How imposter syndrome can be helpful

My ongoing battle with imposter syndrome means I'm...progressing?

This short little talk by front-end developer Garth Braithwaite gave me a new perspective on the impostor syndrome. He argues that having impostor syndrome indicates that you are competent enough in your craft to know, to some degree, what is good and what isn’t. If you didn’t, and you’re not an expert in your craft (yet 🙂 ), you may not even know that (you’re not an expert).

(Braithwaite also cites a nice quote by Ira Glass, who comments that many highly successful people he knows experienced impostor syndrome for many years before and during their career breakthroughs.)

The argument harks back to Socrates’ “ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat“.

Those who know best know that I’ve agonized night and day for the past few years about my competence as a programmer. Frankly, my landing into the software development profession was a great, fortunate stroke of chance. I was lucky that my first position in the profession was pretty easy-going (despite my unwarranted stress and fear of getting fired for being a phony), allowing me to gather my bearings emotionally, mentally, skill-wise, and knowledge-wise at a decent pace. My current position demands leagues more, and I had incredibly steep learning curves for several knowledge gaps to conquer.  How I learned was likely not ideal, but I at least had the sense to know, from the experts in the field I found whose code, knowledge, and logic I admire, that I desperately needed to improve.

I’m still not an expert, but I can say that I no longer think I’m an impostor. I’ve overcome the hardest parts of those learning curves–I think. 🙂 I stress much less about my competency at work and instead excitedly and eagerly think through the problems I need to solve to build what I need to build. When I don’t know something (which is probably every three minutes?), I know now what questions I need to ask and how to decipher given answers–mostly! Knowing what to ask and how to decipher answers seems to me one of the important things in moving forward with learning. Of course, this very thing is what has taken me all of those days and nights of studying, asking my mentors for help, and practicing to develop.

In retrospect, as Braithwaite argues, my impostor syndrome drove me to better myself so that I could eventually convince myself that I really am not an impostor–at least not anymore. 🙂 To put a caveat on this praise of my impostor syndrome, given how it can drive many people into depression, I am incredibly grateful that other parts in my life, especially my support system, have been relatively awesome so that I could keep on pushing to become the more confident software developer, and person, that I am today.

Not only am I more confident as a developer, I can see that I was being unreasonable in comparison to my peers. Career counselor Valerie Young says this is the source of impostor syndrome:

…the root of the problem appears to be ‘very unrealistic notions of what it means to be competent’ and … that people ‘set this internal bar exceedingly high.’
(Source: Science)

I became obsessed with improving to be like the experts and consequently comparing myself negatively to them that I often forgot my employers and peers don’t expect me to be an expert right now. They know my background–especially that I’m early in my career–and though I may have had more knowledge gaps than other candidates, I expressed my feverish desire to improve. Now, with the danger of sounding pretentious, I believe I’ve surpassed most or all of my peers, and I eagerly think about the hopefully-near-future in which I improve even more to become an expert in my craft, someone others can turn to for mentorship.