Impostor syndrome is a great tool
Your impostor syndrome is a great tool for your career. Knowing how to use it correctly is decisive. Want to get rid of it? That’s the wrong strategy. You need to understand it, control it and use it to your advantage.
We are in 2011 and it’s been several days since I started my first job.
I am a dev. A company is actually paying me a salary to produce code. This is unbelievable !
It’s weird to finally reach a goal when you spend so much time preparing for it. All this learning has finally paid off! I was clearly on cloud nine and I my eyes was full of stars looking at the future.
But very quickly, the dream turned into a nightmare.
The difference between my preparation and the demanding reality of a real job is brutal. I was entering a violent zone of turbulence. I wasn’t sure if I could hold on to it all the way.
Two things in particular made me completely hallucinate.
- The amount of things I’m supposed to master is absurd.
Languages, frameworks, libraries, best practices, design patterns, versioning tool, dependency managers, optimization, security, web protocols, server operation and so on. There are traps everywhere.
Between doing my little project at home and deploying a professional application for a client, there is a world. A world that everyone masters. Everyone but me.
- The level of developers around me is absurd.
Not only are they gods – absolutely all of them – but they are doing it at a frightening speed. I distinctly remember watching a colleague solve one of my problems on my computer. I was looking at the screen and in my head I was thinking, “Fucking hell, we’re not made the same way”.
Either he’s a machine or I’m the problem.
And all that added up, after several weeks of trying to keep up, I was at the end of my life. A malaise began to set in. A little voice appeared. It kept asking the same question over and over again.
Do you really think this job is for you?
What are we talking about?
The impostor syndrome. It’s not very original. It affects 70% of the population.
The feeling of not fitting in. The feeling of not deserving your position and your responsibilities. Of not being up to the skills of the work you have to do.
And it doesn’t matter whether it’s objectively true or not.
And if we’re talking about that today it’s because developers are particularly affected. Complex jobs are the perfect breeding ground.
This syndrome is considered to be something very negative. A disease. A terrible curse that will pulverize you without warning.
I disagree. You’ll never be able to totally get rid of it. And I would even go so far as to say that it would be counterproductive.
Words about evils
The first thing to do is to understand what is happening to you. Putting words on this is essential. Understand that it is a psychological mechanism. If it’s happening in your head, it means that to a certain extent, it’s controllable.
To do this, there are several things to integrate.
- You don’t know everything, the others don’t either, there’s no problem with that.
It’s a bit central, so I’ll talk about it right away. David Whittaker is known for his reflections on the subject. Especially with this talk that I strongly recommend. He made a comparison between your perception and the reality of things.
This diagrams it’s just perfect.
Not much to add to that. You’re convinced that everyone knows more than you do, when that’s not true. Having this in mind will put your expectations of yourself and others into perspective.
- Being a “good” developer is very relative
At the foundation of your syndrome is your definition of competence.
Your definition of what it means to be good. And that part quickly becomes complex. Because depending on your context (a company for example), your definition of “competent” will be very different. Also, depending on your profile, your way of reacting to the syndrome will also be different.
Dr. Valerie Young, an expert in impostor syndrome for 30 years (I swear I’m not making this up) talks about five different profiles. You can find a summary of these profiles here.
Knowing what your profile is will immediately help you to put things into perspective. You need to know for one reason only: to understand how you function in the face of the syndrome. The more you know, the more you can take control.
- Comparing yourself to others is a waste of time.
You can pretend to be who you want to be, with the level of skills you believe, I promise you, there is someone better than you. Under these conditions, constantly watching where your neighbor is at all times is not only unhealthy. It’s self-destructive.
On the other hand, comparing yourself to yourself is vital. The key is to have a way of thinking that focuses on continuous improvement. Your only reference level is your own. The you of the past.
And it doesn’t take much to adopt this way of thinking and take action.
After several weeks at my first job, I had produced more sweat than code.
I didn’t expect to be fully operational overnight. But the difference in level seemed insurmountable.
In spite of reading the book “Clean Code” received from the lead tech (see the article top 3 must-read books) I was not up to the general level. The panic attacks were getting worse and worse. I had to find a solution. I had to find a solution quickly.
It’s 4:30pm, I just spent another day stuck on a bug. I didn’t dare to ask for help yet. Finally, I decide to talk to someone about it. It was about time.
For once, to my astonishment, my problem is giving my colleague a hard time. Instead of doing black magic at lightning speed to solve my problem, he is looking for help on the internet.
For once, it’s a real problem.
He goes from page to page on Google explaining to me that a big part of the job is to sort out all the “garbage” of the internet. He then copies/pastes a piece of code, modifies it for the need and tests it. It works!
