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Ten tips for overcoming imposter syndrome

This article is part of our Get into Games special, offering students insight on life in the games industry and advice on how to get into the business. You can also find aselection of the best Academy guides for job-seekers here

Despite being a straight-A student in school and going on to graduate with a first from Abertay University, Eilidh MacLeod – now a senior game designer at Media Molecule – never felt that she was good enough.

Like many, she struggled with imposter syndrome, a set of feelings that mean you ignore your successes and choose to believe you are good at what you are doing.

“Some of the most common characteristics of imposter syndrome [are] self-doubt, undervaluing your contributions, attributing your success to external factors, setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and a fear of never being able to live up to those expectations,” MacLeod explained on the Academy stage at EGX 2023.

“Imposter syndrome tries to reinforce those feelings of inefficacy, convincing us that we aren’t skilled enough to do that, to answer that question, to speak up in that meeting, to have an opinion on that, to go for that role.”

Over the years, MacLeod has worked to overcome her feelings of imposter syndrome and has kindly shared how she did so as a game designer.

You can watch the full video below, or continue reading for a breakdown of her advice.

Learn how to talk about game design, not games

Understanding the individual elements of a game and breaking them down rather than just having an opinion on a game has proven very important in helping MacLeod develop her voice and, therefore, her communication skills.

“Learning to break apart games into their component parts and speak about them objectively would be the key to me really improving my communication skills in design,” she said.

“I lived on Deconstructor of Fun and learnt how to deconstruct games, and understand systems and the intention behind the design decisions that were made. Feeling confident in my understanding of a game or a particular game ensured that I was suddenly going into conversations, meetings, and interviews with a point of view because I understood the intention behind the design.

“I cannot stress enough how beneficial this can be to how you communicate your designs. Design is so subjective. Take the bias out of it. Understanding the design intention behind a decision enabled me to design and defend my decisions with much more confidence.”

Get good at presentations

Tied into communication is the ability to present your ideas to your colleagues and peers. Previously, for MacLead, the idea of giving a presentation used to terrify her and keep her up at night, as her imposter syndrome was feeding her anxiety that she would be exposed as a fraud. But she decided to face her fear to overcome it.

“What do they say? ‘Practice makes perfect’,” she says.

“I set up my own agenda when I worked at Fortitude Games that for every feature I designed for Exploding Kittens, I would also make a presentation outlining all the key bits of information to go alongside it. I began to really understand the value of communicating my designs or just information in this way. I’d do the fully detailed design document with all the detail that you’d ever want.”

MacLeod found it was key to go about this in a logical fashion; outlining the problem that needed to be solved, how her design would fix the issue and what work needed to be done. She’d then share these presentations with her colleagues and eventually started to act more like herself in doing so.

“I began to use humour and started to be myself with the team, relax and enjoy talking through my designs this way because I was having more fun,” she said. “If you are having more fun, you are naturally more relaxed and confident. Build presentations on complex things. It doesn’t matter if it’s a potato or a tree; build presentations on complex things, present them to people over and over again, see what works, see what jokes don’t land. Practice makes perfect.”

Befriend your fellow developers

Another way to help you feel more confident communicating with your colleagues is to develop a closer relationship with them. This will also help improve your work as it will allow you to collaborate more easily with other people working on a project.

“For a design to be as robust as possible, it needs to have been considered from all angles,” MacLeod said. “I knew I had to get better at communicating with individuals one-on-one to feel like my design was as good as it could be. I would take the time to speak to different team members one-on-one to understand their considerations. I learnt that communicating a design to a server programmer will always be different to the way you communicate it to an artist.

“Investing time in these relationships can result in these individuals trusting your decision-making, which can also do wonders for your confidence in communicating. I endeavour to always have really good and collaborative discussions at every stage of the design process, and to be as versatile as I can in the way that I communicate. Don’t just speak to your peers and friends; push yourself to improve your communication with new people all the time regardless of team structure or hierarchy.”

Be as human as you can

One part of imposter syndrome that can be pretty debilitating is doubting your abilities or worrying that you’ll never be able to produce good enough work. To combat this, it’s good to become more comfortable showing work that isn’t finished or perfect.

“Show your imperfections. One of the most crippling aspects of imposter syndrome can be the fear of not living up to your expectations and thinking your contributions aren’t valued or are silly,” MacLeod says. “This can make us scared to show anything to anyone ever that isn’t perfect. However, this does not cut it in game development. Everything is always needed yesterday, so showing imperfect work and being yourself is the key to fostering those good relationships.”

Being yourself also extends to being honest with others about what you can and can’t do. As MacLeod says, you need to become comfortable sharing unfinished, imperfect and early-stage work so that you can gather feedback and quickly iterate.

Have a strong support system

Imposter syndrome can be quite an isolating thing to deal with, so having people around you who can help boost your confidence and push back against negative thoughts.

