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Living with Impostor Syndrome

dwd profile image Dave Cridland ・3 min read

Let me start with a story.

Actually, no, I won't, because if you're going to read a story, read one from a real actual author, not some guy who tries to write blog posts sometimes. Here's Neil Gaiman on Impostor Syndrome.

The fact is, Impostor Syndrome is something that pretty much anyone gets, and actually having it hit you is arguably a good thing - it's related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says (roughly) that you assess your abilities based on your peers in that ability. If you're the only person who sings at all in your peer group, you probably think you're amazing. A TV Talent show audience, though, may well disagree. But if your peer group includes talented developers and managers, you're probably comparing yourself to them on their finest days, and drastically underestimating yourself.

So let's look, for a moment, at what the outcome is. Your skills tell you about the risk involved in every decision you make. That's a good thing, but it feeds your paranoia. You're also acutely aware that you might make the wrong decision, too, leading you into an "Analysis Paralysis", where you're constantly trying to find more information so you can make the perfect decision. You're acutely aware that you don't know what you're doing - you're just feeling your way through, moment by moment. You're terrified that something will go horribly wrong at any moment.

The bad news is that these feelings are not going to go away (and if they do, you've probably hit the other end of Dunning-Kruger...). The good news is that there's ways to make these feelings work for you.

Let's build some rules.

  • Don't pretend to have all the answers.

"Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people, or change room." -- Michael Dell.

"The smartest person in the room is never as smart as all the people in the room." -- John C Maxwell.

  • Any decision is better than no decision.

Corollary: "No Decision" is a decision - and it's a bad one.

If you're in a position where you need to make a decision, don't worry about making the perfect one - as Carl von Clausevitz said, "The enemy of the good plan is the dream of the perfect plan."

  • Feeling your way through is a key skill.

Embrace your impostor syndrome - it's giving you all that risk-awareness, and that's good. Embrace your knowledge that you don't always make the right decision - instead, work on ensuring that even wrong decisions are right ones.

The whole concepts of "Lean", and "Fail Fast", are there to help, particularly with the last two.

The problem with bad decisions is that people often cling to them like a life raft made of lead. But your Impostor Syndrome told you you make bad decisions, right? So just learn how, and when, to recognise them. Learn how to ensure that decisions get reversed when they turn out to be bad.

In general, the method for doing this is to agree failure conditions up front. Some places do this effectively by defining "Hypotheses" - if we implement on the new Javascript library garble-fruit-bang (Not a real library. Well. Not intentionally anyway), we will be able to garble the fruit bangs within two weeks. After two weeks, look. Can you garble the fruit bangs? Nope? Well, maybe revisit that.

This has two effects. Firstly, it inculcates within your team the idea that they can, and should, get behind a decision that they disagree with. "Disagree and commit" is possibly the idea taken most out of context - it's daft on its own, but in a framework where the risk of failure is managed properly, it arises naturally.

Secondly, it treats decisions from the outset as being experiments - they have defined provability, distinct destinations. In science, an experiment that disproves a hypothesis is often more valuable than one that does.

So in the end, the best advice I have for getting rid of Impostor Syndrome is simply "Don't". Embrace it instead. You'll get all the benefits, and the butterflies in your stomach will be... well, better. Maybe. You'll have to find out.

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Dave Cridland

@dwd

Open source and open standards for mission-critical code.

Discussion

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Thank you very much for the timely article, Dave. Over the past couple of weeks, I have begun to see the impact Imposter Syndrome has had on my career so far - and have resolved to lessen that negativity.

I think many of us have felt this way but not verbalised or categorised it before. As a widely self-taught industry, the self-doubt must be pervasive.

One of the biggest improvements I've found has come from truly reflecting on the fact others feel this way too, and the intensity or appearance of these feelings are in no way correlated to actual, objective achievement.

As 'Imposter Syndrome' tends to have a very lonely and isolated edge to it (in order to keep all that deceit under wraps!), I can't help but feel the best way we can turn it to a positive, and lessen the damage, is as a community. We know how we're feeling, and many of us are feeling it. We can't all be right. We probably feel inferior to someone who in turn is feeling inferior to us.

It is also a good reminder not to trust our thoughts without judgement. Thoughts != truth.

 

I think I agree with you.

So maybe I don't.

Damn, this stuff is hard.

 

I think I have lived with imposter syndrome throughout life. I was told that I can't do things which I love. I accepted it, and now everything has become toxic. It'll take some time to eliminate all of the negativity, probably longer than expected. Thank you very much for taking time and writing this all. I find it very helpful.

 

Impostor Syndrome is, explicitly, an internally generated thing. It's not anyone else telling you you're incapable - it's just thinking you might be, even as you're doing the job.

If anyone else is telling you you can't do the job, then absent any supporting evidence, ignore them.

 

I am trying to do this these days. Imposter syndrome or the noise coming from outside both have ruined my precious days. I don't see light at the end of tunnel, but I am just sick of the tunnel, and I shall get rid of it.

 

"The smartest person in the room is never as smart as all the people in the room."

Even when I'm the only person in the room I'm not as smart as I should be.

 

So, folks, listen up!

I've had the privilege to have been made to feel inadequate by working alongside Rich on many projects, and I can safely say that either this is fishing for compliments or else this is the worst case of impostor syndrome I've ever seen.

 

Don't worry Dave, the feeling's all mutual, although if you keep filling your head with javascript that might not last. ;-)