How to Overcome Imposter-Syndrome

In January 2015, I left my old career in order to join Founders & Coders to learn software development. It was a wonderful life changing experience that I loved and cherished. Somehow though, I emerged at the other end qualified to apply for coding jobs. But changing careers and moving to a field where you’re constantly learning introduced me to imposter syndrome. I didn’t have a name for it at the time or know what it was. I thought I was experiencing low self-esteem, something I was familiar with growing up. Since then, I’ve experienced imposter syndrome at various jobs, and at times it has been quite dreadful.

However, in mid 2018, something changed in my belief system and I now experience imposter syndrome much less. I’d like to emphasise that I haven’t yet found a away to completely eradicate it but I experience it less. So, I would like to share this in the hopes that someone could benefit from it. First, I’d like to define what it is. Imposter syndrome is the self-doubt that you don’t really deserve your accomplishments, that you have somehow cheated your way or got lucky, and any moment now, they will find you out.

It’s likely that you have experienced imposter syndrome if you’ve had thoughts along these lines:

“They’re going to find out that I’m not good at this” “Who am I to be doing this?” “How is this person so good at this and I’m so bad” “I’m going to get fired (or loose my business)” “Someone more qualified should be doing this” “I just got lucky with this job, they could have found a better candidate”

Before we continue, I’d like to acknowledge that imposter syndrome does get a bit better over time, as you learn more and develop your learning style, you become less overwhelmed when you are faced with a mountain of unknowns. At least you have more of an idea how to tackle learning something new. You also learn to accept that you can’t know everything, there simply isn’t enough time. Despite this though, many experienced people still struggle with it.

So now that we know what it is, let’s break it down:

My understanding is that imposter syndrome essentially comes down to two main factors:

  1. Wanting something really badly
  2. Comparing yourself to others

Breaking these down further, we will notice they are both fear-based:

  1. Wanting it badly - you want it badly because:
    • It is giving you things you want - sense of purpose, passion, money, status, challenge, community, etc
    • It is part of your identity, and by extension, parts of your self worth is locked up in it

You experience fear, because you could potentially loose these. So the next time you face an overwhelming task, this fear sets in.

  1. Comparing yourself to others - you compare yourself to others because:
    • Others create an expectation in your mind, of what someone in this domain should know
    • You feel you know or are capable of less than others

You are fearful that you are less qualified to do what you do than others, and you don’t want to be worse than them. We are all competitive in nature even if we don’t care to admit it. What’s more, we are a hiereachical society that ranks individuals, even though we are not quantitatively comparable.

Though this makes sense intellectually, it’s harder to grasp emotionally, that when we compare two individuals, we are comparing apples to oranges.

For me, this was the breakthrough.

Before I understood this, I did know that I shouldn’t compare myself to others because they have different lives to me. But this wasn’t enough to stop me from comparing myself to others. Because my immediate response would be, despite our lives being different, given the same opportunities, this person is able to achieve better things. That’s how I justified the comparison. This would bring back my imposter syndrome and self doubt.

What helped, was realising that this other person’s interests and strengths were different to mine. This is when I truly understood that I was comparing apples to oranges.

It meant that we each used the same opportunity differently, because our core interests were different. They drove value from pursuing one thing, and I drove value from pursuing something else, and so naturally, our results were different. Some people love to go deep in one thing, whereas others like to increase their breadth of knowledge - or something else all together.

When you come across someone who knows about, say, compilers and you don’t, and you feel imposter syndrome creeping in, remind yourself that you have been spending your time learning about something else; or simply, you may have been spending quality time with people you care about. This is absolutely fine.

You just need to know what you value, what you are drawn to and what you are good at. Figuring out your interests and strengths comes with self-awareness and reflection. I find this invaluable and have written a post about it here.

Now you may be thinking, I can think of people who are objectively better than others, so it is possible to compare. This is our hierarchical thinking, but I will say this:

  1. Sticking to the engineering example, someone may be great at solving coding problems, but that is just one part of what makes the job, there are skills such as communication, empathy, patience, strategy, planning, focus, time-management, curiosity, integrity and so much more that contribute to good engineering. Unfortunately though, some of these skills are undervalued because they are hard to measure.
  2. Maybe some who are not considered objectively “better” are driving value from things outside of their work, such as hobbies, personal relationships, i.e cultivating a multi-faceted personality.
  3. Everyone has something to offer to the team, maybe those things are not yet apparent to them or the team.

To be clear, I’m not saying that two “equal” skills can’t be compared in theory, you can compare how quickly or how well two people solve a given problem. But this doesn’t necessarily make one person more effective than another, it isn’t the full picture and it’s fundamentally flawed because of all the other factors that are not taken into account. And since our lives are not sterile labs where you can remove all the variables, the comparison will not be a true representation of reality.

Tips for overcoming imposter syndrome:

I don’t know if it’s possible to completely eradicate imposter syndrome, but it is possible to dampen it considerably by shifting your thinking:

  • Determine your strengths and interests - perhaps reflect on your childhood and think about what you were/are drawn to both then and now. Do you spot any patterns? Make a list

  • Realise that everyone who is considered “successful” has many flaws and gaps in their knowledge, they have just found a way to go all in on 2/3 strengths and applied them to their interests, some of which they discovered later on

  • Find questions that help you get out of this mindset when the feeling creeps in, for example:

    • “What are some things I have spent my time on that I am getting better at?” - doesn’t have to be related to work. Just focus on this for a few minutes

    • “What am I good at?” - prod until you can think of something if it doesn’t come to you right away, or refer to your list of strengths

  • Acknowledge that what you are feeling stems from fear and ask: “Which fear am I feeling right now?” - simply naming the fear helps

  • When you can’t help but compare yourself to someone, ask “Would I switch lives with them entirely” - You’re likely to find that you prefer certain aspects of your own life

  • Simply share your feelings with the people you trust - Not only will they remind you of the things you’re good at, they might also benefit from learning that it is a common experience

  • When it comes to tasks like programming, buffer your estimates - this will reduce the pressure

  • When stuck on a problem, don’t be afraid to ask for help - it may feel damaging to your pride but you may otherwise lose hours, adding to your frustration

Disclaimer: this is my personal observations of imposter syndrome that may not apply to everyone. There is bound to be some survivorship bias and other types of biases. But I hope to help at least one person.

You can read about blog posts written by the developers we put on pedestals who themselves suffer from imposter syndrome and admit to not knowing everything.

13 January 2019