On Impostor Syndrome

A man wearing headphones and a black t-shirt sits at a table, in front of MacBook. He looks concerned and worried.

The cover image for this post is by Wes Hicks

This blog post was written by Jamie.

This is yet another blog post about imposter syndrome by someone in tech. In fact, back in episode 4 of Tabs and Spaces, we brought up the fact that everyone and their Mum’s have content about Imposter Syndrome—I’m one of the hosts of that show, by the way.

Jokes aside, a new year seems like the perfect time for me to talk about what I’ve learned about Impostor Syndrome throughout my career in software development. For those who don’t know, my first software development job was almost a decade and half ago—as of writing this blog post—and I can say that I’ve seen, and fallen pray to Impostor Syndrome many times. So let’s talk a little about it.

What is impostor syndrome?

I’m neither an expert on psychology nor going to be breaking new ground here, but Impostor Syndrome is that dreadful feeling when you look around at your peers and colleagues and think something like, “I shouldn’t be here. I’ve fooled all of these people into thinking that I can do this. When they find out, I’ll be fired.”

I’ve suffered with Impostor Syndrome a lot in the past, and can tell you that the power it can wield is devastating. It can bring on anxiety, it can make you want to quit, and it can lead to thoughts like, “I should be able to do this, but I obviously can’t. What am I doing here?” And even the dreaded (and often wildly incorrect), “I’m not smart enough.”

Whilst the power that Impostor Syndrome has is very real, it can be alleviated by having a positive and growth mindset. There are a lot of people out their who actively shun the idea of “mindset”, but I’ve found it to be incredibly useful when dealing with both Impostor Syndrome and when tackling a tough job, task, or part of life.

It’s just mindset?

As Amy C. Edmondson says in Right Kind of Wrong - The Science of Failing Well, Impostor Syndrome is an application of specific mindset, and one that can be particularly damaging:

The oft discussed impostor syndrome, particularly prevalent among high achievers, is a result of this frame [of mind]. Even though we may hide it behind a veil of positivity or humor, most of us in our childhood shifted from unselfconscious curiosity and learning to defensiveness and self-protection after we internalized the unhelpful idea that we have to be right or successful to be worthy.

- Amy C. Edmondson, Right Kind of Wrong - The Science of Failing Well

(emphasis is mine)

Particularly interesting to me are the two points:

  • Impostor Syndrome is “particularly prevalent among high achievers”
  • It’s related to “the unhelpful idea that we have to be right or successful to be worthy”

Does that mean that it’s only high achievers who suffer with Impostor Syndrome? No. Perhaps it means that high achievers are able to recognise their achievements and spend their time comparing them against others.

I’ll put this in large text, as I think it’s an important point:

It’s perfectly possible to be worthy without being successful—whatever "successful" means to you

I also really like that Edmonson points out that there could be a link to “the unhelpful idea that we have to be right or successful to be worthy,” and we all know what it’s like to be around people who are right all the time.

Jake Humphrey has something very interesting to say about Impostor Syndrome, too. Jake is one of the hosts of The High Performance Podcast, and is a very prolific sport’s presenter.

We’re always told that impostor syndrome is a bad thing. "You don’t want to feel impostor syndrome." "Don’t be envious of other people’s successes." "Self-doubt is a bad thing." I would flip all those thoughts on their head.

Do you have impostor syndrome when you’re pitching to investors or handling an important account at work? Yes. Do you have impostor syndrome about whether you can cook a microwave meal? No… because it’s easy, and you don’t really care.

The reality is that you don’t have impostor syndrome about things you don’t care about.

- Jake Humphrey, Business Leader (no date) ‘Fired From McDonald’s to Broadcast Success’, pp. 10–10.

I think that Jake’s point here about how we tend to suffer from Impostor Syndrome when it’s something we care about is a very important one. If we didn’t care about the project or task, then we wouldn’t suffer. So it begs the question: should you really care about what you’re working on?

Should you care?

Yes, you should care about what you’re working on. 100%.

Otherwise, you can’t work with empathy and compassion. You also won’t be able to complete the work to the best of your abilities if you don’t care.

Caring requires vulnerability, and you might know that I’m a big fan of Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability. In fact, here is something she says about vulnerability and worthwhile activities:

Taking the edge off is not rewarding, but putting the edge back on in one of the most worthwhile things we can do. Those sharp edges feel vulnerable.

- Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart - Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

We want to know that what we’re doing has value, and vulnerability gives us that because without the vulnerability required to work with the hard edges, we won’t truly create something of value.

And it’s not just Dr. Brown who thinks that way, organisational psychologist Adam Grant does too:

"imposter" puts us in a beginner’s mindset, leading us to question assumptions that others have taken for granted.

- Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Antithetically, by allowing ourselves to act as an imposter we can feel more confident asking what Carl Sagan referred to as “dumb” questions when he said:

There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question

- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Because people believe that there are “dumb” questions, they will feel less inclined to ask them—these are not “dumb” questions, they are naïve ones which show our misunderstanding, and people are often afraid of showing that they don’t understand something.

But by not asking these questions, you’re going to make wild assumptions. And the only way to avoid those assumptions is to allow a little Impostor Syndrome into your life and embrace the vulnerability of it all.

Back to Brené Brown, this time in a different book of hers:

Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.

- Brené Brown, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution

And the entire book (Risign Strong) is based on the idea presented by Theodore Roosevelt in his Citizenship in a Repbulic speech. I’d recommend reading both, by the way.

In Closing

Imposter Syndrome can have a crippling effect on someone’s effectiveness and ability to take part in a work or activity that they care about deeply. And it’s because we care about it that we can suffer from Impostor Syndrome.

But to take away the “hard edges” or to care less about the work or activity will mean that we don’t work to the best of our ability. It also makes us less vulnerable, meaning we have less courage and strength.

And by not allowing a little Impostor Syndrome in, we can’t grow or learn. It also means we’re less likely to ask questions that we deem to be obvious or “dumb”.

This will lead us to be less confident in our understanding, as we have haven’t asked those questions which others would not—meaning that we will assumptions and, invariably, get things wrong. And that’s where the real impostor-like behaviour is.

Ironic, isn’t it.