How to Beat Imposter Syndrome Once and for All

Imposter Syndrome
Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is tech’s dirty little secret. Everyone has it, nobody talks about it – and it drives a lot of anxiety for developers and engineers. Make 2018 the year you finally defeat it.

Maybe you were handed a new assignment at work, and you think: “Uh oh, I have no idea how that framework even works!” Then the panic kicks in: They’ll find out you don’t know, hate you forever, and fire you immediately. That’s a key example of imposter syndrome, which can kick in when you least expect.

It’s easy to go negative, and harder to stay positive. It’s even easier to live in the negative. Don’t do that. Instead, come to terms with who you are and what you’re capable of.

Admit It, You Suck

So does everyone else. Even when the rest of the world thinks you’re great, you probably think you’re terrible. Making matters worse, you wonder what might happen if everyone uncovered the truth!

A great example is the popular app Dash. Last year, its developer ran afoul of Apple for what amounted to unwittingly allowing fake reviews to be solicited to the developer’s account (it’s a long story, but worth a look when you’ve got a minute). After being hamstrung by Apple, Dash was released as an open-source project… and some promptly took to shaming developer Bogdan Popsecu for his code.

Popescu was an independent developer, responsible for his own product. He didn’t need to answer for it. In the wake of criticism, he admirably admitted his code may not be the prettiest or most elegant, but that critiques were welcome.

By leveraging humility, Popescu was able to quickly get past a rough patch. It’s a good model to emulate. Even as we write code, we know when it’s terrible. If that crappy code ever sees the light of day – be it in an open source repository or internal peer review at your company – just own up to it and ask for help.

Ask Questions

Ask a friend. Ask Google. Ask that weird guy in the corner cubicle who somehow fixes every bug. Do what you have to, but know there’s no shame in asking for help or guidance.

Code review not going well? Ask your reviewer to point you in the right direction. Ask them where they learned a trick or technique. Ask them how they learned that one weird trick for better memory management in an app.

Being inquisitive is great for two reasons. First, you learn a thing or two. Second, it tells you in short order who (or what) around you is helpful. Perhaps the best method is asking your project manager and searching DuckDuckGo instead of the Google/Stack Overflow tandem.

Code Review
Code Review

Be Kind

Whatever the situation, being nice is far more effective than being cynical or mean. People are more receptive to questions posed inquisitively rather than those framed as a challenge. Similarly, people will seek your help or guidance if they know you’re receptive to their inquiries.

Kindness is hand-in-glove with positivity. And staying on the sunny side of life is the best way to beat imposter syndrome, while keeping the anxiety at bay. In its way, kindness alone is admitting you’re imperfect, and that’s the first step to eliminating imposter syndrome.

Everyone Has Imposter Syndrome

Others may not be ready to admit it, but they’re in the same boat you are. The people you work with think they’re terrible developers, and that their code sucks, and their ideas are garbage and everyone hates them.

Studies suggest about 70 percent of people admit to feeling imposter syndrome at some point. Wikipedia defines imposter syndrome as “a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” And that’s just the beginning; it gets better:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

You might read that and think, “Oh, wow, that’s me!” But if 70 percent or more have the same feeling, it’s not just you. Part of the problem is that we internalize our fears, and compare our work to what others produce.

It’s natural, but this is also the potential start of that negative death-roll we discussed earlier. This moment of self-doubt is also the best time to pull yourself out of the spiral. When you’re feeling inferior, just know it’s more common than you think.

Upward Trajectory

The quicker you admit you’re just as good (or bad!) as everyone else, the better and more fulfilling your professional life will be. We’re all in the same boat!

You can’t know it all. Nor can you do everything yourself. The best you can do is be resourceful (Google it; everyone does), objective and positive. With those tools, you’ll be well on your way to a happier, more fulfilling professional experience.

8 Responses to “How to Beat Imposter Syndrome Once and for All”

  1. And what does getting stuck unemployed for two years for the same type of jobs you performed for eight years say about you? If there is a worse thing to foster imposter syndrome that being rejected hundreds of times for jobs you are well qualified for, I don’t know of it.

    • I believe you’re attributing this symptom to the wrong cause. There’s a pattern (getting jobs through recruiters) that needs to be broken NOW in order to succeed. I have noticed that I get more and more garbage inquiries from lazy-ass recruiters who, instead of knowing their industry(ies) and serving them well, rely on poorly constructed queries and firing off buckshot-blast inquiries, letting the applicants screen themselves. Get rid of the middle man, they’re just a worthless drag on our industry and your career. I hate to say this, but recruitment firms have become the replacement for dry-cleaning/convenience store businesses in the new millennium, attracting people who otherwise have no value (in fact, the dry cleaners and 7-11 owners are probably more hardworking and ethical.)

      If you’ve already tried eliminating the “pimps” in the equation, then I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you need to learn a new skill or two. I know I repeatedly fall in to that trap, because things change so fast now and I’m not one to employ new technologies at a job just to get them on my resume like a lot of people do.

      Best of luck.

      • After getting burned on three almost-hires-if-not-for-the-fees by recruiters, I have stopped communicating with them entirely. The unethical behavior of these mass-recruiting scams is very off-putting. I only deal directly with companies now.

        As for learning, in 20 years I have never stopped learning new things in my career path (I started programming software 20 years ago as a hobby, made it my career 10 years ago). It’s non-stop changes for sure. I also am not in the habit of using a technology just for the sake of using it. I prefer to find the right tool and apply that aptly rather than dig deep on the wrong technology and have to do damage control when it all backfires.

        My problem lies in doing fifty back-to-back technical interviews with the same approximate questions that don’t go anywhere. I burn out on social interactions like that. Give me a low-priority ticket to resolve and let me ask questions as needed then send you a pull request with the task completed. Either I am good enough to DO the work, or I am not, enough with this socialization bullshit already, I’m looking for work not a playground.

        • Wow! Very nicely said. So many development jobs are more focused on the playground. I want to go to work, get things done, stay late whenever needed but when it’s time to leave for the day I don’t need video game tournaments, skateboarding around the office or hanging out at bars or some other hipster activity. I have another life back home that I need to tend to. What’s unfortunate is that what I just wrote – many people would say – he’s not a good culture fit. Someone who cares more about working than socializing is not a good fit. Crazy times.

  2. dcbaubau07

    completely agree with the dialogue stream above: its not the playground or “socialization” we should be paid for, it is the work, the contribution and “work ethic” we bring to the table that we should be compensated for. To update that old socialist maxim, “Workers [not players] of the world unite!” …. and let’s produce something that we are proud of, that works for our employers and makes a significant contribution to the larger business we are part of. -dcb

    P.S. Prosperous New Year to all you “workers”!!

  3. Harish Singh

    I dont believe it that one after working for a long time feels such things as imposter syndrome etc. And for couch potatoes like the writer to say that ask for help etc is stating the obvious. Captain obvious everyone including those like you who believ that at one point or the other everyone and that I believ at least includes you feels like an imposter!! and then you seek help and admit it? What a bunch of pious baloney is this? Maybe you picked it at some MBA school. Things change and one also has to evolve. You run, you learn and stumble but at no point does a true professional feel like an imposter. I wonder how the writer socializes with colleagues whom he suspects all consider themselves imposters. Go take a drink and chill.

  4. Not everyone has impostor syndrome. See “Dunning Kruger Effect”. Usually the people who are actually good can see their flaws. Those who are clueless think they are perfect.