The Impostor Condition Sucks
I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Zach, I think you meant ‘Impostor Syndrome,’ don’t worry though, we forgive you!” In this case, I really do mean Impostor Condition. I use the term condition to mean: “a particular mode of being of a person or thing; existing state; situation with respect to circumstances.” I’m leading with this because I’m not concerned about whether it is a syndrome or due to tech being hard or has a root cause of something else. I only know there are people who have a state of existence in which they (with some frequency) feel like an impostor.
In case you’re not familiar with what that feels like, Scott Roberts describes it aptly in one of his blog posts: “Imposter Syndrome is like the boogie man: open the closet, turn on the lights, look around, and you see that nothing is there. But it never goes away entirely. It’s just temporarily gone, and you’ll have to expose it again.”
Reading to this point means there are two powerful things going for you. First of all, you are aware the Impostor Condition exists. As many others have shared on the subject, there is some power in knowing about it. In my opinion, even more powerfully, you have also started to do something about it. Perhaps, doing something about it could make all the difference.
Let me be the first to submit: I don’t have the magic bullet. I do have personal experience confronting the Impostor Condition and a willingness to talk about it. Transitioning from an engineering student surrounded by brilliant peers to a software engineer surrounded by brilliant associates with a dozen years of industry experience creates a precarious position for anyone.
Posted below is an approximation of the team I walked into on my first day with SEP.
I’ll be honest with you: a degree didn’t feel like it was worth much in my first team (if ever). There are things I am not good at. Like creating graphics. I know there are things I excel at. I’ve been told I ask great questions and have impressive insights for someone with my tenure at the company. I’ve been told I have (passable, wink) people skills that can sometimes be difficult to train or learn.
Discovering these areas I excel in did not happen due to a mastery of self-identifying my characteristics. I discovered it because I have been told I am good at these skills. I choose to believe the people who have told me these things. Personally, I think one of the most powerful decisions I have made as an engineer is to be willing to believe the people who tell me my strengths. The voice in my head that whispers my weaknesses may not believe them, but I do. In other words, I had to learn to accept positive feedback.
There are a few other things that I have found to be helpful. Treating code reviews as part of the learning experience can be a powerful tool for fighting against the feelings of being an impostor. Continuing to learn, in general, is a helpful tool. This can be difficult depending on what kind of environment you work in.
Lastly, I’ll share a personal story. Whilst in the midst of writing this article I had a memorable conversation with a friend of mine. In fairness, it took me about 3 hours over 6 months to write (but this event occurred towards the beginning of that period). Our conversation began as we started talking generally about life. Eventually, it took a turn towards their fear surrounding an upcoming technical interview. They started to describe to me how they felt weakly skilled compared to their peers even with positive, successful technical internships. I ended up directing them to resources on Impostor Syndrome. They responded to me a little while later saying “I didn’t know it was a real thing, I thought it was just me”.
In closing, here are some resources I found useful on this topic: