I’ve passed through New Orleans once two years ago during an epic road trip from Orlando to Seattle. The two nights I’ve spend in Nola were barely enough to soak in the amazing and very unique culture. I’m excited to return to New Orleans to listen to lots of Jazz and speak at WordCamp Nola next month. It will be great to meet the local community and talk about translating WordPress.
Four years ago I was working in New York on a project. It was a strategy project for a big media company. They got 10,000 visitors a day. Whereas all my previous projects would get 1,000 hits a day or less. So it was 10 times bigger than anything I’ve ever worked on.
One day I went to work, I approached the huge silver building in Midtown Manhattan, walked through the revolving door and into an empty elevator. Even before I reached the 46th floor I found myself crying. But I pulled myself together, walked into the office and started my day. A few days later the same thing happened again and only after I found myself crying in the elevator for the third time I knew I had to do something.
That day I asked a coworker of mine for a meeting to talk to her about it. She came to the meeting with a box of my favorite cupcakes. She wanted to celebrate the launch of phase one of the project that we were working on. She told me how she enjoyed working with me and that the department head was praising my work. But all I wanted to do was ask her, was “what am I doing here?”. I was so confused.
That night I was meeting a friend for drinks and I opened up to him. I told him I didn’t feel qualified enough for the job. I knew there were so many people out there that were more qualified than me. I was scared they’d figure that out any day and that they would fire me. I told him about how some days my anxiety felt so overwhelming that it effected my work. And that my inner struggle didn’t match the positive feedback I was getting from peers.
My friend smiled and said, Sonja, we all feel this way sometimes. These are all very clear symptoms. You’re suffering from the Impostor Syndrome.
So what is the Impostor Syndrome?
It’s that discouraging, judgmental, and disabling voice in your head that tells you, you’re not good enough. It’s your inner critic. You’re not good enough yet to apply for that job / take on that project / speak at that conference. You don’t know enough, yet. It tells you that you only got that project or job, because you were lucky. That it had nothing to do with your skills. It convinces you that you will fail. That you are a fraud and everyone is about to find out. It basically feeds your insecurities and discourages you to step up.
I sent out a survey leading up to this talk and asked a group of 12 well known members of the WordPress community about their experience with the Impostor Syndrome. Amongst them were core contributors, founders of big WordPress agencies, and Automatticians. 10 out of 12 admitted to having the Impostor Syndrome. Would you have expected that?
The Impostor Syndrome is irrational. It often communicates underlying fears, but the thoughts it puts into our heads are not a reflection of reality. Luckily you are not alone! The reality is that the majority of us have it, but we don’t really talk about it. We don’t want to admit that we feel this way. We don’t want to feel vulnerable.
Here are three ways that helped me overcome my Impostor Syndrome:
I found Community
When I first started working as a freelancer, I was working alone from home. I felt pretty disconnected from everyone. Most of my interactions with other designers and developers were online, but never met any of them in person. I decided to try go to networking events in New York City to connect with people in my industry. I met a lot of interesting people, I listened to them talk about the cool projects they were working on, they dropped big name clients. The more accomplished they seemed the smaller I became on the inside.
When they asked me what I was doing, a shy “I design websites, I’m a freelancer” came out, nothing more. I didn’t want to bore anyone talking about the small projects I worked on. I felt completely out of place, and nowhere in their league. I was convinced the people at corporate networking events like these, would not be interested in a small-time designer as myself. And being an introvert didn’t really help either. Those events would feed my Impostor Syndrome rather than help me grow. So I stopped going.
The local WordPress Community
It wasn’t until a friend introduced me to the local WordPress community. I remember clearly the first time I went to a local meetup in New York and people were so welcoming, down-to-earth, and many had the same questions I had. I didn’t feel small. At the beginning, I would mostly listen, given my experience. At other networking events, I was still hesitant to talk about my work and admit when I didn’t know something. Soon I realized that others weren’t afraid to share and no one judged them. Quite the opposite happened. People helped each other.
Then something beautiful and eye-opening happened. I, too, was able to help others with questions they had, and answers they needed. When I realized that, I started to really open up. I felt valued. The WordPress community has become my group, my tribe, my family. A lot of my closest friends are amongst you today and they keep inspiring and encouraging me.
