I don’t think imposter syndrome is only a diversity problem, but it is a bigger problem for people who don’t stereotypically fit in. I think the core of it is about belonging.
I’m pretty much the generic cis white male tech nerd stereotype and I struggle with feeling like I belong. I can’t imagine being in a non-sterotypical group (both in terms of self-doubt of actual perspective taking and the normal emotional hyperbole ).
I’ll one up this: I’m a cis-het while male with a fairly long stream of senior roles at companies non-tech folks have heard of, and I still find myself looking over my shoulder on a regular basis waiting for someone to figure out I never got a college degree, learned how to code (and manage coders) on the job, and basically am unqualified to do anything I actually do based on normal gatekeeping/credentialism/etc.
That being said: I have it easy. Odds are no one is gunning for me because I’m (again) a cis-het-white dude with just the right amount of beard and a dresser drawer full of t-shirts from the cool conferences I went to back in the ’00s and ’10s. My position in the overall hierarchy is pretty secure.
So if I’m walking around feeling like I have a target on my back, how much more vulnerable should anyone without my automatic “safety net” of privilege feel?
Some random selection of folks (original author included) feeling safe enough despite coming from a non-traditional background after many years of hard-fought experience is great, but what about all the folks who failed to reach the survivorship bias threshold?
I’m honestly sad and angry about missing out on the input and support of so many brilliant, capable folks who got reflexively passed over by a recruiter or initial phone screener because their educational background, accent, gender, etc. made them seen less “qualified” by default. They should have been my peers, mentors, and friends all along, yet systematic bias removed them from the equation before we could even meet.
That makes me angry, sad, and embarrassed in equal parts.
I think that’s normal. A sense of belonging can’t come from a massive group like “tech.” It emerges from being known in much smaller contexts. There are very few shared values in tech now; whatever tech culture you have in your mind is probably still there, but simply lacks the marketing machine that is now in full force.
I think that a massive part of the problem is that most folks working with computers believe that they understand computation far better than they actually do. This leads to mismatched expectations; we expect that the computer will empathize with us and recover the gist of our encoded meanings, mostly because after spending so much time thinking like a computer, we start to disbelieve that the computer can’t think just a little bit like us.
I often say that our industry doesn’t really know how to program computers, and I imagine that the author takes umbrage with that sort of comment as encouraging impostorship. Hardly! Instead, I think that we should be much less tolerant of brashly carrying oneself around as if one understands computation.
But don’t blindly listen to me, either. I have been rude and contemptuous in the workplace when I have interacted with peers who were assigned power and responsibility but don’t understand the details of the role into which they’ve been placed, and I’m relatively certain that this rudeness comes from a fundamental unwillingness to tolerate my co-workers’ overcomfident self-images.
I like this line of thinking.
Perhaps what we think of as “healthy” levels of self-confidence isn’t exactly helpful when dealing with computers. But, due to the context many of us operate within, it is expected that we perform in this way, and we become the role we were told to be, regardless of whether it’s the best fit.
The world certainly biases for over-confidence, because it produces action, and action begets Results(tm). I’d even say it’s not wrong for optimizing for this, based on my personal experience. If I’m feeling low, sometimes the best thing to do is to just do something. But just because Something > Nothing doesn’t mean Something is even close to the better thing to do in a situation. And that better thing you can only reach by conscious, painful deliberation that doesn’t involve shipping.
This is really good and important point, which I think deserves some broader framing. It’s not just some abstract concept of “computation” that we computer people don’t understand nearly as well as we’d like to think. We mostly don’t even understand the concrete technologies that we work with every day. How could we? There are huge stacks of them, with every layer full of shifting complex details. What’s essential and what’s merely incidental about any arbitrary sample of this mess? Even the experts don’t often agree! Overall, computing is a very ambitious, heterogeneous, and immature field. But it’s not just computers that we need to understand to do our work: it’s human cognition, economics, hyper-localized “business logic”, a handful of application-specific (or sometimes more general) mathematical and scientific theories… and endless tangles of historical detail.
But somehow, we have to get things done, so we blunder bravely forward – or at least, those of us who do stand a better chance of survival. This biases the field towards those who can cope with the uncertainty, either through worry or through denial.
Growing up I used to have inferiority complex although I was very good in academics. This made it even harder for me to discuss this with others. Later as I made my way into Computer Industry, got access to Google to do more search; it turns out that it was not the complex, but something even bigger and everyone calls it as Imposter Syndrome
Also as I explored more and more on this; I realized it’s not me but almost everyone around has this issue. But many of us don’t understand, this is a very common feeling and there is a better way to deal with as the Author hear says finding the distinction and using it as positive feedback to move forward.
It took many many years for me to understand this and find out ways to deal with it. Now I’m much relaxed and confident towards my goals. Last month I’d given the opportunity to talk in front of my Alma Mater where I told students about the same and how to deal with it rather than running away.
I think we should more talk about it and let newcomers know it’s a quite natural feeling; nothing wrong. Only use the right techniques to get over it and make it a healthy doubt!
This reads like good advice, but I think it’s missing one very important thing: you alone aren’t in full control whether your self-doubt can even be healthy or not. Certain (work) environments enable you to turn it into something healthy (and I am happy the author seems to have created such a place), but others are so toxic that admitting any kind of self-doubt would suck you into a very unhealthy vortex of malevolence and what not really quickly. Turning everything into “this is just impostor syndrome, move on” might be one of the few viable options people with self doubt have in such places.
Allowing self-doubt for your peers has to come before allowing it for yourself.
I remember at an Erlang conference, there was a question to Robert Virding and Mike Williams (co-creators of the lang) about how do they deal with `imposter syndrome.’ They were dumbfounded; they had no idea what that concept could even mean.
I had that happen once with a co-founder. Had to explain the concept. In retrospect that explained a lot of things about them and our relationship (both the good and the bad).
I’ve never had impost syndrome, it’s a mystery to me. But then I got started in programming during the 80’s with 8 bit micros. In those days tech was hugely uncool (in my area), and there was more of a culture among enthusiast around sharing knowledge and knowhow. I have noticed there tends in todays coders there seems to be a lot more one upsmanship and showing off which I try to discourage any chance I get.
Pretty much every engineer I’m friends with and respect have experienced imposter syndrome to some degree, or at the very least are good at acknowledging what they don’t know. I’m sure that more severe cases of a lack of confidence can hold folks back. In my experience though, it’s always the folks with an overblown sense of knowing more than they actually know who make the worst engineers. Again, IME, when one thinks they’ve learned all there is to learn, they tend to stall out at a pretty medium-low level of proficiency. And (still IME) what compounds this is they tend to be impervious to feedback and code review since of course they already know everything.
Egotistical overconfidence is a very real problem in my experience too; when acknowledged, it often gets glossed as “Dunning-Kruger”. It’s hard to say how prevalent it really is, compared to “Impostor Syndrome”, but it’s certainly much more visible. I wouldn’t want to even begin to speculate on which end of this continuum is more damaging overall, but I think it’s worth pointing out that there is a continuum, and a happy medium zone within it, where reasonable confidence and healthy self-doubt can coexist in non-toxic harmony. It’s not just a matter of individual differences, either: different social circumstances and even different fields of endeavor warrant different levels of self-assurance.
Totally agree re. continuum. I also think that, while the “middle path” of an appropriate sense of self-confidence + a health dose of self-reflection is the ideal, my controversial take is that in small doses, imposter syndrome can be a really effective motivator. I’m not sure if it’s a healthy one, but of the really high-performing folks I’ve known, many of them will downplay their contributions or even be self-deprecating at times.