In the middle of trying to get five projects done, I’ve been hearing a lot about Imposter Syndrome. A week or two ago came an article on LinkedIn about Impostor Syndrome in programming. Ever since I’ve seen an article pop up here or there. I’ve known this all too well for so much of my life it resonated with me.
For those who want the shortest version of a definition, I defer to Musician Amanda Palmer. When I read her book The Art of Asking, I found wasn’t alone in this anxiety, though she called it the Fraud Police:
The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe—at some subconscious level—are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.(1)
If you’ve ever been successful at something and then look around you and think that your coworkers are so much smarter and better than you and you don’t deserve your success, you’ve been hit with Impostor Syndrome. When you get into a panic when you are afraid someone will find out you don’t know everything about your topic, you’ve been hit with impostor syndrome.
I think, on an everyday basis, I do feel like every one of those in some way or another. I’ve felt that way for much of my life. But somehow I got control over it. I’d like to explore what I do and think.
Before I do, I want to point out a few things. The most critical is you can’t know everything. In any discipline, there always more to know that is knowable. What compounds our ignorance is what I’ve called the Red Queen Dilemma, referring to Lewis Carrol’s Character in Through the Looking Glass.
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Technology does this to all of us. Standing still is falling behind. Moore’s law makes it impossible to learn enough. By the time you learn one thing, the world changes on you. A year ago, my Book Practical Autolayout for Xcode 8 went obsolete three days after publication. One critical menu selection, the resolver, moved to a toolbar button, making the entire book’s tutorial obsolete and indeed confusing to use.
Secondly, there is a paradox of huge social pressure to appear super competent and successful. When your colleagues and friends post only their successes online, it becomes too easy to measure yourself only by their successes. In those you aspire to be, you don’t see all the pain and failure in getting where they are. All evidence is to the instant success, and everyone posts success when you are feeling the failure and pain of working towards success.
Thirdly, imposter syndrome is a pandemic among successful people. If you have great or small success, you’re probably going to feel at least one you didn’t deserve it, because you don’t know what you are doing. While Amanda Palmer might be famous in the world of music, her Husband, fantasy author Neil Gaiman is arguably a Literary rock star. Yet he tells a story about one time he really felt Impostor syndrome:
Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realize that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.(3)
There is one thing that clears our Impostor Syndrome like sunlight through fog. I do something simple but not very easy: I admit my ignorance. THat’s simple enough but all those pressures I just discussed do not make it easy. Yet that’s only half the solution. The full solution is “Yeas I don’t know it now, I’m learning it” I can learn more. I can do the research. I can use the knowledge I have to wing it. Ignorance about any one thing is temporary. You can learn and discover more, and with what you have improvise.
One must always be learning. I have found that the best way to learn is not just to admit I don’t know but run to find what I don’t. For years on MakeAppPie.com I picked one iOS development based on stuff I don’t know, research the living daylights out of it, write and post an article.
Let me give a very personal example. I’m familiar with what we all fear in Imposter syndrome since that fear became a real-life nightmare for me when I was in second grade. I’m color blind, but I tried my best back then to not do anything different than anyone else. The February of second grade, my class was coloring images of Abraham Lincoln’s face. I picked up the sea green crayon instead of the flesh(now peach) crayon. So Abraham Lincoln’s face was sea green. The teacher, Mrs. Sweet, decided that I was to be punished for this by standing me in front of the class with my seasick Abraham Lincoln. She ridiculed and yelled at me, with all the students laughing at me seated around me in that u-shped desk arrangement. I was devastated, and as much as the teacher eventually got reprimanded by the principal after an irate call from my mom, I’ve never forgotten that — it’s a fear it will happen again that fuels my Impostor syndrome.
But head forward in time to grad school. I was taking Educational Psychology for my Master’s Degree In Education. Of all the topics to pick for my final term paper, I picked the psychology of color in education. I read everything about color, starting with Goethe and Chevreul, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, and through the use and the use of the then relatively new RGB hexadecimal codes on the web and HSB sliders in Photoshop. I learned about the color wheel, read research about psychological effects of Color and read successful and failed research on color in the workplace. I learned how difficult it is to measure the effects. I had my first of many times reading about Hawthorne Electric and the Hawthorne effect. Along the way, not only did I get an A on the paper and in-class presentation, I also learned to paint (though I avoid green paint – I mix my own)
In all these stories I want you to notice something. Everyone fears their colleagues will expose them, all the while their colleagues are afraid of the same. Meanwhile, those with no knowledge think the whole crowd is geniuses, not frauds. The only exception is a few trolls who get off knocking down anyone, to increase their status by lowering and hurting others. In retrospect, that 2nd grade teacher was a troll forcing discipline on her students. The troll really is the only fraud here. Everybody else is genuine. You have little to fear.
Let’s stop thinking about being an impostor and change the focus on what makes us professionals, because that’s the overarching cure for Impostor Syndrome. Not the definition of professionals such as doctor or lawyer, a more ideal yet pragmatic one that fits in the arts, sciences, business, and sports. There are two quotes I like about being a pro. One is Stephen Pressfield’s :
The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro, it’s his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.(3)
Amanda Palmer’s definition of a pro is this.
In both the art and the business worlds, the difference between the amateurs and the professionals is simple: The professionals know they’re winging it. The amateurs pretend they’re not.(1)
Distilling both of those definitions come to this: A pro shows up every day and does the work. Nothing stops the pro, especially his or her own inner resistance, that which tries to prevent you from doing the work and succeeding. Resistance is always there to attack, often with the impostor syndrome’s “you don’t know enough, you are not qualified.” The pro knows enough that they can improvise, research and learn, thus always moving forward, no matter what.
Palmer and Pressfield both point to think less about being afraid of our inferiority and more about being a pro. Showing up every day, do the work, and winging when we don’t know, then admit to ourselves and even others that’s exactly what we do.
Though I don’t remember him writing directly about impostor syndrome, I suspect from my reading of his book The War of Art Pressfield would consider Impostor syndrome just another manifestation of resistance. If that is true, then it would also be true that turning pro, keeping the discipline of doing the work, combats resistance and the impostor syndrome.
The way our world is structured you’ll feel at times like you you are a fraud, and impostor in what you do. For some, they shake it off. For others, it can become resistance to thier goals. For others, a debilitating fear of sucess. Writing this, I had a few bouts of “who am I to write about this, when I don’t have a degree and fifty years of experience in Psychotherapy?” The answer is that I face this demon every day, and I’m a good observer, a good reader, and I’m improving as a writer. As a pro in iOS training, author and developer, I sit down every day with my coffee and do the work, facing this resistance demon.
Steven Lipton is the mind behind makeapppie.com for learning iOS app development. He is the host of the recently rebooted podcast Slice Of App Pie about the life of the creative indie. Steve is the author of several books on iOS programming and development. He has authored eight courses for LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com and is One of the featured developers in the Career Clinic: Developer Insights. His latest courses are Advanced iOS ApplicationDevelopment:Core Motion and Learning Swift Playgrounds Application Development. You can also find more of his artwork at stevenlipton.deviantart.com, though it’s rare he uses green paint.
(1)Palmer, Amanda. The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (pp. 42-44). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
(3) Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art: Break Through the Block and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (loc. 460). Black Irish Entertainment. Kindle Edition.