Take account of your skills to combat impostor syndrome
November 16, 2015
Impostor syndrome is a common pestilence amongst IT folks — many of whom are self-taught through trial & error. What it means that you constantly feel under-qualified for your responsibilities with a certain degree of fear of being caught by other people and found to be wholly lacking the skills they seem to think you have.
The issue here is that doing hands-on real-life training and self-study can prepare you usually way better than formal education since in order for education to be formalized, it needs to be designed and it that takes time. So there will always be a gap between what educational organizations offer vs. what is out there in the real world and especially on the bleeding edge of tech, which moves very quickly. But still this perceived inadequacy persists.
How it goes: You hear a new term X. At first you know nothing of X. Then you go do a few Google searches, read forum posts and, if you are lucky, some tutorials on X.
Then you experiment with X on your own and then you tell others that hey, have you heard of X - I did this small thing with it.
You present them with a version of you who just brought their knowledge of X from zero to 'this guy has actually made something with it'. Now they see that you know X - or at least way more than they do currently.
They only see this immediate transition between you that didn't have knowledge of X and you that has proven knowledge of X.
They didn't see the weekend's worth of coffee stains on your soul as you butted your head against the desk because you didn't get it right the first time, or the second, or the third. And then you failed in a wholly surprising manner. Then thought: I do not understand why this is not working! Argh!
Went to take a break and load up the coffee machine to feed your thirst for more learning.
In storytelling and recollection we can fast forward the next grueling hours of trying to fit the pieces together, but in reality we of course never can, and all of those little bruises to our ego of "I don't understand anything" and "Why can't this work - am I that stupid?" etc. add up.
And then at some point after several hours past the point of trying things that even make sense to you, you finally get the result you are expecting in a totally unexpected manner. This is when you get to the other end of the spectrum: I do not understand why this IS working! Argh!
But when your body finally wins the battle against caffeine and puts you under, only to let you wake up with QWERTY written on your forehead. And then you go back to your project to see that, yes, it still produces the incomprehensible correct result with the absurd configuration you put it into.
But then something magical happens. You go: wait.... but... isn't that.. umm. OOOOH!
And then you gain the knowledge. You dive over the goal-line defense and get the touchdown. You are now the hero in the story of learning new things. But sadly, you fail to notice it, as you are too preoccupied thinking what else you can make this thing do.
Then on Monday you head to the office and tell Bob and Jane casually about this new thing you heard about and you managed to get it to do something quirky and funny. You do not tell about all of the wrong turns you took. You might tell them "I had such a difficult time with this" but that actually just cements your status. It was difficult and yet you triumphed. This is where their vision of you (and your skill level with X) starts to divert from what you currently hold as the objective truth.
They see you as a smart worker, who took the time outside of work to dive into a new thing that can be of interest or help at work for them. AND it was a difficult task that you conquered and have thus made easier for them to approach it since they can ask you.
But you? Man! That was a hard thing to get done. I barely got anything done, I hope they don't think I have anything more than a passing knowledge of this, I mean I spent most of my time just fighting with that difficult bit and all for nothing! Why couldn't I just notice it sooner and I could've gotten way much more done, something that I could REALLY show Bob and Jane instead of that stupid little script. Bah.
That's the gist of impostor syndrome. Been there. Done that.
But after a short dialogue with a friend of mine who gave unexpected praise for a piece of my writing, I got to thinking: generalists are even more prone to impostor syndrome than specialists.
We spent the majority of our time learning little slivers from many different domains and thus we feel this syndrome ten times over. And the people around us may see us like Bob and Jane saw 'you', but ten times over. Think about the disparity in those two viewpoints.
To us it is mundane to be reading into a dozen subjects at the same time and we discount that we have achieved much since we compare ourselves to the specialists in each field. This becomes even worse as a specific niche's unknown unknowns become known unknowns — i.e. you get a picture of all of the things that you are not yet knowledgeable in. And that there are people who do know.
We fail to see the value of having a wide array of small bits of information. We see the value in pursuing this wide array, but often over-estimate how much information from each niche we need in order to bring some use of it.
Almost ten years ago, I had an excellent afternoon as the senior tech guy when I gathered small production team to the sofas and with the help of a whiteboard we started going through all the possible skills that our group possessed. Of course immediately obvious skills were put in first — programming in general, algorithms, specific prog langs (C#, JS, Ruby, ...), graphic design and so forth. Whatever you would normally see in a web tech company's job ad.
But then we got out of the core skills and I started digging deeper: can you speak other languages? How about knowledge of marketing? Recruiting?
Some people had experience with audio/video production, others could do electronics, etc.
In the end the list was quite long. The combined effort of our team had experience of almost anything our day-to-day work could throw at us, but now that we took an account of the skill reserves we were able to in the future to direct questions in these fields to the specific people and get better results than just asking Google with the wrong keywords.