As students start Code Platoon, we ask them to share their most significant worries about the upcoming program. Inevitably the topic of imposter syndrome arises, with most students expressing doubts about their ability to learn and perform this skill.
After doing a fair amount of research on the subject, it came to my attention that there is a great deal lacking on the topic of imposter syndrome in general, but specifically as it relates to the tech world – in our case, that of software engineering. The intent here is to offer a more profound perspective that I sincerely hope sparks some meaningful conversation.
I found two things, in particular, missing from the literature on imposter syndrome, both of which are crucial to our understanding. The first of these is more academic, but I will boil it down to basics before moving on to the second, which is more of a common sense-based approach to how we begin viewing it.
First, I want you to cast your mind back to any point before the 20th Century and ask yourself: what would I be doing for a living if I existed during that period? Whatever answer you come up with, there is approximately a 99% guarantee that you would be working with your hands, making some tangible thing.
Let’s say you worked in metals in the 17th Century. Maybe you made horseshoes or swords (or both). You used techniques and materials that were very hands-on, and, at the end of any given job, you could hold the result of the work but also – and perhaps more importantly – see it immediately put to use (or watch it fail).
In other words, the results of your labor were instantly recognizable in a tangible sense. It was either a success, or you didn’t get paid.
You could trade out metal work for other professions like farming, livestock preparation, tending, textiles, etc., and it’s the same: noticeable, physical results from your labor.
In other words, there wasn’t a lot of mystery in what you did to earn a living.
Fast-forward to today and most of us work on a computer that displays an interface of some sort that graphically interprets the reality of 1s and 0s into a format that our minds can work with, but in an entirely intangible manner. I can’t touch my work beyond the computer screen I access it through, which divorces me from the end-user.
This separation leads to an anxiety that may have been there in a small way in my ancestors but is now turned up to 11 by the disconnection from tangibility. Am I doing my job? Is it actually successful beyond numeric representations on a screen?
How do I know I’m truly good at my chosen profession??
Simply put, we as a species have been predominantly working with our hands for thousands upon thousands of years, and now, suddenly – at least in the scope of history – we’re not.
Again, the self-doubt about whether or not we are good enough to do a particular role has assuredly always been there, as it is simply a product of being human (not having that doubt is called narcissism, but we’ll get back to that in a minute). It’s just that this shift in the type of work we do as a species has thrown us for a bit of a loop, and we have to adapt.
Lest anyone think that I am advocating for a return to the way things used to be, let me put your mind at ease and assure you that I am doing no such thing. We are here now and need to learn how to deal with what is.
On that note, we turn to point number two, which is going to be blunt but also meant as a relief, so bear with me as you read this.
You are an imposter. That’s right. I said it. You’re an imposter.
If you are doing a new job, or you’ve taken on a new role – even a promotion at the company you’ve worked at for a while – you are, by definition, an imposter in that position.
Until you’re not.
At some magical point that none of us can ever truly pin down, we become whatever we started doing. We act as a practitioner of a role until the point where we are that role.
I’ve spoken with physicians who echoed this very thing – they completed their residency and felt like complete frauds, like they had no business doing what they were doing.
And then, mysteriously, they became what they set out to be.
When I was in the Army, we had a saying, “fake it ‘til you make it!” There is more truth to that than what many people want to realize, especially in our modern society.
We typically didn’t have a lot of motivation for doing specific tasks, but if we pretended we did, that turned genuine, and, voila, we went from imposters to the real deal. To be sure, the power of acting as something before you are that thing is real, as I promise you that I was never motivated to do a ruck-march, but I went after it like I was more than once.
The simple fact is that if you don’t feel like an imposter, as pointed out above, this makes you a narcissist. If you genuinely believe that you are something you’re not, that is a hallmark of narcissism, so in actuality, imposter syndrome is decidedly healthy.
The real question is: what do you do with it?
If you are taking those feelings of being an imposter and going to hide in the corner, that will only reinforce those doubts and turn something healthy into being unhealthy.
Conversely, if you are using those feelings as motivation for learning more, you are on the right track.
So, with all that in mind, how do we turn a healthy skepticism about ourselves into an even more positive thing?
- Recognize your relationship to time and space. I know this sounds a bit esoteric, but it is quite basic. Remember what I said above about working with a physical product? A lot of imposter syndrome is wrapped up in how big your work and the world seems, so to counter that, we need to embrace where we are right now. Don’t get overwhelmed by what’s “out there” and around the corner; focus on small steps in front of you.
- About that, use the “chunking” method advocated for by people like Dr. Barbara Oakley, in which you go for shorter but more intense periods (about 20 minutes) of work. Focus on one task for 20 minutes with the promise that you’ll take a ten-minute break, and you’ll be amazed at how much you can achieve, but also how effective it is at removing those doubts after doing this method for a week.
- Purposefully seek out “black belts” in your field with humility for learning. When I did Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I always sought out the top-ranked guy in the room to roll with, not because I thought I could beat him, but because I knew I would lose – I would just lose while learning the most.
If you find the experts and ask basic questions, if they are even remotely professional, they will gladly help you. Humble ignorance is an excellent approach to learning.
Although there is much more to be said on this topic, the goal here is not to offer an academic tome on all there is to say about imposter syndrome. Instead, the intent is to get the ball rolling with some conversational points that I rarely see discussed on this subject but ones that I believe to be fundamental to our understanding of it.
On that note, I will offer one final thought in closing. Our modern world affords us something unprecedented in human history: the concept of choice. Abundant choices for everything exist in plethora around us, whether in our entertainment (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.), our food, or our careers.
Along with that exists the anxiety that arises from the possibility of choosing incorrectly. We feel this even when we’re picking a Netflix title to watch, but nowhere is it more panic-inducing than determining our vocation.
So, at the heart of the modern version of imposter syndrome lies a fear-based internal question: did I choose the wrong career??
The short-term answer to that question is simple: it doesn’t matter. You’re where you are right now, so embrace it until you move on to the next thing (see #1 above).
The long-term and more involved answer to that question is not one for this post, as it involves far too many variables to discuss here. For right now, just focus on the short term and start the conversation with some of these points above with your co-workers and friends and see where it goes.