“Having a strong support system of trusted people around you both inside and outside of work is key,” MacLeod says. “I 100% would have talked myself into leaving games if it wasn’t for my support system because imposter syndrome can be tough.

“Find the people who help hype you up when you’re low and remind you of everything you have achieved. Seeking feedback about your design or the kind of designer you are from those you either really respect or trust can help push you forward, too. Find your own little set of personal cheerleaders that help lift you up when you feel low.”

Challenge feelings of self-doubt with evidence

In addition to having a support network of people who can help you fight the thoughts brought about by imposter syndrome, you can also collect evidence to prove the negative voices wrong.

One way of doing this is what MacLeod calls a ‘brag bag’, a list you keep with positive things that people have said about your work over the years.

“It might feel awkward at first,” she explained. “But I promise when you are feeling low or that you can’t do something, you can easily refer back to it, and it’ll 100% make you feel a little lighter and allow you to challenge those feelings of imposter syndrome. Challenging those thoughts with evidence can actually be really effective.”

Writing your CV in a particular way

MacLeod says that it can be useful for people suffering from imposter syndrome to reframe their thinking about their achievements. Rather than simply listing the things you have done, think about the problems you solved and how.

“Often in our CVs, when we write about our experience, we bulletpoint it and move on to the next bulletpoint,” she explains.

“But something that I have found to be really useful when framing that experience is stating it as an action and following that up with the impact or intention that action had, either on the game or the team. This did wonders for improving my confidence when applying for roles and was also a great reference point for interviews.

“Iterating on my CV and writing about my experience this way allowed me to better frame and sell myself when I struggled with confidence. It showed that I understood the value of my work, too, which is always good in interviews.”

Just do it

The next piece of advice MacLeod for handling imposter syndrome comes straight from troubled Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf: just do it.

“Apply for roles, do the tests, consistently refine your CV and interview, interview, interview,” she says. “Interviewing and doing tests well is absolutely a skill in itself. It’s not something we’re all naturally good at and it’s something you have to practice to get good at. So if you don’t get the job, it’s cool. Go for the next one.

“The only way I got confident in my ability to sell myself in the right ways was by doing it; seeing what was received well by the interviewer, seeing what I needed to better define or explain. Treating the interview as a skill in itself that I needed to get better at improved my confidence as well, too.”

Combating procrastination with the Pomodoro Technique

For many people suffering from imposter syndrome, facing the music and trying to complete the task at hand can often feel like too much. As a result, they tend to put off work, so finding a way to force yourself to do what you need to do can be essential.

“For a lot of us, imposter syndrome can often come with this layer of procrastination as well,” MacLeod says. “It’s this overwhelming feeling of not being able to do a task well that can actually result in us putting it off for ages because we’re obsessing over doing it perfectly; we then rush to complete it, and then any positive feedback we get feeds into those feeling of being a fraud because it couldn’t possibly be good because you rushed it. The cycle goes round.”

To get around procrastination, you can use the Pomodoro Technique. This has you working for 25 minutes, before you have a five-minute break. MacLeod recommended the website as a way for people to use this method.

“Whenever I have a task, I go to this website, start the timer and just get on with the work,” she said. “Funnily enough, the self-doubt lessens in those achievable 25-minute chunks.”

Do not be afraid to ask questions

Finally, MacLeod says that asking questions is not a sign of weakness but actually can improve your self-esteem and help conquer your imposter syndrome.

“I used to think that if I asked a question in a meeting, that was it – the gig was up,” she says. “I would be caught out as a fraud. But actually, asking a question in a room full of other people improves your confidence in meetings. It probably helps other people in the room out as well.

“To enable me to gain confidence at Media Molecule, I felt like I couldn’t ask questions because they’d realise what a mistake they had made hiring me. But then I brought it up with my lead because she said I was so quiet. I said I was struggling; she told me to just ask the questions because she was actually wondering the same thing and forgot to ask. The more I did that, the more my confidence grew. Now I won’t stop putting my hand down, so maybe that was a bad move from my manager.”

Additional tips from Media Molecule staff

In preparing her talk, MacLeod asked her colleagues at Media Molecule for additional tips for overcoming imposter syndrome:

Be as vulnerable and honest as you can bear, even when it is terrifying. It’s needed to form those vital bonds that we need to do with our fellow developers.
Compare what you know now to what you knew when you were a graduate. Doing that will often put things into perspective.
Keep a log of nice things people have said about your work; you can look back at it when you feel low.
Have a hype friend, someone who boosts you up and reminds you of your achievements and successes.
Try to remember that most people have their fears and insecurities. The most confident-looking people are often petrified. It’s helpful to remember that we are all just muddling along.

Remain humble, appreciate the points of view of others and use that to help or galvanise your views. This way, you always feel like you are always making progress, that you openly accept feedback and criticism and you don’t see that as a reinforcement of your imposter syndrome but as a tool to help dispel it.

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