The Mechanics Of Imposter Syndrome
Like many working in IT, I have experienced imposter syndrome. What is imposter syndrome?
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
In short, imposter syndrome is primarily a feeling of incompetance, despite evidence to the contrary. However, I believe that it can broken down further than this.
Imposter Syndrome Breakdown
I would suggest that imposter syndrome for myself and I think most people is based on 3 statements that are taken as true. The reason imposter syndrome is hard to shake, is that there is a lot of truth to these statements.
- The stuff I know, well anyone can learn it.
- There is a lot of important stuff I don’t know.
- The stuff I don’t know, that is really hard to learn.
Let’s drill in.
1. The stuff I know, well anyone can learn it!
The truth is that everything I have learnt and acheived, well anyone could do that!
How do I know this is true? I know it, because I know every step I went through to learn what I know. I know that I had to make many mistakes along the way. I know I didn’t have lightning bolt moments of understanding, rather through consistent effort I built up my knowledge.
I know that anyone could follow the same steps I did and have knowledge and capabilities similar to my own. If anyone can do it, am I really skilled or even competent? I know that I am NOT special.
Now, ‘anyone can do it’ may be a bit strong, there may be a base level of intelligence required, but I know it is not high. I know how I had to struggle and work hard to reach my current knowledge.
Overall, this statement is true and valid. I believe that most people feel this to be true, but do not look further and feel vagely a fraud who has just learnt X, Y, Z and well anyone can do that!
2. There is a lot of important stuff I don’t know.
The field of IT is huge and there is without a doubt lots of important stuff I don’t know. However, I think this statement is too strong.
Most of the stuff I don’t know does not directly impact my day to day work. Of course, you may be just starting out in your career and this statement may be more true for you. However, I would still suggest that people with imposter syndrome exagerate the degree that this is true.
This is partly related to point 1, but once we learn something and we realise anyone can learn it, it becomes devalued. We quickly take that skill and knowledge for granted and forget about it. Then focus instead on our remaining missing knowledge that surely is crucial.
Overall, this statement is true, but exagerrated.
3. The stuff I don’t know, that is really hard to learn.
There are many fields in IT and certainly some of the skills are difficult to learn. However, I have learnt some very challenging things and it do not require any genius on my part. All it required was the persistence to keep learning despite (or because of) many mistakes and failures.
This is the big lie in imposter syndrome. We simultaneous devalue what we have learnt as simple, while exagerate the amount and the difficulty of what we don’t know. When in reality it turns out almost anyone can learn almost anything. All learning is just muddling through things, making lots of mistakes, until you gain hard won competance.
Overall, this statement is largely false. ‘Hard to learn’ just means, requires persistence / motiviation, much like most of your existing knowledge. There are very few areas of knowledge that require any kind of genius. If you have learnt challening things in the past you can surely learn almost anything in your profession.
Imposter syndrome is quite challening, especially when starting out in your career.
I always had a ‘Well I know X (pfft anyone can learn that if I did), but I don’t know Y which is really hard to learn’ kind of mental dialogue going on in my head. Whenever I learnt Y and it turned out to be just components A, B and C which are not hard to learn. I would then of course focus on the next Y and feel bad about not knowing that.
However, I think understanding that unless you have completely failed to learn and contribute in your career, it is extremely likely you can learn almost anything. As such, you are not an imposter!