impostor syndrome

Building off of yesterdays topic, Fake it until you make it, I wanted to talk a little bit about impostor syndrome, and how seemingly smart people end up holding themselves back.

No, this doesn’t have anything to do with being secretly replaced by pod people from the planet Z. Impostor syndrome has a lot to do with the inability to truly feel deserving of one’s accomplishments. People who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to believe they are frauds, got to their destination by luck and not their hard work, or they will be discovered as being phony.

There is a growing amount of research behind the roots of impostor syndrome, including some great Ted talks about the subject. Evidence is growing and spreading rapidly, especially throughout the engineering community. Some of our top talent, are struggling with the idea that they actually are top talent. I think environment has a lot to play with this, surround yourself with people smarter than you, you’ll start thinking you’re sub-par, vice versa, surround yourself with lesser skilled people, and you’ll think you’re top of your class.

I want to talk about my continuing struggle with it.

To begin with, I do not classify myself as a software developer/engineer. I don’t spend my time reading up on the latest languages, or delving deep into the nuances of compiling. Yes it interests me, but I’m more interested in producing cool things, not just learning concepts. I like to build and see the fruits of my labor, not pass tests. This notion came on strong during a prior phone interview with Microsoft (I didn’t get the position), I was asked if I studied programming techniques as I needed them, or spent time outside of projects learning programming not directly related to what I was working on.

In fact, I was a little perplexed at this question. To me, it makes complete sense to let the project guide my pursuit of knowledge. I recently read an article about Elon Musk which talked about how, when SpaceX was started, Elon was very naive about rockets from an engineering standpoint. 2 years later, he became an expert through and through. Elon started with a specific objective, and used that as a guide for his pursuit of knowledge. Point being, there is 10^10^10 things to learn out there, and rather than being a perpetual student, I choose to lead with my goals first, and fill in the blanks as I go. I can achieve this because I understand how and where to find the information I need, once I figured out how to learn, learning is easy.

But, even with that being said, I don’t spend a lot of time simply studying programming, therefore, I’m not as good as someone who does, therefore my accomplishments can’t be as good as theirs, so I probably got lucky, oh my god they are going to find out I’m fake…..

See how easy it is to spiral out of control? Thinking that way, I won’t recognize my actual talent for building some really sweet stuff.

Rather then looking back at the things we have accomplished, we begin looking at what others have done, and downplaying our own work. Oh I didn’t do this, or I don’t know that, or I don’t spend as much time on X. Insanity!

All of these thoughts are ridiculous. In order to fight impostor syndrome, we need to internalize our accomplishments and take ownership of them. Things don’t happen purely out of luck, things happen because you are dedicated and persistent. Sure you may start by faking it, but over time, we become that which we were faking, and we need to live up to what we achieve. The first step, as always, is recognizing the thing you want to change, then beginning to work at changing it.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.”

– Aristotle

 

 

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