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Embrace the Challenge to Beat Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome came up as a common struggle in October’s Topics in Data Visualization discussion about education on the DVS Slack channel. When talking about the barriers that kept them from learning new things, several people said that they just didn’t know how to tell when they were doing the right things vs. when they were just getting lost. Sometimes I wish I knew, too! 

To me, success is much more about how you manage your uncertainty than it is about knowing where you’re going. In my experience, getting lost is just part of the journey (and it’s often the fun part). Learning how to manage the design and exploration process and accepting that uncertainty is just part of the game can help you to stay engaged when the going gets tough.

We’re about halfway through the Survey Data Challenge period, so I thought this might be a good time to talk about process and how I keep up momentum as I’m moving through a project. There are as many approaches to the creative process as there are people, but hopefully some of these thoughts will be helpful as you work your way through the survey dataset.

Let’s talk about the discovery process

I have a hunch that most imposter syndrome stems from an inaccurate impression of the design/discovery process, and of expertise in general. Most people, especially beginners, tend to look at other people and think that there is a straightforward path from A to Z, and that once you know what you’re doing, you can skip the messy part and go straight to a design solution or an answer.

People thing the design process is a straight arrow from A to B, but it's really a squiggly line

I once heard this described as “comparing your inside to someone else’s outside.” It might look to someone else like an expert knows what they are doing, but in reality, everyone is navigating the same maze of options. Experience helps you to know how to navigate successfully and you might find a shortcut here or there, but no one gets out of having to walk the maze.

If you talk to experts in almost any field, you’ll usually find that they struggle just as much as beginners, but in different ways and with different things. An Olympic athlete pushes just as hard (and maybe even harder) than a brand new runner, but they have the muscle memory and the strength to approach their workout in a different way, and they have years of discipline and focused practice to help them find their weak spots and improve. My hypothesis is that the people who stick with something long enough to become experts are usually the ones who figure out how to enjoy the struggle, and for whom the challenge itself becomes the reward.

Are you focused on completing a marathon, or becoming a runner? The race itself becomes a lot less important when you’re focused on learning to run. To a beginner, the marathon itself might be the ultimate goal, but by the time you get there, you’ve trained so much and so regularly that it’s just something you do. Achieving the goal itself is still a huge accomplishment, but it’s the training and the process that it leads you through that usually matter more to an elite runner.

It’s important to realize that, for most experts (and for most athletes), the hard part isn’t something that scares them or makes them feel inadequate: it’s the part that they enjoy. The challenge is why we do this. It doesn’t necessarily get easier as you go; you just find bigger challenges to work on. That’s why it’s called pushing your edge: there is always more to do, no matter where you’re starting from. If you can accept and embrace that, then success and experience becomes more about managing your energy and your focus, and less about whether or not this is hard for you. (You’re learning…it’s supposed to be hard!) So, how does this work in practice? I like to use a modified version of the double diamond model for design, which was first published by the British Design Council in 2005. It incorporates some of the linear features of a project (hopefully you will keep progressing toward an end state), but it also captures some of the rhythm and iterative nature of design. Instead of growing off into infinity as an ever-increasing spiral, or narrowing down linearly as a one-directional funnel, it shows alternation between phases of creative growth and judicious refinement.

Expand widens, focus contracts, build widens, and then deliver contracts to create a double diamond. Overwhelm peaks at the widest point of the first, and exhaustion at the widest point of the second.

I find this model to be especially useful when taking on big, complex projects. Today, I’m going to focus mostly on the exploratory process shown in the first diamond. I explicitly alternate between distinct “expand/ideate” and “focus/consolidate” phases to manage my own creative energy and keep up the momentum in almost any project I tackle. Early on, the expand/ideate phase focuses on sketches, rapid ideation, quick and dirty (sometimes even joyfully sloppy) work. This builds energy and excitement and uncovers lots of ideas quickly, but if it goes on for too long you just end up with a mess.

That’s where the focus/consolidate phase comes in. Now you take a good, hard look at all the options on the table, and you let some things go. You have to pick a path, narrow it down, and put some things aside for later. It can be painful to cut out good ideas, and there’s often a lot of hard work and cleaning up in this phase of a project, but it clears the way for a new round of ideation within that reduced set of constraints. Having a tight, well-defined focus gives you a solid jumping-off point for the next round of expansion and new ideas, and it ensures that you don’t spend all your energy chasing after too many loose ends.

