There are weeks like this one where I honestly feel like I’m not a capable developer. I get stuck on a tough task, get frustrated, and then think about how someone else could probably get the same thing done with minimal issues.
If you feel like this from time to time, you’re not alone! According to Time magazine, a review article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that an estimated 70% of people go through imposter syndrome at one point or another.
If you’re interested in TED talks, Mike Cannon-Brookes has an excellent talk where he shares his experience with imposter syndrome. It’s entertaining and he brings up some very valid points about the subject. After making your way through this post, I highly suggest giving it a watch!
What Is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is often loosely defined as a sentiment that the success you’ve achieved should be credited to pure luck and not because of your experience or talents. Those who have dealt with imposter syndrome often describe it as a feeling like someone may expose you as a “fraud” at any moment. You might question why you’re sitting in a meeting surrounded by other intelligent people or wonder why you were even hired in the first place. You also might feel like you’ll never be as good as those around you.
However, there’s a difference between feeling like an imposter and being one.
Why Do I Feel This Way?
Before we dive deeper into what we can do about these inaccurate thoughts, let’s explore why we even feel like this, to begin with.
We Compare Ourselves to Others
You’re sitting on the couch or lying in bed scrolling through social media and see someone touting their newfound success. Maybe they were just promoted at work or hit 10k followers on Twitter. You look back at your profile and an actual tumbleweed animation plays to rub salt in the wound.
One of the main reasons we feel so inadequate is that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. I will admit that I do this on almost a daily basis since I joined Twitter and it’s really hard not to! Oftentimes, the people we look up to and admire are folks who have way more experience than us.
It’s no wonder we feel so small and it seems like nobody wants to hear what we have to say. Comparing yourself to someone who’s had a longer career than you is like trying to outrace a marathon runner already halfway to the finish line. You’re not going to be able to reach that kind of level of success if you don’t build a strong foundation first. Unfortunately, doing so takes time and effort.
Someone Told Us That We Were Not Good Enough
Sometimes external factors can lead to our feelings of inferiority. Someone comes along in our lives and tells us that we’re simply not good enough. Maybe they suggest that we don’t belong where we are and we’ll never amount to anything.
These kinds of toxic and negative people we come across in our lifetime can influence our thoughts and self-confidence in ways we may not even realize. Terrible people like this often prey upon others to make themselves feel better, but it’s important to remember that you hold your future in your own hands. We can shake off those feelings of negativity, pick ourselves up, and instead work hard to prove them wrong.
We Set the Bar Way Too High
Most of us would probably self-identify as a perfectionist. We hold ourselves to an unrealistic high standard and anything less is considered to be a failure. Maybe we wanted to get promoted at work in the next review cycle after joining a new job. Perhaps we want to build a product to sell to others in the next few months and aren’t seeing the results we expected. If we set the bar too high, it’s more likely than not that we’ll end up failing. While there’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars, we should try to be realistic about what we can achieve in a given timeframe with our current level of experience.
What Can I Do About It?
Now that we understand why we may feel like an imposter at times, let’s take a look at how we can get past our feeling of inferiority.
Keep Track of Your Success
One way to fight the feeling of being an imposter is to set realistic goals and keep track of what you were able to accomplish during the week. I usually do this in a Google Document and that way I can go back at the end of the week and see how much I’ve gotten done. Not only does it help measure progress via experience, but the document acts as a great source of content for performance reviews.
Some weeks will be lighter than others and that’s ok. As you look back months at a time, you’ll be able to see how much you’ve grown compared to where you’ve started. That will help increase your confidence and keep that voice inside your head quiet.
Take Note of Knowledge Gaps
Say it with me. “No one is expected to know everything about their field all at once.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of themselves. There are going to be times in your career where maybe you were expected to know something or you had trouble following along in a meeting. Take note of those moments and the knowledge gaps that you discovered. By addressing those knowledge gaps, you’ll be able to improve as a software engineer over time and contribute in ways you weren’t able to before.
Get Feedback From Your Colleagues & Manager
We tend to be our own worst enemies when it comes to evaluating our progress. Whenever I’m feeling self-doubt, I like to bring those feelings up with my manager or another colleague in a 1:1. While you shouldn’t use these meetings as therapy sessions, it doesn’t hurt to gauge what they might think about how you’re feeling. I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve told my manager that I’ve felt like I was falling behind only to have them turn around and tell me that they think I’m doing more than fine with my performance. Sometimes an outside perspective can help curb our self-doubt.
My Experience With Imposter Syndrome
I wanted to also take a moment to share an example of my own experience with imposter syndrome.
While at my last job, I had been promoted to a senior software engineering position and finally got to be a tech lead for my team. I was biting at the opportunity to prove myself in my new role and to help build the best team ever!
What I didn’t realize would soon follow was this feeling that I had no idea what I was doing. How could that be possible though? I had consistently led projects as an individual contributor in the past, worked well with others, and was a high-performing individual. Surely I could figure out how to lead a team, right?
I quickly discovered that working in a team and leading a team are two very different sets of skills. Every meeting I had with my manager at the time made me feel like a fraud. I had trouble delegating tasks that I would normally handle myself. I had technical knowledge gaps in new technologies that I was expected to know, and the first project I lead as a new tech lead ended up missing its deadline because I inaccurately estimated how long I thought it would take for the work to be completed.
At this point, the feelings of incompetence were stronger than ever. It wasn’t until I had a 1:1 with my former tech lead that I started to fight back against the nagging voice in my head. He told me that he thought I was too hard on myself and that he thought that I was doing a really good job given the circumstances of the company and the team I was leading. While I won’t get into the super granular details of what he meant, I realized that he was right.
After being in that new role for almost a year, I took some time to reflect and realized how far I had come. Did I mess up a ton? Yes. Did I have to “fake it until I made it” at times until I learned what I need to? Also yes. The thing I realized though was that I had still accomplished so much even if I had a few bumps in the road while getting there. I had helped my team deliver successful projects despite some of my shortcomings.
I still feel the creeping sensation of imposter syndrome from time to time. After starting my new job in the past few months, I’ve had to start over in some regards and learn new technologies I’ve never used before. I’ve had to understand new concepts about microservice architecture and DevOps I wasn’t familiar with.
I still don’t even know 100% of what the responsibilities of my team’s microservices are after three months in, but I’m still a senior software engineer and I know that I have a big impact on my team in many ways. The other stuff will get there with time and effort.
It’s important to acknowledge that Imposter syndrome is a real mindset. We all feel like we don’t belong at one point or another in our careers and that’s alright. As long as we take a moment to pause and reflect on the journey we took to get to where we are today, we can pull ourselves out of the darkness of our own minds. So equip yourself with the tools we’ve walked through today and hopefully, you’ll be able to improve your overall view of yourself and your career so far.
As always, if you like the content you read here, consider dropping a like, leaving a comment, and following me on Twitter. My DMs are always open if you have a question about the industry, want some general career advice, or have a question about soft skills.
Go forth and be great!
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