On imposter syndrome

On imposter syndrome

Almost everyone I know in the dev community experiences or has experienced imposter syndrome at some point, including me. Most of them found school work easy and excelled without significant effort. Once in the workplace with others who had also had those experiences at school, it can be easy to worry that we are not as capable as all our peers. We start thinking we are not smart enough, not good enough. We are in a bigger pond, and therefore let ourselves feel smaller.

Imposter syndrome makes belief in our capabilities feel intellectually fraudulent. Accomplished, competent, and intelligent people feel like they are fooling others. They believe they are not smart or competent as their accomplishments might suggest. People who experience imposter syndrome do not acknowledge their own accomplishments to the extent others do and instead minimise them. In simpler words, I do not feel as accomplished or good at my work as people think I am.

Self-doubt keeps us from seeing ourselves as we truly are. It can prompt us to downplay our achievements and underestimate our skills. This is all in our heads. It is our inner perceptions. Our subjective reality is how we perceive the outside world. But this is self-deception. We see ourselves distorted as through a fun house mirror. However, we can control our perceptions and reframe our thinking.

How does one do that? I can only answer for myself. I do that in five ways:

Thinking I am already smart can rob me of ever improving: when the glass is full, there is no more room to add to it. I solve this by believing that, while I know some things, there is so much more to learn and know. I concentrate on the way forward rather than achieving a specific state.

Secondly, I consider what I do not know yet as an opportunity. It is not a reminder of how stupid I am, but a place where I can expand my knowledge, sometimes with the help of others.

Thirdly, I need a way to measure my improvements. Without measuring, I will never know how much progress I have achieved. One practical way to do so is by keeping a work diary, and keeping track of things learnt and personal achievements — especially when the accomplishments are not public (which also helps at performance review times or in promotion conversations). Furthermore, stopping every now and again to reflect on that progress can help with the feeling of self-confidence that comes from actual measured facts rather than empty compliments from strangers.

Talking of external compliments, it does not help when people around me say how smart I am, especially when the outside does not match my inner thoughts. It can actually make me feel more anxious and become afraid of making mistakes because people try to keep the status quo and protect the image people have of them. This ties into Carol Dweck's research about fixed vs growth mindsets. Failing in front of people who think highly of us and thus looking stupid is scary. Learning cannot happen without making mistakes along the way and practising over and over again. One does not master playing a symphony on the first go, or without making mistakes. The same goes for children when they learn a new motor skill. It takes time, and practice, and many many fails on the way to mastery. So the fourth thing I do is try to surround myself with a supportive environment that considers failures opportunities to learn, and where it is ok to make mistakes, as long as we learn from our mistakes for the future. Psychological safety is required so the team can feel safe to experiment and thus possibly fail. Being more confident and feeling more secure leads to being able to learn better, being open to new experiences, and improved performance.

Lastly, I do not want to be the smartest person in the room because the responsibility is too heavy, and it has no benefit for me if my objective is to keep learning and keep improving.

So to summarise: try to be smarter not the smartest, reframe your thoughts to consider failures as opportunities, surround yourself with supportive people, measure, measure, measure, and then stop to review every now and again. Let yourself be proud of your achievements.

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