Imposter syndrome has become a common topic among some of the people I follow on Twitter or talk to in person. There have been books and blog posts written about it. This weekend, at the DevUp conference, I saw a great talk on it by Heather Downing.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Imposter Syndrome, you might not know what it is (or you might know exactly what it is, but just never heard the name before.) Wikipedia summarizes it as
individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”
That is, people who are successful who think that tomorrow they might be fired because someone will finally realize they don’t know what they’re doing, that they’ve been fooling everyone this entire time.
A 7th Grade Imposter
The first memory I have of experiencing imposter syndrome is back around 1990 or 1991. I was in 7th grade at the time. I was participating in the Science Olympiad, which is a bunch of different events that students compete in, and the teams with the best scores advance to state & national competitions. There’s events like mousetrap cars, where you have to build a vehicle powered by a single mouse trap car. There’s events on weather (which my teammate and I aced in 8th grade.) There’s even one called the pentathlon (or at least there was in the early 90s.) This event required you do do between stations and at each station you had to answer some kind of science question or solve some kind of science problem and do some sort of physical activity. The one activity I remember was you had to bounce a ping-pong ball on a paddle 10 times in a row. If it fell off you started over. Every question you got right you got a stamp on your hand. The winning team was a combination of fastest time & most stamps.
Like I said, I was in 7th grade. But I was on a team with some 8th graders as well. There were 4 or 5 of us, and each of us had to do the entire course. At the end of the course, I had 5 stamps, meaning I had gotten every question right. I was sure that the older (and smarter) 8th graders would also have 5. But to my surprise, they didn’t. One had 4, the others had 2 or 3. I remember that day talking to my mom about it. I said something like “They must have given me the easier questions because they knew I was in 7th grade.” (Note: the judges didn’t know what grade you were in, they simply had a list of questions and answers.) My mom said something like “Maybe you actually knew the answers. Maybe you’re actually that smart.”
I didn’t internalize this at the time, but I believed whatever my parents told me. They’re not the kind of people to lie. My mom had promised herself before she had kids that if we asked questions, she’d tell us the truth. Spoiler alert: I one time looked at her and said “There’s no Santa Claus” she didn’t argue, she simply asked me how I figured it out. I was 5 or 6 at the time. She told me I was right, but I couldn’t tell that to my friends and classmates. That was the job of their parents.
Anyway, looking back, I attribute the Science Olympiad as the first step in my fight against imposter syndrome. It’s not as if I’ve never experienced it again. However, I think it was a good model, for me at least, in combating it. Having someone I 100% believed and trusted tell me something along the lines of “You didn’t get lucky, you actually just did that.”
As I got older, the lure of imposter syndrome caught up with me. I don’t know if this is common or not, but there were people I respected and looked up to who clearly exhibited this behavior, and so I thought “Oh, this is something I should emulate.” One of those people was a man named Fred Kabell. I met Fred while working for my dad. Fred was a software engineer and an all around great guy. Before I worked with him in the mid 90s, he’d been programming Cray supercomputers. So the man knew his stuff. I never wrote code with Fred, but I worked around him and tried to help him as much as I could.
When Fred would solve some problem, you’d often hear him say something like “Oh, I saw that code snippet in a magazine, and I just changed one value and it worked.” The truth is, he probably did use a code sample he saw in a magazine, but based on his experience as a developer he was able to adapt it and adjust it to fit the exact situation he needed. He wasn’t just copying out, character for character.
This behavior was something that my dad would comment on to me all the time. He’d tell me that he knew what Fred really did, and that Fred would never trump his own accomplishments. So he’d always be dismissive. And there was something there that resonated with me. I wanted to be this person that could accomplish things and be humble like Fred.
However what that lead to was me starting to believe that I didn’t know what I was doing. I just happened to read a blog, or I found an awesome Stack Overflow question that was exactly what I was struggling with. Or I saw some code in our codebase that was already doing what I needed, so I just reused that person’s code. I was an integrator. One who would take what others did and use it myself. I wasn’t the one creating. I wasn’t the one solving the problem.
