Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome [Wikipedia link] is when you’re convinced that you’ve faked your way to where you are now and that it’s only a matter of time before the people around you start to catch on.  After going through the first few months of a software engineering job at Google and watching other people start law school or new jobs of their own, I have to say the crappiest thing about Impostor Syndrome is that knowing you have it doesn’t actually make it any better.  At Google’s orientation we were told that a massive percent of new hires experience this and that it’s totally normal so we shouldn’t worry about it.  That’s great to know and all, but it still feels like I have no idea what I’m doing four months into my job.

 (This is frequently posted on Google’s internal meme board.  I relate.) 

Everyone says the secret to growing up and fixing impostor syndrome is “no one knows what they’re doing” and that we’re all impostors.  However, in the spirit of this new blog, I dissent.  There are a ton of people out there who do have it figured out.  The senior engineers on my team can wrangle bugs and sling cloud resources faster than I can keep up with.  Industry leaders can go out and pioneer new technologies that challenge people to rethink entire fields of study.  There are a lot of smart people out there doing amazing things on a daily basis, and saying that we’re all impostors feels moderately insulting.  Instead, I believe that the secret to defeating impostor syndrome is simply to take everything with the right context and to set and achieve personal goals.

My current personal goal is to get promoted up one level at my job.  This is going to take a while, so in the meantime, all of my actions need to get me one step closer to that goal. Google has a specific “ladder” for software engineers that describes the quality and substance of work expected for each level.  The only way to get promoted is by doing the job of an “L+1” engineer (your level plus one). This gives me an enumerated set of specific skills that I need to acquire and projects that I need to undertake. It makes it easier to personally justify my questions and my attempts to approach new topics because it’s literally spelled out how I need to go about my work.  This helps take the pressure off when people around me are spinning up services and overhauling critical systems faster than I can complete my tasks. They’re just at different levels and they’re being tasked with different projects entirely.

Neil Gaiman gave the commencement speech for the 2012 graduation at the University of the Arts [Video link, Transcript for those who prefer reading].  Someone showed me this speech when I was just finishing high school and entering college and it resonated with me on a deep level. It’s a great motivational speech that everyone over the age of about 13 should have listened to at one point in their lives because it doesn’t just apply to art, it applies to any profession.  I shared it here because he talks about impostor syndrome in his third piece of advice. He even mentions it by name, talking about how he was convinced that any time now there would be a knock on the door and the “fraud police” would appear telling him that the jig is up. Even someone who forged his own path through life and ended up with widespread success has times where this comes back to him.

Really the whole point of this article is to let people know that they’re not alone and that impostor syndrome really can be managed.  Especially for millennials jumping head first into an ever changing workforce with generational stereotypes and intensified connectivity, this is a widespread problem.  I came from the greater DC area and moved to Silicon Valley, and both of those places have it especially bad. There’s pressure coming from all sides to be the best in your class, to get the best internships, to find the best connections, and to make a name for yourself.  Even within our classes and from people our age, there’s pressure coming from those who have to be extremely vocal about what they’re doing and how anything else just isn’t good enough. People can be so worked up about how everyone else is going about their lives that it detracts from their own experience.

Go out and live your own lives.  And that’s not just the generic advice you’ve heard from parents and teachers for years.  Specifically, don’t compare yourselves to others who are at different stages of their lives or their careers than you are.  That’s just going to lead to doubting yourself and your work. Don’t listen to people who tell you that $THING needs to be done by $TIME in your life.  Everyone has slightly different career progressions so holding yourself to someone else’s timeline or career path will always produce friction. Lastly, know that impostor syndrome is never going to fully go away, but it does fade out into background noise over time.  Just go out and do your thing. Make good art. With hard work and good choices, it really does work out in the end.

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