Mavnn's blog

Stuff from my brain

Deliberate Poster: Fighting Imposter Syndrome

I first became aware of Imposter Syndrome via an excellent blog post by Scott Hanselman, but it immediately struck true. I'm a self taught programmer who dropped out of a Maths degree, and even now with years of experience that voice is there at the back of my head:

  • "You still make off by one errors, and you think you can train people?"
  • "How could you have let that bug slip by? It's obvious, I thought you knew what you were doing?"
  • "You want people to pay you for this? How exactly are you justifying that one to yourself?"

Normally I just try and tell it to shut up: everyone makes mistakes sometimes, I deliver stuff people get value from, etc.

But a few days back, something interesting happened. I'd hit a problem that looked like it should be simple, and I'd been bashing my head against it for a couple of days. The imposter critic was out in force: "call yourself a coder?". So I stepped back, took a deep breath, told the voice to stuff it and did the sensible thing. I asked my co-director (and wife) for help.

Now, this isn't asking a random person off the street for assistance. She has a high level post-graduate degree in mathematics, is ridiculously good at spotting patterns and logical deduction and has done some programming in the past herself (of the type you do during a maths degree).

It took me over an hour to explain what the actual problem was.

And as I dived through the OO patterns, domain specific knowledge and implementation constraints that built up into this "simple" problem it occurred to me that maybe I had learnt something over the years. That maybe I wasn't as much of an imposter as the voice was trying to tell me. That possibly, just maybe, not being able to solve this problem, right here, right now, didn't make me less valuable as a person or less competent as a professional. That the very fact I had this problem was actually evidence that I had a clue what I was doing, or else I wouldn't have been able to get here.

So, a technique for all the "imposters" out there when the voice fires up: be deliberate in reminding yourself that you're actually a poster. Don't fight the voice with generalities (even if they're true) - fight it with specifics.

Even if the specifics are "2 years ago I didn't know enough to get myself into this mess".

And you know the bonus extra of this technique? It fights Dunning-Kruger too…

I'll just be leaving this post lying around here so that my wife can post me a link to it next time I'm in the imposter blues.