Impostor Syndrome: not today
Your own specific combination of skills and knowledge doesn’t look like anybody else’s because it probably can’t, but also because it shouldn’t, and it won’t. Embrace what makes you different and unique.
Impostor Syndrome is a pattern of behavior I have encountered myself a few times. I have also seen it very frequently among programmers and in the tech industry in general. I believe a certain dose of impostor syndrome is healthy and beneficial even if it doesn’t feel great. It keeps you grounded, growing and open to being wrong, among other things. However, there seems to be a threshold after which the dose starts to be harmful, and the damages outweigh the benefits. In extreme cases, it can be paralyzing.
That is why it’s important to handle it and bring the dose back to healthy levels. From my own experience and from what I have seen in others, here are 7 strategies that will help you deal with impostor syndrome. Notice that my goal here is not to get rid of it altogether, but to deal with it not allow it to run the show.
1. Accept that you are not perfect. And that’s ok
Perfection is an illusion. A beautiful illusion, so beautiful that it would be a shame to actually attain it and cage it. So, take perfection as a north star but don’t plan on getting there. The sweet spot to stop is the good enough, and if you don’t stop there, you may end up nowhere. Chasing perfection is the enemy of the good enough.
The idea that perfection is the enemy of the good enough is one that has passed the test of time, and we can find many relevant people in history referring to it.
- Aristotle, Confucius and other classical philosophers propounded the principle of the golden mean, which recommends against extremism in general.
- Voltaire said: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
- Robert Watson-Watt, who created early warning radar, said: “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.”
- Economist George Stigler said “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time at the airport.”
The same can be said about building and shipping features: if you never break something, you’re going too slow. If you never have a failed experiment, you’re not trying hard enough. I’m too familiar with the sensation that the feature you’re building is not excellent, or that the code you’re writing could be better. The goal is not to change that sensation, but to change how it affects you. Recognize it as a sign that you’re moving in the right direction and keep going.
2. In fact, nobody is perfect
Well, likely the truth is not only are you trying to be perfect and suffering from not getting there, but at the same time, you're thinking that everybody else IS indeed perfect.
I will let Draymond Green tell you in this video that no: nobody is perfect. (Green is a three-time NBA champion and a three-time NBA All-Star, and this happened during an NBA Playoffs game)
That mistake you made? Someone that you admire made it before. That question that you asked and you think was dumb? Someone that you admire made the same question. That simple method of your favorite programming language where you always need to check the documentation? Well…
I actually recommend that you take a look at the whole Twitter thread from which I took that screenshot. It’s very encouraging. And while we are here, let me share something: I’m a specialist at losing countless hours trying to debug what recent change broke my API sitting at http://locahost:8000.
Every company should provide a safe and blameless place where employees can tell about things that they did and went wrong.
3. Embrace your unique combination of skills and knowledge
When suffering with impostor syndrome, there is heavy inclination towards thinking that everyone around you knows more and is more capable than you. The truth is always far from that.
The truth is that your skills and your knowledge are different to somebody else. Skills and knowledge form a multidimensional map where nobody scores the same value for every dimension.
- The brilliant person with not so good memory
- The organized person that struggles with creativity
- The extremely detailed person that moves slowly
- That extremely fast person that doesn’t pay attention to details
- The smart person that lacks consistency
- The great problem solver that doesn’t work well in a team
The list goes on and on with literally thousands of possible combinations. Nobody has all the positive ones - remember; nobody is perfect.
Your own specific combination of skills and knowledge doesn’t look like anybody else’s because it probably can’t, but also because it shouldn’t, and it won’t. Embrace what makes you different and unique. As Naval Ravikant said, “Nobody can be better at being you than yourself.”
4. Stop comparing yourself to others
While the previous point is really valuable, the north star should be to just not compare yourself to others.
Two conditions have to be met in your relationship with your coworkers for impostor syndrome to appear:
- Thinking of your coworkers as competitors instead of comrades.
- Thinking that your coworkers are better than you, and they’ll find you’re a fraud.
Sadly, 1 is something that can potentially fall out of your control. You may find yourself working in a team where there is certain competition within the members. This is not desirable but something that is not entirely up to you to fix. Other times, the environment will be one of camaraderie, but you can still perceive it as a competition. Which takes us to the second point.
Regardless of whether your coworkers are better than you, the question you should ask is this: does it matter? Every minute you spend thinking about that is a minute you’re certainly wasting and not improving yourself. If you focus your attention on that for too long, then you will start to see your coworkers as competitors and not as comrades.
5. Focus on your growth
How good or bad your coworkers are is not the issue. But how good or bad you are is also not the issue. The question you need to ask yourself is this: Am I growing?
In math words:
“A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept” - Professor John Ousterhout at Stanford
When you measure yourself for your growth, no matter the result of the measurement, you can be sure that you are measuring the right thing. Not growing is bad, growing is good. Period. You don’t measure yourself for your absolute y-intercept, neither should you measure yourself by how it compares to others.
This is the framework that worked for me:
- Every day, write down 3 things that you learned on that day, no matter how small they were.
- Every 6 months, look back and think what were you doing 6 months ago. If a lot things have not changed since then, that’s a red flag.
6. Be grateful if you are working with smart, capable and successful people
A really good work environment can still make you feel like some sort of impostor if you get overwhelmed by the smart, capable and successful people around you.
This is a classical perception problem in which changing the perception turns the problem into a blessing. It may be hard to realize when you are going through the process and the struggles of learning. However, one day you will look back, and you will be amazed at how much you have grown. There would have been no other environment that would have made you grow as much.
You’re literally going in a rocket ship. You’re working hard, for sure, but the absolute speed is not just a direct outcome of your effort. It’s an outcome of your effort plus the fantastic environment you are in.
Think of how many people are stuck in the exact opposite. They may even be working harder than you, but they are going in a leaky boat and will never go as far as you will.
Dealing with impostor syndrome is about internalizing that perfection is an elusive illusion, adjusting the interpretation of the environment that you are working in and focusing uniquely and exclusively on your own growth without comparing yourself to anybody else.
The goal should not be to eliminate impostor syndrome but to neutralize it. Taking courage and being a warrior to excess would manifest instead as recklessness. As suggested by the ancient Greek philosophers, the golden middle way is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Don’t be too fearful, but also don’t be too confident, and you’ll find the right balance to keep growing while Impostor Syndrome is still a part of your path.