A closer look at the process

Let’s look in a bit more detail at what I’m usually doing in each of these stages:

Expand/ideate

Audience: me

Purpose: Understand what’s possible

Goals:

  • Build energy and cover new ground. Spend as little time as possible on the details. 
  • Rough out the project
    • Compile questions that I can investigate with this data.
    • Define constraints and limitations (n values, data coverage, variability within the data, etc.).
  • Identify what’s interesting
    •  What kind of variation am I seeing? Where, and what does it mean?
    • How do these ideas work together?
    • Does the data speak to a question that I want to answer, or is there something else in there that I wasn’t expecting?
    • Are there common threads that tie this analysis together?
    • What’s the big picture emerging from this data?
  • Outline the analysis
    •  What specific questions am I trying to answer?
    • What kind of data and structure do I need?
    • What steps are needed to get the data cleaned and into the right format?
    • What problems am I likely to run into, and what kind of tools or help might I need to deal with them?
  • Think about the final design (but resist the temptation to commit too soon)
    • What visual forms might be interesting/appropriate?
    • How do the different options support or emphasize the points that I want to make?
    • What medium should I use for my final piece? (Digital, interactive, print, physical materials, etc.)
      •  What opportunities and constraints does each medium provide?
      •  How would my analysis change based on a particular medium?
      • Is there a particular tool or technique that I want to use?
      • Are there specifics that are likely to completely change my approach to how I build this thing? If we’re talking about a web-based solution, where should the calculation be done? Do I generate the tables in advance, or do I need filtering on the fly?

Focus/consolidate

Audience: Usually someone else. This might be a client, a friend, or any other audience interested in reviewing your work, and it usually depends on the project. Sometimes, the audience might be your future self, who has probably forgotten everything you were doing and needs to be reminded about what matters. (Or is that just me?)

Purpose: Simplify the project, identify specific items to implement, document and prepare to share your work.

Goals:

  • Clean up
    • Make notes about the important things to remember, and what needs a follow up.
    • Choose a narrative focus for the project, and eliminate any options that don’t fit into this reduced scope (you can always come back to them later). If focus is too big of a word, pick the one thing that you’re most excited about, and lean into that. For a session-level iteration, pick the one thing that you’re going to start with that day.
    • Solidify and clean the data; re-do the analysis where needed.
    • Get into the nitty gritty, and really pay attention to the details. Optimize chart types, visual design, and presentation.
    •  Define your algorithms, data cleaning routines, style systems*, and any other guidelines and structures that will help you with the final work. (*If you don’t already have a style system to start with, that might be part of the execution phase instead – you pick!)
    • Think through tools, resolve conflicts or dependencies, and create a clear plan for how your project can be executed and what it involves.
  • Share your output for feedback, or for approval if working with a client or team. Note that this step will often send you back into the “expand” phase – that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Enjoy the opportunity to stretch a little, before getting back to work.
    • Prepare by organizing your materials into a clear narrative.
    • Make notes about questions, input needed, important points to consider and your reasoning for recommendations.
    • Discuss your output, and refine your scope, requirements, or plan as needed.
  • Document. Take notes, screenshots, and document your process and the feedback so that you can come back to it later. Also make a list of what needs to be done or could be explored in the next round of iterations.
  • Plan
    • Outline the steps needed for implementation, and plan out your timeline, if applicable. If you need to, break each step down into manageable chunks.
    • Pick a few items that are most important, need to come first, or are most exciting, and work on those first. Alternatively, you could work on the most boring thing just to get it out of the way. I usually work on the things that I don’t understand first, so that I can find the holes as soon as possible and patch them along the way.

Putting this into practice

Most people will have a strong preference for one phase or the other; some people struggle with the open-ended part, and others really resist narrowing things down. You know who you are.

Once you recognize these two different phases, you can flip back and forth between them as often as you wish, or as often as the project demands. Pay attention to where you struggle and where you tend to lose motivation, and use that to manage your activities and keep things fun. Burned out on too much Focus? Try working on Expand for an hour. Feeling overwhelmed by the list of things you could do? Pick one thing and Focus for a while. Don’t indulge by staying too long in your favorite phase, but use it to rest and help you build up energy for the one that’s harder for you.

Sometimes I work on one phase for six months or a year. Other times, I flip back and forth in the span of a single sentence. Do what works, and use the two stages to balance each other out. Feeling burned out on a stubborn code problem? Take some notes, and then spend a day sketching out a first draft or a plan for the next part of the project instead. Bring those fresh eyes back into the problem, and see if you can figure out where you got off track. Can’t force yourself to struggle through the code? Me either. Find someone to collaborate with who enjoys that stuff, or use it as a way to push your edges in a new direction, and change your project to focus on building that particular strength.

