Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
It's an ambitious title, I know.
But it's something I struggled with early in my career. And I know a lot of people (especially in tech) struggle with it as well.
Before we get into today's post, let me give you a warning:
I'm not going to mince any words.
If you're looking for someone to hold your hand, pet you, and tell you "everything will be OK", the close tab button is right up there.
If you're tired of feeling inadequate, or like you're pulling the wool over your co-worker's eyes, and ready to take on your professional career like a boss, this post is for you.
I struggled with imposter syndrome quite early in my career: as an undergrad student in college.
I took CSc372: Comparative Programming Languages, and boy was it the hardest semester of my entire college career.
At the first lecture the instructor foreshadowed the difficulty of the course:
Apparently every semester, a few students post his questions on a "homework for hire" type of website, and every semester, without fail, those students are caught and failed. Possibly expelled from the major.
Being young and foolish I remember thinking:
"Yeah sure, all instructors think their class is the hardest in the universe. I'm pretty sure some idiot tries to contract his help in every CS class anyway".
Turns out this instructor wasn't BS-ing.
In fact, I could barely keep my head above water: I would start the homework the day it was assigned and I could hardly scrape a passing grade.
I didn't get any of it:
When the instructor asked questions in lecture, it seemed like the other kids were killing it. Their hands would shoot up like lightning and they would fire back the right answer.
As the semester trudged along, I remember thinking:
"What's wrong with me?"
"Maybe I should give the CS major a second thought. Maybe it's just not right for me."
"No one else seems to be struggling this hard. Why am I the only one who doesn't get it?"
It doesn't really matter what stage of your career you're at because imposter syndrome can strike at any time.
The feelings of inadequacy, like you're running a racket on your colleagues to fool them into thinking you're smarter than you really are, or that you managed to get lucky are absolutely crippling to your career.
Let's face it:
You're not going to perform at your best with those types of thoughts banging around in your head.
And in order to blast imposter syndrome into oblivion, we have to understand the 2 forms of imposter syndrome.
The first cause of imposter syndrome is that of inadequacy.
This is the type of imposter syndrome where you manifest feelings of inferiority to that of your coworkers. This is the type that I had.
This is typically caused by a peer who seems similar to yourself in age and upbringing and all other areas except one: their intelligence far surpasses yours.
At work, you might struggle with a problem for a few days. Then, your peer comes by, looks at the problem, and solves it on the spot. Yes, I'll admit, this is unnerving, especially because they're around your age, or even younger than you.
Luckily, this form of imposter syndrome is relatively straightforward to cure.
To cure this variant, you have to understand that the species Homo Sapiens did not evolve over millions of years by writing computer code. Our forefathers did not traverse the African plains, MacBook Pro and VSCode in one hand and coffee mug in the other.
Writing good software is as foreign a skill to humans as playing basketball. Sure, we have hands and legs that let us play basketball, but you have to learn the game and practice dribbling, shooting, and passing to build up your basketball skills. Note that none of this is genetically encoded at birth.
The same is true of software. Sure, we have brains to think, and fingers to type on keyboards. But it's a learned skill that takes time and effort to hone.
The only logical explanation for why your peer seems smarter is now obvious:
It is just a pure difference in IQ. Sorry bud. You got the short end of the stick. :(
If you've been reading along you'll know that's obviously fake news. The real logical explanation is because they have more practice than you.
It's like a high school basketball player who gets to practice half an hour early to work on his layup and stays half an hour later to work on his jump shot.
This shakes down to your peer having side projects, holding internships or co-ops in college, and reading and keeping up to date with the latest frameworks and technologies.
Start working on a side project. You need more practice.
Your peer has probably seen more bugs than you, experienced more "gotcha's" than you, and has learned more design patterns than you.
In order to level the playing field, I'm prescribing a healthy dose of a side project in an unfamiliar language. If you don't have an exact idea of what to build, just build a simple to-do CRUD application.
Store to-do's in memory. Then add auth. Then persist it to a database. Then deploy it to the cloud.
If this is the type of imposter syndrome you have, this is guaranteed to fix it.
The second form of imposter syndrome is more insidious then the first. It is also more of a mind-game.
It manifests itself as chalking up all accomplishments to "luck".
The problem with this variant is that the luck only extends to the workplace. It doesn't extend to playing roulette, or the lottery. Somehow, it only appears at work.
When you have this type of imposter syndrome you might finish a project and receive praise from your team and your manager for your hard work.
But instead of viewing your hard work as instrumental to the success of the project, you chalk it up to luck.
The fix for this is more vague than the first because the problem is more vague.
Luck does play a role in certain areas of life, and certain endeavors are almost entirely dependent on luck.
These include playing slots at the casino, the lottery, and founding the next unicorn start-up.
But if you have been successful at work and you chalk it up to "luck", then you can conclude one of two things:
At work, things like communication and teamwork are more important than some vague "luck" factor.
Nobody gets lucky communicating by asking for specific requirements and use cases. No one gets lucky by being a team player either.
Here's how you want to fix this issue:
So you see, this form of imposter syndrome is a mind game on yourself. It's like a spell you cast on yourself to blind yourself to your own abilities.
In order to undo this spell, you must recite incantations based on Occam's razor that explain your success concretely and simply without being overly simple.
Luck does play a role in all of our lives. But it's probably not the only reason why you got to where you are today.
Imposter syndrome is very real, and it has very crippling effects.
But the good news is - imposter syndrome is definitely beatable.
Now that you have been diagnosed and given not one, but two prescriptions, you should be able to shake off the syndrome, and take on your professional career like a boss.
Have you struggled with impostor syndrome? How did you get past it? Share your story in the comments below!back