Are you involved in your local community yet? Your local WordPress meetup is the closest point of contact and connecting to people is the first step to conquering your Impostor Syndrome. Local meetups are the cornerstone of our community. I encourage you to go to your local WordPress meetups. If there aren’t any in your city, become an organizer. Go to make.wordpress.org and have a look at the community team. You’ll find all the resources you need.
I am speaking to share with the community
Speaking to share my knowledge is another way that helped me conquer my Impostor Syndrome. Have you ever considered to speak at a local meetup or a WordCamp? How do you feel about the idea? What’s the first thought that comes into your mind? You might think you have nothing worth sharing? You might think you’re not an expert in your field? Maybe you are scared you won’t be any good.
At WordCamp Europe 2016, I’m speaking on a public stage for the 8th time. This time, I chose to speak about the Impostor Syndrome. I chose the topic, because my Impostor Syndrome was the reason, that I almost didn’t applied to speak at the event. I thought of many topics to submit, but every topic I considered, the voice in my head gave me a very “plausible” reason not to. I’m not an expert in this. I’m not accomplished enough. If I fail on such a big stage, people will loose all respect for me. I will be exposed as a fraud.
So just before speaker submissions closed, I submitted this talk, because I knew that I can’t be the only one who is facing this struggle and I wanted to inspire others. When I received the confirmation email that I was chosen to speak here, I was equally excited and terrified. Omg what if I fail miserably? This is the biggest stage I’ve ever spoken on. Coming here today and sharing my experience with my struggle in front of all of you felt like jumping out of a plane, but without a parachute, waiting to crash and burn.
Luckily I have amazing people in my life, who constantly encourage me and lend their support. They are my rock when my inner critic becomes the loudest. It’s funny how sometimes we believe the peers and friends in our lives more, when they criticize us, but when they praise our work or accomplishments, we play it down and think they’re just saying it because they like us, not because we deserve it. We do deserve it!
Speaking at events helps me to dismantle the false statements of the Impostor Syndrome. When I step off the stage after I give a talk, I feel one of two ways. If you have ever spoken at an event before, right after you were done with your talk, did you ever feel like it wasn’t good enough? It’s the way we measure ourselves subjectively. Don’t trust this feeling. Trust the feedback you get. It’s important to ask the right questions though. Don’t just ask how did I do? Ask people what they liked best and if there’s anything you could have improved. Unless you get negative feedback, it means you did a great job.
If you ever thought about speaking, but hesitated to apply. Just do it. Apply to speak at your next local meetup or WordCamp.
I started contributing to WordPress
Contributing to WordPress is another way to conquer your Impostor Syndrome. When you are part of the community and you work with WordPress, you will hear about people contributing to the Open Source project. I’m making my living using WordPress, I’m so grateful for that, so naturally I want to give back too. I’ve contributed in small ways here and there over the years. Mostly during contributor days at WordCamps. But for a long time, I didn’t contribute much outside of contributor days. What big contribution can I make anyway, popped into my head. I’m not a developer, so I can’t contribute to core. There are so many designers that are better than me and everyone will know I’m not good enough. The more I would compare myself to other designers and developers, the more discouraged I would get. I simply didn’t feel I was good enough yet to contribute. Recognize the patterns? It’s the Impostor Syndrome talking.
When you compare yourself to others, what you actually do is, you compare yourself to their biggest accomplishments and shiniest moments. And you compare that to all your shortcomings and mistakes. How is that being fair to yourself? Everybody makes mistakes. We all know it’s ok to make mistakes, because we learn something. But we are so afraid to “fail”. Failing feels so big, the implications so severe. Why don’t you start making mistakes. You will learn so much. And you will grow.
But then one day something shifted. It was in 2014 at WordCamp Seattle Contributor Day. Siobhan approached me and invited me to kick off a project she’s been thinking about for a while. She wanted to work on improving the image editing experience and put together a small group of us that day. I was excited to work on this project. Morton, Siobhan and I worked on scope and initial UX sketches. We started analyzing and documenting the issues. After Contributor Day was over we started a weekly meeting and added updates to the Make blog. We worked on it for many months and I was able to bring in ideas and I got great feedback. It gave me validation from my peers in the community and I instantly felt more confident to share my work and contribute more. It made me realize that, yes, my contributions are welcomed and valued.
