As a young developer with no formal education, the work world can seem very daunting. There are many times where I feel as though I am the least talented member of my team, and I don’t belong where I do. Besides the obvious social implications this has, it can also be an extreme damper to productivity. This feeling is not unique to me, or you. This is actually a well-documented phenomenon that affects even industry veterans. It’s called impostor syndrome.
What is impostor syndrome?
Impostor syndrome is a feeling of unbelonging or that you are, in some capacity, unworthy of your current position or social status. This can manifest as alienation on a sports team, feeling inadequate at work, or simply that any solution you come up with isn’t good enough. Impostor syndrome is not believed to be a mental disorder, and it is not thought to be linked to any specific genes. The prevailing thought is that it is a response to certain stimuli. In theory, we are all susceptible to impostor syndrome. While early research focused on the prevalence of the sensation in high achieving women, it’s now known that men are just as likely to have the feeling to the same capacity as women do.
So, what causes it and what should I do about it?
I’m not entirely sure; I’m no psychologist. I can tell you what makes me feel like an impostor, though. (In case it’s not obvious, this is about my experience and herein contains my disclaimer: I don’t really presume to know what’s going on in the human brain. Or at least in your human brain.)
I’ve been doing software development (web and games) for the last three and a half years. In this time, I’ve learned a whole lot: programming languages, development patterns, different tech stacks… And I’ve met a lot people in my industry. Though I have learned so much, I always find the essential nuggets of information to solve my problems in GitHub Issues or Stack Exchange threads.
Seldom do I ever come up with a 100% original solution to a problem.
Is this because I’m an impostor who only succeeded because of the abilities of other people? I hope not. I work very hard!
At some point, I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. In this case, the bomb is the dev stack.
In fact, gaining wisdom through posts on Stack Overflow or GitHub is one of the best ways to learn. You can gain an understanding of context completely outside of the problem you’re having. Seeing how someone else was able to apply a concept or design pattern into their work gives you a unique perspective on how you could apply the same concept into your own.
Stop overthinking and remember your team.
Working in a team requires the members to all contribute their own set of knowledge to accomplish a goal. It’s unlikely that a team would be composed of members that share the same knowledge base. Everyone you work with has their own specialties and interests. At Revelry, we have engineers with backgrounds in the classics, music, and many other disciplines.
Oh by the way, Revelry is hiring.
The point I’m trying to make here is that having gaps in your knowledge is a perfectly normal part of working together. There are many topics in web development that I may not be 100% on. On the other hand, there are many parts of Unity and game development that I’ve been able to give even professional game developers helpful advice. And even when I reach the limits of my 3d math skills, I have friends and colleagues with backgrounds in graduate-level mathematics that can help pick up the slack.
In short, working together should feel more like a relay race than a marathon. You should never feel like you’re competing with your teammates.
Just step back for a moment, and refocus.
I usually feel the sinking sensation shroud my subconscious when I’m struggling to solve a problem. In these circumstances, I find the best way to alleviate the accompanying anxiety is to take a short break and focus on something not as strenuous for a short period of time. For me this usually involves a break to pet my cat and make a cup of coffee. The time you spend away from your problem will force you to re-familiarize yourself with what’s going on when you go back to working on it.
A lot of the time (in my experience, at least) the problem is right in front of me, and I was spending time focusing on the wrong thing.
My college English teacher told us that the best way to proof a draft you’ve written is to print it, and then wait an hour to read it. When you re-read something that you just finished getting down, your brain will go on auto-pilot filling in any mental gaps you may have left in your draft. That time away from writing while the page sits on the printer lets your mind sort of reset on the topic. There’s a lot that can be said on funny ways the brain works, so much so that I won’t go into it.
At the end of the day, it’s likely that you will always feel like an impostor just a little bit. Knowing you’re not alone (in the feeling… and at work) is probably the most effective strategy for overcoming it.
Even the best of us feel this way sometimes. Embrace it.
It meant a lot to me when Gerard, our CEO, shared with me this anecdote by Neil Gaiman (who happens to be a favorite author of mine).
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
“On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, ‘I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.’
“And I said, ‘Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.’
“And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
So is it impostor or imposter?
It’s both. Don’t worry about it.