Much of what we perceive about others in the workplace is their performatorycharacter – what others are inviting you to believe about themselves; it’s an attempt to become the idealizedversion of ourselves by acting the part. Most of us are very competent in the field, but even still everyone gets imposter’s syndrome from time to time. For the self-taught professionals in tech, it can be the dead body we keep dragging around with us even while making advancements in the field. Some university graduates, too, have struggled with this decaying corpse that plagues the tech world. Left unchecked, it often leads to a devalued sense of self, depression, and even triggers other mental health problems – even in those whose performatory character would otherwise make them appear well put together. I got into professional tech work at the age of 16, some 32 years ago, at a small computer shop building PCs. Having never had the opportunities others had to go to college, I’ve had to grow and adapt my skillset over the span of my career. Imposter’s syndrome – and depression – has been along with me for much of my adult life. Even with what continues to be an excellent career at Apple, I’ve struggled with self-worth. Work environments can be nurturing and stimulating, and bring out the best in you; they can also be demotivating and devalue you – imposter’s syndrome can follow you around through both. I’ve figured a few things out about myself over the past 32 years that have helped me navigate some difficult environments. Nobody develops imposter’s syndrome overnight. Any sickness that is chronic requires a long term cure. There’s nothing anyone can tell you that will simply fix imposter’s syndrome; there are incremental ways to slowly recover from it though.
Oxford’s definition of imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. In tech, this usually means we feel stupid because we don’t think we have the understanding or mastery we think we should. It’s interesting, though- people tend to often feel like it’s because they’re not smart enough. We are definitely smart enough to do this job. The reason we don’t have understanding isn’t because we’re missing brain cells. One thing that computer science is good at is abstractions, and that allows us to work with and learn higher level concepts without needing knowledge of the world beneath it. One might say it’s what makes computing so great. Imposter’s Syndrome seems to prey on the benefits afforded to us by abstractions to introduce uncertainties about our abilities. But there is a way to think in such a way that allows for these abstractions to exist, where X can remain unknown and it won’t bother you, but simultaneously see a universe where X fits in.
If you look at a lot of the brightest minds in computer science, there’s a distinguishable acumen about them that goes beyond simply knowing the subject matter. They have a scientific mind; able to not only explain something, but they’re able to theorize and reason about it, and able to analogize. These are the kinds of skills that make for not only a good scientist, but a good engineer. It’s these same qualities that seem most desirable when we measure ourselves up, and often what smart assholes do such a terrible job trying to mimic. But this acumen doesn’t come from reading source code, mentoring by coworkers, or from reading The Imposter’s Handbook. These qualities come from a combination of foundational knowledge, methodical reasoning, and discipline. Things a lot of self-taught people like me don’t initially get a lot of exposure to. What I think a lot of people want to feel is that they are legitimate. That their knowledge isn’t fake or piecemeal, and that they are armed with the discipline to reason, make advancements, and solve complex problems. So here’s the pat on the shoulder: You’re probably very good at the subject matter you’re trained in, and you are no doubt intelligent if you are working in tech. Here’s the hard: The abstractions we work with in computing have allowed us to develop gaps, and those gaps make us feel really dumb sometimes. To treat your imposter’s syndrome, we’ve got to work at this.