Part of the solution is totally obscure to me. So I ask him to explain to this weird part. He answered me something I never imagined he would say.
“I have a vague idea, but I’m not exactly sure how it works behind. Let’s talk about it when I’ve looked at it.”
I finally had proof that my colleague was a human being. That sentence alone would relax me for the rest of my career. But what he did afterwards was the real revelation for me.
He took his cellphone, opened a note-taking application and added to a long bullet list the unknown subject of the day.
“You can’t know everything. But it’s good to know what you don’t know.”
And under the guidance of my eldest son, that was the day I started to take control.
Understanding the mechanisms and lowering your projections on others and yourself is necessary. It will reassure you. But just reassuring yourself doesn’t solve your problem.
I want to solve the problem, not feeling good about being a impostor.
And the problem of the impostor syndrome is complex. It affects a lot of different people. From extremely competent people to people who are just starting out.
Most of the time it is based on nothing or futile things. To take control of it, we must find a tangible way to make these feelings based on nothing disappear.
One of the most effective ways is this famous paper inventory of knowledge. Some people call it a “success chart” or even a “goal chart”. Who cares ? You call it what you want.
It’s a regular note-taking (numerical or not) that will allow you to get out of the vague feelings and face reality. Globally, you organize it as you want. You decide what’s on it.
But there are two mandatory parts.
- What you know / what you have achieved
The impostor syndrome is very strong to prevent you from taking into account all that you have already achieved. Let’s make sure it can no longer ignore them. Every time you look at this paper you will remind it.
Just because this syndrome is so effective at making you ignore what you do well, that part alone might be enough. But to solve the problem in the long run, you need more.
- What you want to learn
Just like my colleague and his bullet list, you need a list of things to learn. Instead of feeling bad and telling yourself that it’s unacceptable not to know, you’re just going to write it down here for later.
Of course, you don’t write down everything, only what you think is important to master for your current job. Your context. What is your definition of competency right now ?
From now on, no more “maybe”, “I believe” and other vague feelings based on nothing. Now, you have a concrete document that will follow you. Tangible proof of your successes. A list of the road ahead of you.
And we’re going to use this document to trap the impostor syndrome at its own game.
The impostor syndrome is powerful because it is a vicious circle. Self-sufficient. Left unattended, it grows. It never stops and this perpetual movement may seem insurmountable.
What if there was a way to turn the situation around? What if we could use the impostor syndrome against itself?
Turning the vicious circle into a virtuous circle.
It is possible and that is personally what I have been doing for a long time. To do so, the change must be internal. And it makes sense that the real solution should be internal because, I repeat, this syndrome is a psychological mechanism.
You have to change the way you see things.
When I look at the list of things I have to learn, I see this as a great opportunity to grow. Not a shame. What worries me today is when this list is empty.
When I look at the list of my successes, my syndrome suddenly gets quiets. The longer this list gets, the less I hear about it.
This way of looking at things drives away my anxieties and generates motivation to learn and discover. And just like that, I created my engine for continuous improvement.
My virtuous circle.
I’ll be honest, making this internal change is easier said than done. At the time I had to operate myself alone. It took a lot of time and I made a lot of mistakes before I got there.
To speed up the process and save you from my mistakes, I strongly advise you to read the book: the obstacle is the way. This incredible little book gives you all the tools you need to turn any problem into an opportunity. Step by step, pragmatically and immediately applicable.
It will teach you how to manage your emotions in the face of the syndrome, which will allow you to facilitate action. Action will allow you to turn the problem against itself. Finally, he will explain how to maintain the virtuous circle over time.
You will come out of it changed. Ready to face any challenge. The impostor syndrome is not your first or your only problem. Believe me, this book will serve you in every compartment of your life.
During the rest of my career, working with engineers at all levels, I realized something important. We tend to think that there are people with talent and there are others. This is not true.
Excellence necessarily requires a lot of work.
Instead of getting all pissed off and telling myself that I sucked, this situation overmotivated me to take action.
I was already filling them thanks to my motivation to take action.
After a week of daily reading, my problem was solved. I had caught up on all the concepts my colleagues were talking about. My confidence had returned. The results followed.
Something more to add to my success list.
Today. I have reached a point where I voluntarily and regularly change teams/companies to maintain this motivation. To maintain this continuous improvement.
Driven by endless motivation.
I use the impostor syndrome as a tool to take action. Dark energy as fuel. It’s what makes me a better developer. There’s no way I’m getting rid of it.
Don’t waste your time fighting the impostor syndrome. Use it to your advantage. You’re going to make mistakes and you’re not going to know everything. It should motivate you, not make you anxious. The race is endless and in the end, you are your only opponent.