Stop comparing yourself to others!
I realized that comparing myself to others doesn’t make any sense. We are made of the sum of our skills, our education (formal or self-taught), and our experience. In that sense, we are all unique and bring a very specific skill-set to the table. So we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. It’s like comparing Star Trek to Star Wars. They are both the same thing, right? The both have space ships, weird characters, and they’re always fighting. Right?! NOOOOO! They’re not even in the same genre. One is Science Fiction and the other is Fantasy. They are two completely different things. You can’t compare the two. Just like you can’t compare yourself to others.
And I realized something else. We all cook with water. Even the people you might look up to the most, they too sometimes just figure things out along the way, and that’s ok. The difference is, they take the first step and do the work.
Now, you might not be sure what team to contribute to, this decision could be quite selfish actually. Think about what you’re interested in. Let’s say you want to learn more about Accessibility. Why not join the Accessibility team, they are always looking for more people and you’ll learn a lot while contributing. I currently contribute to WordPress through Translations, helping out with events, speaking, and I want to get more involved in the design and UX team.
Overcoming your Impostor Syndrome is a journey, but you are not alone in this. Most of us have or are struggling because of it. Having joined the WordPress community, speaking at events, and contributing to WordPress, is helping me overcome my Impostor Syndrome.
And so can you! Start your journey today to overcome the Impostor Syndrome! Join the WordPress Slack and connect to the community.
I gave this talk at WordCamp Europe 2016. You can find my slides on speakerdeck.
The very first time I spoke at a WordCamp was in 2012 at WordCamp New York. I spoke about Responsive Design back then, which was the hot topic at the time. This year I have the honor to share the stage again with so many amazing people in the community. I’ll be speaking about my experience with the Impostor Syndrome and how I am overcoming it. I hope to inspire others to talk about how it is effecting them.
WordCamp NYC is happening July 15th to 17th. It is hosted at the United Nations during OpenCamp, a week of events organized by different Open Source projects. I’m very excited to see how OpenCamp will bring different Open Source communities together to foster conversation and hopefully we can learn from each other.
Seven years ago, I was stuck in a full-time job. I was overworked, under-appreciated, and I didn’t feel challenged. I was working as a Graphic Designer and wanted to transition to web design, but none of the companies I’ve worked for gave me a chance to grow in this direction. I felt trapped and I didn’t see it go anywhere.
This article is based on a talk I gave at the WordPress Meetup in Sofia on April 19 called “Lessons learned from 7 years of freelancing as a WordPress Designer and Developer” in which I shared my experiences.
Freelancing was on the back of my mind for a while, but I was scared to fail. After working many late nights again at my full-time job, I crossed the line of misery too far to turn back. I quit that same day.
While making this irrational decision, I didn’t even worry about the fact, that I didn’t really know how to be a freelancer. I’ve never done it before. It was hard to find clients at first. For a long time I didn’t know how much I should charge. Luckily I had some money saved up, but that didn’t last too long. For the first two years I was struggling to pay my rent every month and I worked crazy hours.
Looking back, quitting my job to become a freelancer was a stupid idea! A really stupid idea, but something else was scarier than the uncertainties ahead. It was scarier to be trapped in a job I didn’t like. I was unhappy and it felt like I was wasting my time.
I’m not going to lie, it was hard for a long time. I feel like I’ve made every possible mistakes a freelancer can make. So I’d like to share the three most important lessons I’ve learned being a freelancer with you, so you have a head start. These lessons will also apply to small business owners.
Lesson 1: Improve your skills
If you don’t keep up with technology and trends today, you’ll be out of business tomorrow.
I’m sure you’re hard-working and dedicated. I’m sure you sometimes work late nights and weekends. So have I, especially the first couple of years. There’s no shame in that, sometimes that’s what it takes. You need to finish up a project or you took on too much work. I’m certainly guilty of that.
One of the biggest mistake you can make is to stop learning. Technology and web design trends evolve so fast. You have to stay up to date.