This meant, when people paid me compliments, I could never accept them. I was sure that everyone else was just as skilled as me, and by me accepting this compliment, I was stating I was better than them. And if I felt like I was better than them, then someone was going to come along and show me, and everyone else, that I was not better than them. In fact, I was the low guy on the totem pole. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Then about 6 years ago I noticed a change. I was no longer worried that people might find out that I don’t know what I’m doing. Or at least I was not as worried. This change actually all started back during my time in seminary (which had it’s own bout of imposter syndrome.) That’s when the groundwork for true humility was starting to be laid by men I really respected. I didn’t have an “ah-ha” moment. There was no light switch involved. But as I look back I realize that conversations I had, and classes I took were building up a foundation that would eventually come to light years later.
The problem was that for 30 years or so, I thought humility meant degrading any of your accomplishments.
“You got first place in Student Congress? That’s awesome!”
“Yeah, well, the normal people were off this week, so I didn’t have much competition.”
“You got the high score on the test? I’m so jealous!”
“Eh, I got lucky and the test was just the 5 problems I studied the most. If it had been a different set of problems, I would have failed.”
“Hey, you solved the bug! That thing has been harassing us for months.”
“I just moved some things around. Once I cleaned it up a little, it was obvious what the problem was. Anyone could have done it.”
But those aren’t examples of humility. They’re examples of self-deprecation. And I think too often I was reacting against wanting to be arrogant, and so I would self deprecate, as if that was the opposite. But it’s kind of like love and hate. They’re not opposites. The opposite of love is indifference, not hate. So too with arrogance. The opposite of arrogance is true humility, not self deprecation. Because at the end of the day, arrogance and self deprecation both place self at the center.
But in my understanding of humility, it’s not placing the person at the center, it’s placing God at the center. I 100% believe that I am who I am today because of God’s involvement in my life. He has created me and shaped me with specific talents. I’m predisposed to certain things. It does not mean that I can’t do other things, it simply means that it’s going to take more work. For example, it is easier for me to solve a problem than it is for me to be a good listener and connect emotionally. It doesn’t mean I can’t be a good listener, but it will require more energy.
So how does that play in to humility? Let me tell a quick story.
In 2010 I was out looking for a new job. Through friends I met with a man who had started his own company and was looking to start something else on the side. He needed a developer. I met him for lunch and we discussed the opportunity. At the end of the lunch he said something like “I think this could work out. You’re not a typical developer…and I’ve talked to plenty. You were able to engage in the conversation, you made eye contact, you weren’t talking code, but you were talking about the business side.” I believe I said “Thank you” and was able to do so without much self-doubt. I ended up working with him on the side for a year or so while I found another full time job.
At that job, within the first couple months, I participated in a lunch-and-learn on our team where I shared some new library. I later learned that I won a coworker over in that meeting. This team was growing so rapidly that a lot of times the new guys had to prove themselves, because it was hard to distinguish between the ones that would last and the ones that wouldn’t. But the fact that I was able to take this topic and explain it well, describing the business side of things in a clear way, won this guy over. He told me this over lunch. It was almost a flash back to the other conversation. I know this time that I said “Thank you” and I meant it. I didn’t have self doubt over what he was saying. I didn’t say, “I might be good at conversation for a developer, but you’ve never seen me do CSS.” Because my inability to do CSS (and that was a true liability back then) didn’t matter. That wasn’t what they were complimenting me on.
What It Means To Me Today
I think that approach has helped me personally battle imposter syndrome. I know the things that I’m good at. I think I also know where I stand on those things. Take conference speaking for an example. I know of nobody that comes to a conference because I’m speaking there. However, I know that there are speakers where that is the case. People will show up if ____ is speaking. Even though that’s not me, I know that does not mean that I shouldn’t be speaking. I know I’m a good conference speaker, not the best, but probably above average.
I also know some of the things that I don’t know. For example, styling (e.g. CSS, Less, general layout) is still one of the weakest parts of my development game. I work with some people that can do amazing things with CSS. I am not one of them. I have no fear that they will come over and say “You don’t know how to fix an icon on the bottom right corner of a page, no matter what?” Because I know that’s not where my strengths are.
I’m going to focus on my strengths. I’m going to try and make my weaknesses not so weak (i.e. keep growing.) But I’m not going to get worked up about someone judging me by things I know aren’t my strong suit.