April 20th, 2018
One Degree of Separation – The Mind of the Impostor

I’m a fake.

Everything that I know how to do, I’ve taught myself. Normally, this would be an admirable quality, at least prospective employers usually say so. But to me, I’m always lacking that extra oomph that college grads have. When I compare myself to other developers, I feel like I’m O-Town comparing myself to the Backstreet Boys. I’ll just never feel…up to par.

I’m not the only web developer that feels like this – in fact, most self-taught devs have some feeling of inferiority when placed amongst their college-educated peers in the field. Believe it or not, 70% of the population will suffer from the same syndrome at some point in their lives. There’s a name for this.

It’s called impostor syndrome.

Web developers are far from the only professionals to suffer from it. Doctors, engineers, writers, everyone can suffer from it. The majority of those who do are over-achievers, most likely as a result of the syndrome.

What is impostor syndrome, exactly? I can give you two definitions. One is the standard definition as described by professionals on the subject; The other, a definition shaped by personal experience.

Definition #1

It starts with recognising it in yourself and others. Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.

This excellent description of impostor syndrome was described by Gill Corkindale from the Harvard Business Review, and it hits the nail right on the head. The described sense of falsehood leads to obsession over perfection and evading failure at all costs in the sufferer’s field.

Can it be good? It’s definitely driven a few people to extreme success, such as Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, John Green (author of “The Fault in Our Stars”), and Michelle Pfeiffer, all of which have reported feeling like the impostor.

The negative effects can outweigh the positives, though. It can lead to depression, anxiety, self-doubt, shame, excess stress (which, if you think isn’t a big deal, releases cortisol, which can be very damaging if thrown out of balance), and low confidence.

Definition #2

I’ve never really been able to perform well under scrutiny. I sweat, I shake, and my mind races and goes blank simultaneously. I forget how to do things that I’ve done a thousand times. It feels like the watcher is going to mock me for my pitiful display of non-existent ability and I don’t blame them, because clearly I’ve been faking this the entire time.

I’ve gotten where I am in life primarily because, despite what my wife might say, I can charm people into liking me. I have a knack for appearing confident, even when that is far from the case. So people tend to give me what I want, and so I am where I am today.

At least that’s how I view it.

Most folks with imposter syndrome feel some version of what I’ve just described, and have experienced the exact same symptoms, and they feel them every day.

Impostor syndrome is an ongoing battle – take me, for example. Just today, I was working on adding some features to a client’s website. I ran into a few challenges, and ended up having to reach out for help. For someone with impostor syndrome, reaching out for help is a struggle in itself. As far as we’re concerned, it comes with the anxiety of being exposed as the frauds we feel like.

Throughout my short 28 years on this earth, I’ve learned plenty of things. I write fiction, essays, and poetry. I play the drums, any percussion instrument in a marching band, piano, and guitar. I can draw, I can build an entire, fairly complex website from scratch. I take fairly decent pictures. I can even cook up a few awesome meals. The list goes on. Why so much? Am I just a really interested guy?

Because I feel like a fake. I feel like I’m mediocre at all of those things. I especially feel like I’m mediocre as a web developer.

A perfect dystopia

The Internet has given us the ability to peek into absolutely everyone’s lives. but not their real lives – their synthetic lives that have been processed and filtered, much like a newscast in the movie “V for Vendetta”. But it still affects us. We don’t see the failures of our digital neighbors, and so to us, it’s almost like they never fail. And so what are we left with to compare ourselves to? Perfection.

For developers, Stack Overflow is one of the biggest comparisons we see. Stack Overflow can make a developer feel like an absolute novice in this field. The folks on that site can dev the crap out of anything. They can build you a program that will tell you your future and if you don’t like it, they’ll build you another program that will tell you how to strategically change it, all while telling you how dumb you are for not seeing the answer to your exact same question in an archived post from 2004.

Put it in perspective

If you’re someone who deals with this same issue, like you’re a kid on Power Wheels driving next to Mario Andretti, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. You are only human. Some of these people are robots. That is, they do absolutely nothing except for build and develop and code, and they most likely have impostor syndrome, too.
  2. Eventually software will do your job for you and you won’t have to worry about being the best, because literally no one will be.
  3. Everyone feels unqualified. At least, the overwhelming majority do. According to this post, 88% of developers surveyed reported experiencing the syndrome at some point in their career.
  4. Your set of circumstances is totally unique, and relative to what they are, I’d wager that you’re doing just fine, if you’re putting the effort in.
  5. If you have this issue because you’re a self taught dev, just remember that even coming out of college, most CS grads still don’t know enough to be effective in the field, and that you most likely have more practical experience than they do. Plus, you probably don’t have as much debt (sorry, grads).

Another thing to do is to take a collective look at your entire career, and map out your progress. You don’t have to buy a poster board like it’s for the science fair, just map it out in your head. Again, as long as you’ve met the prerequisite of putting in the effort, I’d bet that you’ve made significant progress. The moral is: comparison kills. Focus on your own progress.

Confidence is key

Of course, building confidence is key to overcoming this syndrome. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Ask questions. Sometimes, as we all know, Stack Overflow doesn’t have the answer we need. Read this next statement carefully – there’s no shame in asking questions. None at all. You will be more respected for it, and you will learn.
  • Keep track of accomplishments. Every week, take 10 to record everything you accomplished that week. When you really feel the impostor rearing it’s hooded head, look back on the list. It’ll put things in perspective for you.
  • Find a company that cares about you and your growth. Smart companies know that with individual growth comes quality work and happy employees. This might be a difficult thing to find, but take it from someone who’s finally found a company like that for the first time in his career – it’s totally worth it.

In the constantly-evolving world that software and the web is, it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind, or like it’s impossible to keep up. The bad news is, it is impossible to keep up. The good news is, everyone else is behind, too. So logically, you shouldn’t feel inferior. I know how you code monkeys love logic.