I loved programming. I loved being able to create something out of nothing. Solving the puzzle of the program and seeing it come to life. Constantly learning new things while hours flew by, and better yet I was paid for it.
I went to one of the best universities in the country for computer science. I cruised into my first job after a successful summer placement. I loved my work and I did well. I moved from a junior position to senior position and was recognised for my hard work and contributions.
Somewhere along the line it stopped being fun. Suddenly I hated going to work. Every day I battled with a growing anxiety that would not go away.
- I started comparing myself to other people that were better than me.
- I started to fear doing things wrong and being a failure.
- I started to fear not knowing enough and constantly tried to learn everything.
- I started to feel a crushing weight of responsibility for my job, partner, children, mortgage, and bills
- I started to fear that I would be exposed as a fake.
What I did not realise then is that I was facing a severe case of impostor syndrome.
Instead of enjoying my work I would constantly be worried that I did not know enough, and that I was not doing enough. That I was not providing enough value. I forgot about my accomplishments and emphasised any mistake I made as a complete failure. I started to seek perfection in a world where it's impossible. Not only did I seek perfection but I expected it of everyone else. It was a recipe for stress and unhappiness.
I remember doing demos of my work in the past. I was confident and happy to do them in front of a number of people. Suddenly I dreaded them. I would become so nervous my voice would tremble as I tried to talk. My thinking was clouded by the dread of saying something stupid, and what others would think of me.
The crushing anxiety was preventing me from enjoying my work and doing well. It was taking its toll on my health. I would feel drained of energy and not sleep well. It was putting strain on my family and relationships. It felt like a ticking time bomb.
It has been stated that up to 70% of people experience impostor syndrome. The trouble is you feel like you're the only one, as you're not aware of anyone else going through it. There is a good chance that one of your co-workers is experiencing it right now, but it may not be obvious that something is wrong. It can manifest itself in different ways, and people are good at covering things up especially in a professional environment.
Some points for anyone experiencing it
- Recognise what you do know. It's more than you think.
- Recognise what you have accomplished. You earned it.
- Take a compliment when you get one. You deserve it.
- Compare yourself only to yourself.
- Realise that nobody really knows what they are doing. Everyone is on a learning journey.
- It's OK to not know everything. Software development is too vast and moves too quickly to know everything.
- Usually you know just as much as others but in different areas.
- Teach others, it will help you realise how much you do know.
- It's OK to fail. In fact it's a necessary and important part of life. Learn from it.
- It's OK to be wrong. Be open to feedback.
- You will forget things over time. Go back over things you have not used recently.
- There will be egos in the workplace that talk down others. Ignore them.
- Not everything you produce needs to be perfect. Software development is (as is life) about incremental improvements. You are not that piece of code that you put together in a few hours and needs improving.
Assume that everyone else has impostor syndrome. Tell someone when they have done something good. Tell them what they are good at. Tell them it's OK if something goes wrong they did a great job. A small comment can go a long way. Having a team of people doing this for each other will foster a healthy environment. We are all human beings and everyone has fears and doubts. Everyone has problems and hardships they are facing outside of work. This idea often gets lost in the veil of professionalism, and we become ever more disconnected. Once we realise and appreciate this we can move towards a more personal and connected workplace.
I am not sure that the feeling of impostor syndrome will ever completely go away. Though it has faded since understanding and recognising it. Knowing that many others experience it, and that it's quite normal also helps. I am happy to say that I am getting back to a place where programming is fun.
Understand that it can hit you at any time. It may be when you're just getting started in programming, or it may be when you have been doing it for 10 years. It may be when you have a newborn baby at home. It may be when you get made redundant and flunk an interview.
What is most important is an awareness of it. Take it seriously. When it does come knocking you can recognise it and work on it instead of letting it consume you. Connect with people and help them to prevent feeling like an impostor. Hopefully you will get the same in return. Lets work to ensure that programming is always enjoyable.