“Everyone knows what they’re doing… except me. I’ve cheated my way into this position, and one day everyone’s going to find out the truth.”
“I’m a fraud.”
If you find yourself feeling this way on a regular basis, it’s very likely that you’re experiencing “Impostor Syndrome”.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Wikipedia defines Impostor Syndrome as “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.”
The term was first coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in an article observing over 150 highly successful women. Many of the observed women tended to believe they were “not intelligent”, and that they were “over-evaluated by others”.
But this isn’t an experience exclusive to over-achieving women. Studies indicate that Impostor Syndrome may affect as much as 70% of the population. (Source: Pauline Rose Clance). It can strike anyone; well-known public figures including Tom Hanks, Tina Fey, Chuck Lorre, Neil Gaiman, and Emma Watson are all reported to have experienced Impostor Syndrome at some point during their careers.
Impostor Syndrome can run rampant through the technological and digital world, which evolves at such a fast rate that everything feels like it’s immediately obsolete. We’re rarely given the chance to become (or feel like) experts in our field before we have to start learning all over again.
How Impostor Syndrome Creeps Up on You
As a developer, I’ve experienced Impostor Syndrome on many occasions (like right now, writing this blog for example…). At its worst, it can cause something I’d liken to “mental paralysis”, where your fear of imperfection results in an inability to actually do any work.
When you’re just starting out, you don’t have this fear. Anything is possible. But then you learn more. You make mistakes. You start to realise that the work you were proud of isn’t good enough. You listen to experts and ‘thought leaders’ tell you why your work isn’t good enough, and why their way is the only correct way to do things.
All of a sudden, the simple website, plugin, or script you wrote feels vastly inferior.
“Sure, it loads fast now, but will it scale?”
“What happens when you reach a million visitors?”
“Your code doesn’t follow SRP!”
“What happens if you need to switch framework in 5 years?”
Years of unexpected production errors, conference talks, and aggressive Twitter discussions are running through your head whenever you try to get started. You can’t just hack away at the code until it does what you need like you used to… Now everything takes careful planning and weeks of research. You even close down your public GitHub repositories, because they’re just embarrassing now.
“Keep an open mind to new ways of doing things, but trust yourself to judge whether something is appropriate for your situation or not.”
Overcoming the Paralysis
Imagine all of the incredible artwork, stories, or films which would never have been made if their creators had become paralysed over public opinion or awards before getting started. Getting out of this headspace is as important for your own mental health as it is for efficiency and productivity.
The dev team at atomix find it useful to remind ourselves of these points when Impostor Syndrome strikes, but really, anyone in our industry could find some relief by taking a moment to refocus and refresh your mind.
Your colleagues are on your side
Some of the people who understand your skills better than anyone else are likely sitting next to you right now. Talk to your co-workers about work that you’re worried about or about areas you’d like to improve.
Aside from the fact that they’ll likely feel relieved that they aren’t the only one experiencing feelings like this, your team should be able to provide you with some encouragement and reassurance about your expertise and value. They might even have their own methods of combating Impostor Syndrome that they can share with you.
Share your work
If you have a mentor or industry professional who’s opinion you trust and respect, share your work with them to get some honest feedback. You’ll almost certainly get some positive feedback that will surprise you, as well as some constructive criticism that could improve your project!
Remind yourself of those positive comments whenever you start to feel like you’re hopeless or stuck.
Start small, aim big
Sometimes just getting started is the hardest bit. If you’re struggling to take that crucial first step, try building a part (or designing a template, or writing a section) that you already know back-to-front. Ticking that first task of the list will help you build momentum and focus for the harder or more in depth tasks.
Remember, everyone is in the same situation
Those “thought leaders” and experts we talked about before? They’re in the exact same place as you. They’re still trying to make sense of everything, and as soon as they find a solution to a problem, they stick to it. If that solution happens to solve more than one problem, they become evangelists for it. They write books, they give talks, and they’re unwilling to look at alternatives.
It’s important to remember that the solutions, technologies, or methodologies that worked for those experts are just what worked for them. They may not suit your situation. If your process or solution is working for you, there’s no reason why you should feel like it’s inferior, especially if you’ve tried the other opportunity with no success.
Keep an open mind to new ways of doing things, but trust yourself to judge whether something is appropriate for your situation or not.