In practice, I apply this model at a daily or session level, and also as a longer-term pattern for a project. In the daily version, I get in, have some good ideas, and make a mess early in the session or day. Toward the end of the session I review everything I’ve done, organize and make notes, document things that need documenting, and make sure that it will be ready for me to come back again later (and that I’m not leaving myself a pile of stuff that I’ll dread coming back to). “Later” is sometimes after lunch, sometimes the next day, and sometimes six months or even two or five years later; each one of these has a different requirement for what counts as cleaned up “enough” to put down.

It’s fine to outsource pieces of either phase, and that’s one of the best parts about working in a team: each person will bring their own practices and preferences, and that can help to make the parts that are hard for you more fun. The same person can even swap roles associated with the different phases at different times. In some relationships or projects, my role focuses on Expand. In others, I lean hard into Focus. Managing those different pieces is just part of leading a balanced life for me. Some people might prefer to be all Expand all the time, others are all Focus. If you can find a good partner to balance you out, there’s nothing wrong with playing in the space that interests you most. (But even so, a little cross-training never hurts.)

It’s also good to realize that the different phases require different skills, and sometimes one feels like the complete opposite of the other.   

Table gives a list of behaviors that help or get in the way during the expand and focus phase. Often the phases require the exact opposite behaviors!

Of course, in practice, nothing is ever as clear-cut as a single diamond. It’s often more like this:

A project really looks more like a mountain range than a double diamond, with many ups and downs as you navigate through new ideas and changes of plan.

And that’s the way it should be! It’s a lot more fun to run a path with variable ups and downs than it is to have to go straight uphill (or straight downhill) all the way.

As you approach the survey dataset, my advice for you is this:

  • Accept the fact that you will struggle. It’s part of learning, and it’s totally normal. If you’re not struggling and feeling at least a little bit lost, then you’re not really pushing your edge. It’s fine to stay in your comfort zone if that’s what you want, but there’s no reason to think that something is wrong with you just because something is hard. If you can remember that and keep a sense of perspective, you’ll spend a lot less time fighting yourself or getting frustrated, and more time making progress toward your goals.
  • Don’t worry about whether or not you’re good enough. You are, or you will be eventually, and no one ever will be. All of those things are true at the same time. There’s no reason to let not being good enough (yet) stop you from learning. Pay attention to structuring the process instead. Lean into the challenge.
  • Learn how to manage your emotions, attention, and creative energy, and use those to steer your project through to success. Build strategies for dealing with the things that are hard, and give yourself permission sometimes to do things that are easy instead.
  • Understand which parts of the process you like and which ones you find challenging, and use that to find ways to stay in the game, even when the going gets tough. Don’t be afraid to find a partner or take a shortcut if there’s something that you’re just not interested in, or not ready for right now.
  • Remember that there is no shortcut to success. The more you know, the more complicated the problems get, and the harder they are to solve. It’s not that everything becomes easy; you just move on to harder things.
  • Respect the effort that other people put in. The fact that someone doesn’t let you see them sweat doesn’t mean it’s not happening. We’re all playing at different levels, but pushing your edge is pushing your edge, and it’s hard work no matter where it is. If you truly recognize other people’s effort, you’ll feel a lot more confident about putting in your own.
  • Learn to enjoy the challenge. The process is the fun part, and that’s where you’re going to figure out how to get to a destination that’s worthwhile.

And just in case you still don’t believe me that experts bumble around in the dark too, I’ll be writing a series of process articles about exploring tool usage in the survey data over the next few months. If you like talking about process, stay tuned! In the meantime, the Survey Challenge is a great opportunity to try out some of these techniques for yourself, and to see how they might work in your own practice.

Want to talk more? I’ll be holding office hours from 8-9 pm (EST/GMT-5) on Thursday Jan 6 and 8-9 am on Friday Jan 7, for the early birds and people in non-US time zones. See the DVS Office Hours calendar (pinned in the #dvs-office-hours Slack channel) for details.

Author profile

Erica Gunn is a data visualization designer at one of the largest clinical trial data companies in the world. She creates information ecosystems that help clients to understand their data better and to access it in more intuitive and useful ways. She received her MFA in information design from Northeastern University in 2017. In a previous life, Erica was a research scientist and college chemistry professor. You can connect with her on Twitter @EricaGunn.