Dealing With Imposter Syndrome

by Jan 11, 2016

Growing up, one of the things I helped my father with is building things. I often joke about his “random acts of woodworking”, but I can fondly remember helping him build bookcases, decks, and other projects. As an adult, I’ve tried my hand at a few projects of my own.  None of them have turned out as well as what I’ve seen my dad build, but I keep trying. Why? Because it is fun and I can see that I’m getting better.

This situation is very similar when it comes to technical careers, something I see many of my colleagues and peers struggle with. Day in and day out, we are challenged to solve problems and answer questions that push us to our limits. This means we’ll often leverage the knowledge of others: senior team members, bloggers online, or technical handbooks written by field experts. This can be very discouraging, because it engenders a feeling that we are not actually solving problems, but instead using the work of others in place of our own. This is the infamous Imposter Syndrome.

I run into this most often when I talk with other community members about public speaking. I’m a passionate believer in presenting on technical topics. It is a wonderful learning tool and a great way to elevate yourself in your peer community. However, when I bring it up with people who have not presented, they will usually tell me “Oh, I don’t have anything to present on” or “I really don’t know much”. The challenge is to overcome three specific hurdles that stand between us and recognizing our contributions.

Standing On The Shoulders of Giants

The first subject to attack is that of others knowing so much more than we do. This will always be true, as there is so much information to cover and it is a rare occasion where we find ourselves blazing a trail where no one else has gone. What we need to keep in mind is that, while someone else may have figured something out, we have the opportunity to build on it and share it with a larger audience.

Sharing someone else’s knowledge does not diminish our value to the process, nor does it take away from the original author of the work. The obvious caveat here is that we should always give credit back to that author, but our ability to share it has a twofold effect. The first is that we increase the audience size, making more people aware of a piece of knowledge. The second is that we make that knowledge our own, learning from someone else and using it to enhance our own skills and abilities.

Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

The second hurdle has to do with surrounding ourselves with smart people. When you are involved in the community or even have some strong talent at your workplace, it is easy to forget your own skill level. “Echo Chamber” is a phrase that commonly describes what happens when you associate with people of the same opinion, but it can also describe the challenges of an unbalanced comparison of your abilities with others.

I experience this regularly with the SQL community. When I talk with people at a SQL Saturday or the PASS Summit, I am sometimes overwhelmed by how much everyone knows and the talents on display. What gets lost in the mix is that this group is a very small subsection of people who care about their career enough to learn more. While there are smart and knowledgeable folks outside of these events, the proportions are much smaller. It is important to remember what it means to be involved in the community and what it provides.

Owning It

The final hurdle to overcome is the recognition of our own talents and skills. While we learn from others, it is often difficult to recognize that learning from others makes the knowledge our own as well. Another way to think about it is that while we individually may not have created the hammer, having one in our toolbox means it is our hammer and we can use it. In fact, the more we use it means the more other ways we can apply and grow our abilities further.

Really, though, it is a matter of confidence. The real challenge here is many technical folks are wired to be merit focused. We believe that if we do good work, others will naturally recognize it and that any sort of self-promotion is seen as egotistical. The problem here is that what we do is seen as “voodoo magic” by many of those around us. This means it falls on us to demonstrate, explicitly, our skills. This is not a matter of self aggrandizement, but instead a function of marketing ourselves and knowing our worth.

Pride In Your Work

The culmination of this and the antithesis of the imposter syndrome is to recognize the value of your own accomplishments. While the tech industry is often defined by “fake it until you make it”, I think we often lose sight that many of make it. When we make it, we are no longer imposters or fakers, but acknowledged experts in our field. This is part of the sum total of our experience and our knowledge, making it part of our contributions to ourselves and those around us.