Schedule time to learn new skills
Over the years working on freelance projects, of course, I would pick up new skills. I would often take on challenging projects to learn new things. But learning a new way of doing something or a new programming languages is different, it will set you apart. I didn’t use SASS instead of regular CSS for a long time. Mainly because I didn’t have the time to teach myself. Well, I didn’t take the time to teach myself. Using SASS was such a game changer for me – it now saves me so much time during theme development. I wish I would have taught myself sooner.
So please, block 2 hours every week and dedicate it to learning new things – I call it Skills Dev. I block off every Tuesday from 10am to Noon –for me this time is not negotiable. Make it a regular thing like watching your favorite TV show every week. You take time out of your busy schedule to commit to that.
Remember all those things you’ve been thinking about learning? I’m sure you have a list! Pick one thing from that list right now and commit to start learning it this week.
Resources to learn new skills
If you don’t know where to learn new skills, good sources to get started are: Code Academy (fun, interactive dev courses that are free) and Lynda.com (large library of courses on development, design, and biz dev).
To improve your business and strategy skills I can highly recommend Digital Strategy School, where I learned so many valuable skills that blew my mind and that my clients constantly praise me for!
Contribute to WordPress
Consider to contribute to WordPress, it’s one of the best ways to improve your skills. There are many different ways to contribute back to WordPress, even if you are not a developer. You can help improve the User Experience, translate WordPress, help with support, just to name a few. What ever it is you do with WordPress, design, develop, or blog, you can help improve it and learn a great deal while doing so. So check out the Make.WordPress.org blog and learn about all the ways you can contribute back.
Connect to Community
Another great way to learn is to connect to the WordPress community. Find a WordPress meetup near you. It’s a perfect way to your local community and learn from one another! You should speak about a new skill you’ve picked up at one of the upcoming meetups. Scary thought?! You should do it! It’s a great opportunity to get exposure as a freelancer and you’re teaching your local community something new.
Did you ever attend a WordCamp? There are 80+ WordCamps around the world per year! I can only recommend it! I personally like to pick events in places I’ve always want to visit, this way I can explore a new city while attending or speaking at a WordCamp.
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”
– Bill Nye
To me, community is one of my favorite parts about WordPress! You will always learn new things from amazing people. Check out the schedule of all WordCamps and think about applying to speak! I’ll be speaking at WordCamp Europe in June, which will take place in Vienna this year. If you’re there, say hi!
Lesson 2: Communicate your skills
Imagine a store in your neighborhood. It just opened. Even though there is a name on the front door, the shop windows are empty. You have no idea what type of business it is or what they sell. On your way to work, you sometimes pass the shop owner on the street, but he doesn’t engage in a conversation. Most likely you will never go inside that store to find out more. Two months later the business closes.
The business without a face
The same applies to your freelance business. If a potential client does NOT understand what your skills are. How YOU can help their business, they won’t hire you. They won’t take time out of their busy schedules to find out what you do. You have to make it very easy for them.
Talk about what you do
Do you know what the biggest difference between freelancers in the U.S. and the ones in Europe is? In essence, us Europeans, are humble people! Americans brag about what they do!
It’s not in our nature to brag about how good we are, or even about the latest cool project we just launched. But you need to talk about your skills. You should absolutely showcase your projects. You should write blog posts about how you can help clients. How else are they going to find out?
Update your website
I neglected to update my own website many years. Yes, my old website showcased projects, but I didn’t have an about me or services page. People like to see who they are working with, so put a face to your business.
One day a client I’ve worked with for years asked me: “Can you please tell me about all your services so I can take full advantage of it. I feel like I don’t really know what you offer.” He was absolutely right! Potential clients had no idea when they visited my old site. I did get projects request through my old website, but I attracted the wrong type of clients – mostly low budget projects.
Reposition yourself as you grow your skills
Over the years I improved my skills, I now offer much more than just web design. I’m specializing in User Experience and focusing on Content Strategy. Each website I create has a unique design and is built from scratch for that client. However, on my old site, the visitors could only see was the end result, the finished design. Potential clients didn’t understand the process or value I was providing. The value is what is important for clients. This is what sets you apart from others and this is why I was able to raise my fees over the years. The more value you provide, the more your services are worth to clients.
