by myself. So it’s kind of almost a pride thing. And then another symptom is fear of failure, which of course, who wants to fail, right? But people with imposter syndrome go to Herculean efforts to avoid failure. They catastrophize in their mind and kind of jump to a conclusion and then choose then to not even go down that road. And it’s going to I’m not even going to do it.

And then the cousin of fear of failure is fear of success or disdain of success, where you think, if I’m successful, how will it change me? Will people still like me? If they won’t like me, I don’t want it. Or related to that, do I deserve it? It’s not because of what I did. It’s because of circumstances around me. Kind of like when I got hired at NASA and they only hired me because I was a woman. Not true. Not entirely true. Or you think with success — and this is an interesting one — with success usually comes a substantial increase in income. And people have weird relationships with money and they think, Oh, I don’t know if I deserve that kind of money. Well, try it. It’s not that bad.

“Put it on the witness stand”

Jennifer: OK, so we just talked about how you identify or recognize the symptoms but how does that help us?

Maureen: Once you learn what the symptoms are, then you can focus in on the thought processes that accompany that symptom and then reverse the thought process. It’s actually it comes straight out of psychology. It’s a very disciplined, intentional, targeted, focused, ongoing rethinking of the thoughts. When we have a thought far too often we don’t challenge that thought. We just simply allow that thought to be there. And oftentimes that thought leads us to an action.

But what would happen if instead we grabbed onto that thought, held onto it for a second and challenged it and kind of essentially put it on the witness stand, interrogated it, find out where did that thought come from. What does that thought accomplish for me? Who told me I should think that thought? A lot of times our thoughts are not even our thoughts. They came from someplace else. And what would happen if I chose not to believe or act on that thought? What would happen if? And that’s the best and most powerful way to deconstruct those things.

And I use that when I know I am in a symptom, one of the symptoms like, okay, I feel like I have to be funny and charming. I think, Wait, why? Why do I have to be funny? Does the situation call for humor? Would it be appropriate to be funny? Is my goal a self-centered goal? Is it really going to accomplish what I want it to accomplish? What would happen if I chose to just zip it? What would happen if I chose instead to ask more questions instead of offering something funny? And so in that process, in that very psychological process of evaluating and challenging those thoughts, then I can choose to do different. Because when you think different, you can do different.

Once they start to change their thinking, I show people how then to interact with other people. You see, imposter syndrome has two versions or two legs, I guess. One is the internal experience, what goes on in your head, and then how you interact and enter into the world around other people, usually around other people that you perceive to be smarter, more qualified, more competent, more successful, more prepared, something bigger than you are.

And that’s usually a distortion. They may be at a different level, but it doesn’t mean that they have different worth or different value. So I show people how to reclaim their worth and their value because that is so important when you get around other people instead of thinking, Oh, they’re so much better than me, you think, No, they’re different from me and this is what I bring to the table.

“Walk into your dot”

Jennifer: How exactly do you do that — reclaim your worth?

Maureen: Here’s the silver bullet for that one. I challenge people to spend time really documenting what their own skills, abilities, gifts, talents, background, awards, recognition, to really get a full picture of the things that make them great. And then take it a step further and recognize that every single person can do the same thing. And their list of gifts, qualifications, successes is going to be different. And it doesn’t in any way diminish what you bring to the table so that when you enter into a room or a world or a group carrying your little gift, and I actually I use a visual, I call it your dot. In your dot is all of the evidence that supports the fact that you know what you’re doing and you’re bringing great stuff to the table. You walk into your dot, everybody else is bringing in a dot, but everybody’s dot is different. And you can’t let anybody else’s dot diminish your dot.

So that is the really the only way to walk in and think, oh, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Well, actually, I know a lot about what I’m talking about. I just don’t know everything about that particular topic. And she might have something that I can learn and I have something that I can teach. And it’s understanding this kind of flow of information back and forth and the value of that has nothing to do with who you are. It just reflects simply what you know. And it’s okay to say, I don’t know if I’m as well versed in that as you are. What can you tell me? What can you show me? What can you teach me?

