“Impostor Syndrome” – when I first heard the concept, a co-worker explained it to me at MIT Lincoln Laboratory as being a feeling along these lines:
Against all odds, you fooled your interviewers. They saw technical skills where there is none. You may have the job now, but it’s only a matter of time before everyone finds out that you do not belong here. The clock is ticking….
This isn’t the reality, but this is a pervasive, creeping feeling that many techies have labeled “Impostor Syndrome”. And in my experience, the more successful a person, the more likely they have experienced imposter syndrome deeply.
Defeating an enemy often first involves discovering or assigning a name to them. It’s knowing /who/ your enemy is.
I’m going to elaborate on the name a bit for this article, there may be other forms of Impostor Syndrome, but let’s call what we deal with here and now “Impostor Syndrome as Named by Techies” or ISNT.
Beyond the feeling described at the beginning of this post, ISNT makes us feel like we cannot and we are not. It feeds off of us when we compare ourselves to others, for though we see the inner turmoil in the black box that we occupy, we do not see it in the black boxes to our left and right.
The black box analogy highlights why I love Errors Should Never Pass Silently – the Zen of Python – applied to us humans writing Python. It’s one thing to know that most devs struggle with imposter syndrome, but it’s another to see through their eyes for a bit and to know that what’s happening inside their black box is not so different from what’s happening in yours.
A Story About Responsibility
ISNT makes us feel like we are the only ones responsible for who we are and what we do.
I haven’t felt the dread of ISNT in my tech world too often, but in the arena of performance, it has haunted me for most of my life.
One of the most life-changing moments for me happened at the end of my basic training intro into the Air Force Academy. After weeks of eat-breathe-sleep military training and study, I still didn’t feel confident about the exam ahead of me. I admitted this to my training officer. His response shocked me then and it is still something that I often ponder today:
“If you don’t do well on this exam, Basic Jones, that’s my fault, not yours.”
Every exam in my life up to that point had been on my shoulders, and I had earned my fair share of glory. In basic training, our cadre go to great lengths encourage our understanding of what succeeding as a team and what failing as a team looks like. I found most of these lessons obnoxiously heavy handed, but when Cadet Bates took responsibility for my exam, something beautiful was engraved on my mind:
I am not alone.
I have been prepared for this moment.
Failure will be endured together and life will continue.
ISNT forces the assumption that you are alone. You must prove yourself worthy and if you have help then any success doesn’t count.
I did well on the memorization test that day. I did not always get high marks on such things but Cadet Bates always had my back and taught me the most valuable lesson I’ve ever comprehended in leadership:
It’s scary to be alone. But anyone you see, doesn’t have to be.
Much love, fam!