On my new website. It clearly states what I do and why clients should work with me. Since I’ve launched my new website last year, I am receiving a lot less project requests, but potential clients who contact me now are more suitable. Businesses who are looking for custom websites. Clients who understand and are willing to pay for the value I provide.
So, be a little bit more like an American freelancer! Update your website this week to tell people how good you are at what you do!
Lesson 3: Choose your clients wisely
Freelance is defined by the projects you decline, MORE than the projects you do!
Especially at the beginning of my freelance career I was desperate to make money. I took on every projects that came my way. Most of them were no fun. Almost all of the projects were low-budget. Some were rush jobs – also no fun. This meant I sacrificed my evenings and weekends to work hard to make a minimum wage.
Why you should vet all new clients
A couple of years ago, I worked on a website for an artist. Her budget was low, but she seemed like she knew what she wanted. I assumed it would be a quick project. Half way through the development phase, she provided “new design ideas” and started to change the design that has already been approved. Since I wanted to make the client happy, I implemented the changes. She continued to tweak the design and the site looked worse and worse.
As a designer, I didn’t feel like this client trusted me. I worked long hours to finish the project for very little pay. And worst of all, I ended up launching yet another project I didn’t want to put on my portfolio.
One of the mistakes in this case was, that I never spoke to her on the phone. All our communication was over email, so I didn’t fully understand what type of client she was and that she wasn’t a good fit.
I want to work with passionate people. Small business owners who trust my expertise and are excited to work with me.
What happens when your messaging is clear
Communicating what I do best and who I want to work with, helped me attract the right clients.
I recently launched a website for a renown WordPress and BuddyPress developer. He was scaling up under a new name and approached me to work on his website. This project was so much fun, because the client communicated clearly what he was looking for and trusted me. I had creative freedom and he gave me great feedback throughout the process. It was a true collaboration. Together we launched a website that I’m proud of and we both enjoyed the journey together.
So please, clearly define what your ideal client is. Make sure they are a good fit for your skill set and your personality. If you have a bad feeling about a client, you are absolutely allowed to turn down a project!
Looking back at how stupid my idea was to suddenly quit my job and become a freelancer 7 years ago, I now know it was the right decision for me. I learned a lot the hard way, but I couldn’t be happier now.
Today, I work and travel the world as a location-independent freelancer. Costa Rica, Australia, and Spain are just three of many beautiful places I’ve worked from in the last year. I connect with local WordPress communities where ever I go and speak at meetups and WordCamps every now and then. But most importantly, I get to work on fun projects with amazing people.
“Happiness is the highest level of success!”
Make a list of all your projects. Sort them by how good you feel about them. And commit yourself to drop the last three of the list. You deserve to be happy. Only if you are truly happy, you can be successful!
I’ve presented on this topic in Sofia at the local meetup and at WordCamp Bilbao. Slides can be found on my SpeakerDeck.
I always enjoy meeting new people and catching up with good friends in the European WordPress community. This past weekend I went to WordCamp Switzerland, a very well-organized, fun WordCamp.
The single-track lineup, a mix of full sessions and lightning talks, was excellent, for one because the selection of topics was diverse and more so because all speakers shared their personal experiences on the topic they spoke about. The event venue was setup perfectly to connect with many of the 200 attendees in between sessions and during breaks.
I had the pleasure to speak at the event and share my experiences working remotely as a WordPress freelancer. I shared reasons why I love working remotely and the challenges it come with. How I stay motivated and find community. You can find my slides on Speaker Deck.
The Contributor Day Sunday drew quite a lot of experienced and first-time contributors. It’s always great to see more people getting involved and giving back. Petya gave a great intro and her enthusiastic nature draws you right in! I decided to join the Polyglots team this time and really enjoyed translating 400 strings of the iThemes Security plugin into German. If you speak multiple languages and you’d like to contribute to the Polyglots team as well, you can find more information at: https://translate.wordpress.org
— Sonja Leix (@sonjaleix) September 20, 2015
A huge thank you to all the organizers (Karin, Silvan, Noel, Andrew, Pascal, and the rest of the amazing team), the volunteers and sponsors for putting together such an amazing event and fun after-party!!
See you again next year!
WordCamp New York City is only a few weeks away and we’re busy with the final organizing stages of the event. We were very excited to announce an amazing line up of speakers and Saturday’s and Sunday’s schedule.