Jennifer: I like that. I like the visual of the dot. I can picture someone holding a dot with all their skills and talents inside, saying look at me, this is my dot. What’s inside your dot? And using that as a basis for connection instead of comparing or competing.

Maureen: Oh, yeah when I do my keynote, I preface it by saying, okay, everybody, you’re going to feel pretty stupid doing this because I have them do this exercise with their dots. But it is the one thing people remember. I walk in the halls of a conference or convention afterwards. It’s like our little secret handshake, everybody remembers the dot.

My last point is you can change all the thinking and change how you interact with people. But at the core is knowing what defines you. And it sounds a little woo woo and it sounds a little kind of transcendental and kind of it is because what we believe about ourselves and our worldview and how, you know, the worth and value of people to our core will drive our behavior. So you really do need to know to your core what are your principles, your values, your mission, what’s your do or die? What are you going to go to the mat for? Because that’s going to be the foundation of your strength moving forward.

“Pushing your envelope”

Jennifer: Let’s talk about pushing the envelope. That phrase or I guess Pushing Your Envelope to be more accurate is the title of your book. I never really thought much about where that expression comes from. Can you tell us?

Maureen: My background’s engineering and I worked for NASA in jet engine military engines specifically. I worked on a lot of F-15, F-16 engines, an F44 engine and an F engine, a couple of other smaller engines. So I was very immersed in the world of fighter pilots. And the phrase pushing the envelope comes from fighter pilots. It’s about when pilots push the envelope of an aircraft they’re essentially flying the aircraft to its limit of safe operation and then nudging it just a little bit past to see what happens.

And it’s usually in a very safe, controlled testing environment. They’re not reckless, but they may go higher or faster. So pushing your envelope as a professional is the same thing. You have this safe operating envelope where you do well. Pushing the envelope is what you do when you get to the edge. You see, people think that imposter syndrome is a lack of confidence. And it’s not. It’s a limit of confidence because it took confidence to get you to that edge of change. It’s a limiting mentality. So pushing your envelope is about pushing past that limit, much like a fighter pilot would. And here’s the cool thing: When a fighter pilot pushes an envelope they’re forever changed. They are never the same. And that’s the same with pushing your envelope as a professional. Once you do something that is beyond what you think is your safe limit. Oh, you know, you’re changed. You’re different.

Jennifer: What does pushing your envelope have to do with imposter syndrome? Well, when you’re scared of failure, when you’re scared that you don’t know what you’re doing, you stay small. You stay in your comfort zone.

Maureen: When I was the facility manager of the Propulsion Systems lab, I defined comfortable. I defined safety. I was terrified to do anything out of the ordinary. I was given free rein. I had so much freedom to run my facility the way that I saw fit. And there were probably, I don’t know, six or seven of us in similar positions, handling different facilities. It was almost like I would look over the fence at how one of my coworkers was managing their facility. I’d be like, Huh, that’s a good idea. Oh, I don’t know if I could do it. So I was scared to do things differently. And it wasn’t because of my gender. It wasn’t because of that. Probably more so because of my age. I was definitely the youngest person in the group. But it was just simply because I’d never done it before. I didn’t want to mess with pushing my envelope.

Jennifer: But Maureen did end up pushing her envelope and conquering imposter syndrome and you can too. Remember these two things:

Maureen: It’s normal, meaning a lot more people struggle with it than you think. And the second thing is that it is manageable. You cannot always completely eliminate it, but you can alleviate it. And by using these strategies that are focused so much on your thought process, you can make colossal changes in your career, your trajectory, your confidence, your impact, your influence.

Jennifer: That was Maureen Zappala, former NASA engineer, now a keynote speaker and author of Pushing Your Envelope.

If you liked this episode, please let me know by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. I would really love to hear your comments and it will help more people find the show. You can also send me direct feedback to podcast@syncromsp.com.

Until next time, this is Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.

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Jennifer Tribe

Jennifer Tribe

Syncro’s director of content. Espresso-fueled Canadian nerding out over plain language, productivity, and podcasts.

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