Feeling like a fake  – The Impostor Syndrome

This article is based on a talk I gave at a JavaScript meet-up in Reykjavík.

I’ve been an Android programmer for six years but recently felt like making a change so I joined Kolibri doing web development. I’m not gonna talk about my month experience of programming in Javascript though. I’m gonna talk about something else. Something I feel is a taboo, emotions and thoughts. More specifically, the feeling that you are a fake or an impostor in your field. You might think this is not related to Javascript at all, but I am gonna make that connection so just wait for it.

What is the Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological term brought up in the seventies. It refers to when a person feels like a fraud and the whole world is going to find out that he or she is really just faking it and is really not as competent as everyone thinks. This feeling is in spite of external signs of success which is dismissed as being luck, timing or some other factor than your own skills.

Sound familiar?

Well, that’s completely normal. One study shows that 70% of all people feel like impostors at one point in their life and another estimated that 2/5 successful people consider themselves frauds. If you have experienced the impostor syndrome you’ll be glad to hear that it is particularly common among intelligent successful people and you are in a group with celebrities like Tina Fey, Neil Gaiman, Bill Murray and Emma Watson.

“The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.” – Neil Gaiman

This feeling is common among students, which makes sense when learning new things, and I was waiting for this feeling to wear off. But after a few years in the industry I still often felt like I was just faking that I had any real programming skills. When I got stuck on a problem I was often afraid to ask for help because that would reveal that I was only a fraud and didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. Also, I was convinced that everyone else knew what the hell they were doing.

My insecurities might have started because I’m not the stereotypical programmer. I’m female and I did not spend my teenage years programming or disassembling computers. In fact, before I started in university, my programming skills were only a dash of HTML and this one SQL course I accidentally took in college. I didn’t even have all the math courses I really should have had. At my first student society event I attended, this guy asked me what computer games I was playing, and I became terrified of never being able to be a computer scientist because I wasn’t playing any computer games! Later on, I found out that not all programmers play computer games and people that play computer games are not necessarily skilled to be programmers.

I was in the first group at the University of Iceland to study Android programming. This was in 2009. After I graduated the following spring I went to work at gogoyoko where I developed a music streaming Android app and even created another Android app for a mall on the side. A couple of years later I was offered to join Plain Vanilla to create the Android version of QuizUp since I was suddenly one of the most experienced Android programmers in Iceland! Being the most experienced Android programmer in a whole country might sound really cool, but honestly, I felt it was terrifying. I did not feel like it at all! But in spite of my insecurities, I joined Plain Vanilla since it was such an amazing opportunity. Time went by and I still had this reoccurring fear of being found out, even though I was a big part of the huge success of releasing QuizUp worldwide. Even though I worked hard, was very passionate and put everything I got into it. I was always quick to dismiss my success as luck or that anyone else had been able to do it as well. When I was asked to take on more responsibilities I always said yes but there was always this voice in the back of my mind telling me I was deceiving people who thought I was more competent than I really was.

Then I stumbled upon this concept of the Impostor Syndrome a while back. I was so relieved! This wasn’t just me struggling with a low self-esteem but this was actually a thing that had been studied and is common for programmers. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone helped a lot. But what more can one do? Here are some tips that helped me.

Recognise your success

Write down what you have done to get to where you are at today. When did you say yes when you could have said no? That takes courage! Think about problems you have solved, projects you have finished, what new things have you learned. I think you’ll find out that you have a big part in your success.

Recognise your strengths (and weaknesses)

We are all different, for example, some are introverts while others are outspoken, and that’s ok! The one is not better than the other, they’re just different. But we tend to compare ourselves with people that have different qualities than us or people that are exceptional. But comparing us unrealistically isn’t gonna get us anywhere. Rather think about your strengths and how you can improve on them. Also, think about your weaknesses and see if you can work on them.

I’m a single mum and it took me a long time to accept that I can’t spend as much time and energy coding as a programmer who doesn’t have children. This means that I’ll probably not gain as deep knowledge as they will. But I have other strengths. I really care for details, I’m good with people and project managing. My greatest weakness is to not ask for help sooner and I’ve been working on that.

Pair programming

Pair programming can sound scary! There is no way of deceiving others when a person is watching you program, right? That’s what I thought at first at least. But then when I was forced to dive into it, it went much better than I thought. Then when you pair with someone, you get a valuable insight into how other people think and solve problems. You’ll also realise that nobody knows what they’re doing like you thought. All you can do is to do your best. I’m not saying you should pair all the time, there is definitely just a time and place for it, but it’s very healthy every once in a while. And it’s actually quite fun interacting with another person when programming!

Say what you’re thinking

If you don’t understand or know something, just be honest about it. It’s ok to be wrong. Presidents are wrong all the time! It’s said that no question is a stupid question and there is much truth to that. And even if it is, it’s still better than not asking. You’ll never learn anything if you never ask. Don’t let your ego hold you back because it’s afraid to make a fool of itself. And it’s not even just about you. It’s better for everyone around you if you admit when you don’t understand something so a solution can be found quicker.

Feedback

Casual feedback in the moment is very healthy, but it’s even more powerful when it’s given in a formal setting. Have a formal meeting with a person that’s been working closely with you, where both of you have prepared to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. This was extremely beneficial for me but I did this a couple of times at Plain Vanilla and this is also done at Kolibri. If your workplace does not do this I really encourage you to try to get it going.

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ “— Tina Fey

The JavaScript Connection

I really stepped out of my comfort zone going from a senior Android position to start as a junior web programmer at Kolibri, working in JavaScript. I really wanted to try something new, but I’m not so sure I would have dared if I still had severe Impostor Syndrome. I knew this meant that I had to be totally honest about my skills and not be afraid to ask for help.

Getting over feeling like a fake is a process. Maybe it will never completely go away. Just the other day I was trying out ReactNative and after having spent total 10 hours on it I was beating myself down for being so slow at it still. Surely someone else would have made a lot more progress than me?! But now I manage to snap out of it quickly and see it realistically. Sometimes I have to stand up and take a break. Meditation always helps and if you don’t have time for that, just taking 3 deep breaths can do the trick. Saying it out loud to someone can also break the spell.

Remember, you are not alone!

(This post first appeared on Medium)

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