We are also planning a Contributor Day Friday! Make sure to sign up and join us in making WordPress even more awesome!
If you don’t have a ticket yet, make sure to get your ticket soon! We’re selling out fast!
Image credits: New York City Skyline by Wikimedia Commons
I attended WordCamp Seattle for the first time this year and the local community is thriving! I met many talented new people and a lot of friends. I had a great time speaking about User Experience best practices in front of such a great audience! Thanks everyone again for attending and asking many questions!
My session was titled “UX – A Checklist for Real Websites”
Description: Boost the User Experience of your website with these easy-to-follow, real-world examples and best practices! Don’t abandon the project after launch – analyze and iterate to improve the UI and usability of any website.
I’m excited to volunteer and speak at WordCamp Seattle for the first time this year! The event takes place on June 28th filled with great sessions and a Contributor Day on Sunday. I like Seattle a lot – to me it is such a relaxing place, so I can’t wait to visit again.
Hope to see you in Seattle, make sure to say hi!
It was a pleasure and honor to speak at WordCamp Philly this year! Attending and speaking at WordCamp’s is always a great opportunity to meet the local community and share ideas with other WordPress Designers and Developers.
It was my first time at WordCamp Philly and Brad, Liam, Doug, April and the rest of the organizers and volunteers did an amazing job! The sessions were well curated and the hallway-track was a great opportunity to make new friends.
This year I spoke about User Experience and WordPress. Everybody is always talking about User Experience, but what is it and how can you improve the usability and user experience of your website today? I shared practical, real-world examples and tips to boost your WordPress design skills. The premise is, to not just build pretty websites, but to make smart design decisions and add UX best practices to your workflow. Asking questions like: Do I really need a large slider on my homepage? Are there clear nav menus and Calls-to-Action to guide my visitors? How does my site displays on other devices? A good UX job continues after launch using Google Analytics and other tools to analyze and iterate.
Here are my slides from the presentation:
Don’t Just Build Pretty Websites — UX in the Real World
Designing a website is more than just creating a pretty UI design! It starts way before drawing the first line, with understanding your client’s needs, the purpose and goal of the website and the target audience(s).
During the course of the project, new questions may arise or old assumptions might prove to be wrong, and you might need to alter your course. This is all part of the exciting design process and makes for a fun journey you’re walking together with your client!
To not lose focus and to make it easier to design a great product, I always keep these questions in mind and ask them at the beginning or during a project:
1. What is the user goal of the website?
Probably one of the most important questions of all. One some clients, at first, have trouble verbalizing in detail, but it’s a great exercise to answer this question. The user goal might change over the course of a project as we define the other questions below, but we always need to come back to it and make sure that all design decisions align with it to not lose track of the goal and purpose of the website. What is the focus of the website? What kind of business is it promoting? Make sure these things are well communicated to the user upon first visit.
2. What is the business goal / purpose of the website?
Of course also very important, but often very different from the user goal. Make sure to understand the expectations your client has for the project. How he/she measures success. Try to put tools in place to measure success, such as Google Analytics to capture user data and behavior.
3. Who is the target audience?
With the above two questions you already have your first two user groups: the users and the client. Though both are equally important and the client pays your bills, only the users who visit and interact with your website make it a success, so focus on a user centric design! What different user groups and audiences does the website speak to? If it is an existing website use Google Analytics or other tools to learn more about your existing users. If it is a new project, make assumptions about your target audience(s) by asking the client, doing competitors analysis, and industry research.
4. Will this feature / element improve the overall User Experience?
With all the hard work we put into each project, we want to make sure we are always improving the User Experience with every decision we make. Sometimes we are tempted to add the latest bells and whistles to a new project without any need for it. I strive for my client’s websites to be a success, therefore I need to make sure to align my design decisions with the goals and expectations of the project.
5. Are my assumptions right?
After launch we should not rest! Now is the time to review our assumptions, get user feedback, and to iterate! A website is a living breathing thing that should not be launched and sit there stale for years – these times are over. An iterative process can help shape the success of a website and is also great for SEO!
Each project will have more than just 5 questions, but I start with these. But answering these questions and collaborating early will lead to a better User Experience for the user and a more successful product.