Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is defined 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 really nasty thing about imposter syndrome is that the smarter you are, the longer it takes to hit you. And it hits you harder when it shows up.

“It tends to hit when a lot of things you are second order ignorant of become first order ignorant.”

In general, it occurs when the inevitable plateau in learning happens. Generally it’s a crippling feeling like you are being a fraud and in imminent danger of being found out. Beyond anything else you must understand, you need to realize that it’s part of the journey. It’s also a phase that repeats over time. Imposter syndrome hits a large percentage developers at some point. It can be a very damaging experience until you find ways to cope with the feeling. That said, there are many practical strategies you can use to overcome it.

Episode Breakdown

16:25 Accept Your Wins

“The appropriate humility is ‘hey I did what had to be done.'”

It’s really easy to be “humble” and treat your victories as something that you didn’t earn. Only people at a very high level can afford to be “humble”. You might not be able to do so and that’s ok. Ultimately, the inability to internalize success is worse than any arrogance you could have.

19:20 Jump Before You Are Ready to Leap

“This forces you to push yourself a little bit harder.”

The greatest personal growth comes by taking on what you don’t think you are ready to handle. This will force your growth (or your failure). Either way, you’ll know where you are. Resolving things for good or ill is often better for your mood than not knowing.

22:15 Put Yourself Out There

Nothing kills the sense that you are fake as fast as a ten minute conversation with the type of people who are trying to do what you are trying to do. This is not an insult, but it’s really easy to compare yourself to the top of your field when you are only a year or two in. That’s not particularly fair to yourself.

It also makes learning from those people difficult. You will also learn a lot by teaching and will get a more realistic assessment of where most people’s skills actually are.

24:52 Plan Ahead

“That’s where you get the flow to look like an expert.”

If you are adequately prepared for what you are doing, it’s much easier to come across like you know what you are doing, because that’s what experienced people do themselves. Planning ahead actually teaches you what you need to know to NOT be a fraud. That includes getting over the things that intimidate you. The other thing that planning does for you is allow you to run ideas by trusted friends and get feedback.

29:45 Consider Those Who Are More Skilled in the Proper Light

“Don’t look at people that are way better than you and think they are always going to be that way.”

It’s incredibly easy to think that the people you think are better than you will always be better than you. That’s also a very demoralizing thought. However, if you can formulate the right questions for the experts suddenly they are a resource, not competition.

35:35 Realize Where You Are Better

It’s really easy to see the “experts” as being better than you are in all areas. You almost certainly have some deep knowledge of something that the “programming professionals” don’t have. Don’t undervalue it, even if the industry tells you otherwise. Odds are good that it isn’t any less valuable than what they know, merely that you are valuing it as less.

Monomania in tech is very much a thing. You should compare the totality of your own life experience against the level of expertise of any “expert” you come across and see if their “expertise” actually exceeds your own. This doesn’t mean that you tear down other people, merely that you stop tearing down yourself.

44:00 Stop When You Reach Your Limit

Sometimes imposter syndrome doesn’t come from pushing to your limits. Rather, it comes from trying inappropriately to exceed what you can actually do. Try to determine whether you have tried to exceed your capability. You’ll do this at some point and if you don’t admit it, you’ll feel inadequate.

Remember that it is ok to end up in over your head. It’s part of your learning process. If you aren’t getting in over your head on occasion, you aren’t learning. The best swimming teachers arrive when you are drowning.

48:08 Learn to See Failure as Part of the Process

“You learn more by failing than you do by succeeding.”

If you learn something on the first try, odds are good that it wasn’t worth learning. If you treat failure as a learning experience, it is both much easier to learn from and much easier to keep going. Remember how your learned as a child. Every step was a win – you didn’t expect to totally win in the first try.

51:00 Stop Sabotaging Your Performance

“Even if it’s a small win, it’s still a win.”

Don’t tell yourself that winning is a lesser achievement. If the win doesn’t feel big enough to matter, figure out how to make it bigger. Raise the bar, raise the pressure. You will get the confidence to do more and bigger things by pushing yourself past your level of comfort.

“Make those dull tasks challenging by making challenges for yourself.”

54:55 Don’t Get Caught On Other’s Opinions

“Haters gonna hate.”

Other people don’t realize how much effort it took to get where you are. Remember how dumb the average person is, then realize that the people mostly likely speaking to you about what you are doing are biased towards those who can’t actually execute. Haters are what you get when you do well. If you are running into them, you are headed in the right direction.

IoTease: Project

Arduino Nerf Target Alarm Clock

This project is a great introduction to piezoelectricity which is electricity formed when matter is deformed. This project uses a piezocrystal to detect the nerf dart striking the surface of the clock. It looks at the oscillation made by striking the surface to determine if it is a nerf strike or finger tap. The fun thing about the project is it doesn’t have to be used as an alarm clock it will signal any time a nerf so with a little tweeking you could make two of these targets that keep score or nerf strikes for a game.



Tricks of the Trade

There are at least two healthy ways to look at negative emotional states that last for more than a short period of time. The first is that they warn of danger and are your mind’s way of telling you to correct a bad situation before it gets worse. That is, the negative emotional impulse is an excellent driver for positive change if harnessed properly.

The second good way to look at them is as a place to harvest better behaviors. Let’s say you feel like you are an imposter at work. Besides this being an emotional state that you clearly want to get out of, it could also drive you to work harder to improve your skills.

So long as both are done within reason, this can often result in career and personal growth that you would not have had without the negative emotional state. Learn to make your problems work for you – you might find that they work really well.

Editor’s Notes:

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2 comments on “Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
  1. Jamie says:

    Hey guys,

    Great podcast – I’ve been listening for a while.

    I just wanted to say that I really appreciated the advice that you guys had for dealing with Impostor Syndrome. I really liked the “What do you call a Doctor who gets C average?”

    From my own experiences with Impostor Syndrome, I can advocate for taking some time out from the issue that you’re facing, and think about something else. Taking a walk around the building or outside can really help – I think it’s related to allowing your subconscious to deal with the problem rather than the conscious. I can’t tell you of the number of times I’ve been walking around, doing something mundane (topping off my coffee, going for a walk, taking a bathroom break) when I suddenly figure out the solution.

    Either that, or go and do something easy for a quick morale boost. I keep a list of easy tasks by my keyboard (from change the style of this heading to write that missing unit test [because we can always be testing more, right?]). Completing something small and easy can really boost your morale.

    The other thing that I found that helped was have a colleague or friend to give you a boost. I was at a 24 hour hackathon recently, and around hour 20 I started to doubt myself. I couldn’t get something to work and turned to one of the guys on my team, told him that I didn’t think I was contributing to the team. I can’t repeat exactly what he said, but the censored version would be, “Stop being an idiot! Look what we’ve done so far. You can do this.” Which echoes “Jump Before You Are Ready to Leap”

    • Beej Burns says:


      Thanks for the comment. I totally agree with you. I’ve actually had a manager tell me to go home an hour or so early because I’d been stuck for a while. The next day I came in and solved the problem within the first hour. Getting your mind off the problem and working on something else or just sleeping on it can really help. One time I got something working but didn’t like the solution it worked but was messy bad code. The next morning driving in a solution struck me and as soon as I got to my desk I tried it out. As a general rule of thumb, I’d say if you’ve been stuck and not making progress or ran out of ideas to try for 15-30 minutes move to something else and come back later. That may not be possible in all circumstances but most times coming back later with a fresh approach helps.