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Failing Forward

Minimising Imposter Syndrome through Tinkering



Writers block. There, I said it. I have writers block. Nothing even nearing the realm of cohesive is venturing forth from my keyboard. Im tired and stressed, and less than helpful is that my deadline is looming ever closer. I feel ashamed that ittaken so long to put something together; it should have been completed by now, but still I stare aimlessly as my screen, wishing the right words to appear. The irony of it all is that the hours ticking by only serve to increase my anxiety, making it all the more difficult to make my brain work as I want it to. Argh. 

Sound familiar? Whether its writing or some other form of output, many of our gifted folk - kids, teens and adults alike - experience anxieties relating to their knowledge, product or performance. The term we often hear is Imposter Syndrome. Melody Wilding writes about five different competency types associated with this, namely: 

  • The perfectionist who sets “excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach a goal, they experience major self-doubt and worry about measuring up.”
  • The superwoman/man who is “convinced they’re phonies amongst real-deal colleagues” so “they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up.”
  • The natural genius who believes “they need to be a natural ‘genius’.” As such, they judge their competence-based ease and speed as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel shame”
  • The soloist who feels “as though asking for help reveals their phoniness ... It’s OK to be independent, but not to the extent that you refuse assistance so that you can prove your worth”.
  • The expert who measures “their competence based on ‘what’ and ‘how much’ they know or can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable.”


I can identify with a few of these myself! Regardless of the type or how it plays out (for example, through procrastination, experiencing a brain blank, lots of partially-made creations that have been discarded in frustration ... the list goes on), underlying Imposter Syndrome are the strong emotions of anxiety, fear, and shame. Our kids (and yes, sometimes adults too) need support to recognise, name and regulate what can at times, be overwhelming and confusing feelings.

It is really important that we talk about Imposter Syndrome explicitly, exploring with them:

  • how it feels; talking about and naming the emotions and the correlated embodied experiences of feeling stuck with an activity or learning experience;
  • identifying this experience as Imposter Syndrome, and what it can look like, (maybe even giving it a silly name to help reduce the sense of power it holds);
  • why it occurs, and understanding the role of the survival response system as playing a major part, especially in response to anxiety;
  • why we need to work to prevent and/or dampen the effects of Imposter Syndrome, not the least of which is to enhance wellbeing and enable learning; and
  • how to go about prevention and management.



Recently, I learned of a wonderful phrase, “failing forward”. I thought it was such a beautiful, positive message that really shone a light on “failing” as a means of learning and making progress through understanding what doesn’t work and what one might try next time. We often talk about this particular learning opportunity, but I think it’s important we go beyond this to point out a wider range of benefits.

It opens up the chance to explore with our learners the notion that in addition to the focus on outcomes, there is much more learning going on. For example, through maker spaces, transferable skills such as communication, persistence and time management are being promoted. Tikanga Māori values are being woven through, with whanaungatanga and manaakitanga being developed through activities which embrace the notion of kotahitanga. Process skills, such as the implementation and refinement of the inquiry cycle, are practiced. If we can encourage our kids to see the bigger picture, we can help them not only reframe failure, but to also see it in proportion to the overall opportunities in front of them.


“Failure is a great option.” - Director of Art and Tinkering Studios at Chicago Childrens Museum

Tinkering labs are a great way to provide time, space and facilitation to support this learning.  We have some great tinkering spaces here in New Zealand such as Kura Matahuna at Auckland University, and Menz Sheds. I adore the meaning behind the name of Kura Matahuna, and the term shedagogy, coined in reference to a distinctive, new way of acknowledging, describing and addressing the way some men prefer to learn informally in shed-like spaces." I also really like the name of an overseas childrens programme called The Institute for Applied Tinkering. It sounds so ... serious and important. Play is work for our kids, after all. I wonder just how much tinkering went on in coming to a consensus for the names of these awesome programmes and places

It's superb to see that we have early childhood centres which have provocations that invite tinkering and schools with distinct tinkering spaces, particularly those which have a play-based approach. One exciting approach that mixes things up a bit for our younger kids is story baskets using the play, make, create approach, for example having a book displayed and accessible to read, with baskets full of various items represented in the story for kids to explore through free play.

It’s really exciting to see these in action here in NZ. But in saying that, it’s perhaps not too surprising, given that it very much aligns with “Kiwi ingenuity” and the “No. 8 wire mentality” of creating. It is certainly strongly embedded in the Aotearoa New Zealand culture and has deep roots.




While we await your great suggestions, here are some inspirational Kiwi innovators sharing what they have been tinkering on and where it has lead in terms of making something new and different. Because of course without tinkering we can’t push the envelope and create something new. Learning to fail forward is a necessity; it leads change. Hope these examples get some creative juices flowingThey certainly helped me in getting beyond my writers block to finish crafting this blog - oh, the irony. 




'What's the Story?' is a blog section which is written for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, with posts being added regularly. The purpose of this space is to share musings and anecdotes relating to giftedness and gifted education to provide a form of information and support for those living with and/or teaching gifted learners. Please do share them along.


We would love to hear from you.  Grab a cuppa and share your story in the comments.

What's the Story? Making the world a better place for gifted kids, one yarn at a time.


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Please note that the views expressed in these blogs are those of the author and not necessarily representative of the views of the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.


Image credits:  Image by Joanna Kosinska on Splash is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Failing Forward

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