Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome

How many times, on reading my blog, a book, or watching some video of mine over these many years (the first article I remember writing that was publicly available, many years ago, was the EIGRP white paper on Cisco Online, somewhere in 1997), have you thought—here is an engineer who has it all together, who knows technology in depth and breadth, and who symbolizes everything I think an engineer should be? And yet, how many times have you faced that feeling of self-doubt we call impostor synddome?

I am going to let you in on a little secret. I’m an impostor, too. After all these years, I still feel like I am going to be speaking in front of a crowd, explaining something at a meeting, I am going to hit publish on something, and the entire world is going to “see through the charade,” and realize I’m not all that good of an engineer. That I am an ordinary person, just doing ordinary things.

While I often think about these things, what has led me down the path of thinking about them this week is some reading I’ve been doing for a PhD seminar about human nature, work and leisure. Another part of the reason is that I have been struggling recently with some specific things at work. And, finally, another part of the reason is that I ran into a terrific post over at The Humble Lab on the topic of the impostor syndrome.

Some of this will be in agreement, and echoing, what I’ve read in other places. Other parts of this will be unique to my worldview (worldview warning here, for those too delicate to read things from a different perspective). Yes, this is going to be an honest post. Yes, this is going to be a long post.

Why do I feel like an impostor? For me, it is often fear. I think this is probably true of most people, if we are to be honest with ourselves.

I know many people who are afraid of public speaking. When talking to them in depth about this, what I normally find is a fear of failure. Some people who don’t get a degree or certification are hindered by a fear of failure. There are two kinds of fear of failure, I find: looking foolish in front of others, and losing control. I used to be able to climb tall towers without clips, and without fear. I could monkey the side of the RADAR tower at McGuire, 90 feet tall, and walk around on the top platform knocking wooden blocks out of their stays with a sledge. I could shimmy a 30 foot pole to reach the wind bird. I would struggle in doing those things now; I think more about what I cannot control.

So part of what drives the impostor syndrome is these two kinds of fear: fear of failure, and fear of losing control. Both of these tend to manifest themselves in another fear: the fear of missing out.

What can we do to address these fears? One answer I often hear is “man up and deal with it.” In other words, just address your fears, and get over them. There is some truth in this answer. Sometimes this is really what is necessary. My daughters have a hedgehog; this is one scared little animal. The only way the little hedgie is going to learn that it’s okay is to be placed in traumatic situations, and for nothing to happen. Sometimes we are hedgehogs, and our nails just need to be trimmed for our own good.

Sometimes you just have to deal with fear and keep going. Sometimes you are going to fail. It’s okay to fail.

To quote The Humble Lab here—

The point is, it’s what you do with that failure that defines you—not the fact that you failed at all. We need to drive a culture that encourages people to learn from failure, and grow from it.

But there is a danger in this answer, as well—that we will take this as the only answer. That whenever we face something we fear, or some obstacle, we will say to ourselves, “you can do anything you set your mind to, if you just try hard enough.” Or even “you can use every failure to learn something,” which implies that if you don’t learn from a failure, you are… a failure. The danger here is when stated absolutely, this is a lie. You cannot do anything you want to if you just set your mind to it. I cannot be a great baseball player, ice skater, or Olympic swimmer. I simply do not have the bodily attributes to do such things. And no amount of failure, with the attendant learning, is going to make me any of those things. Sometimes what you need to learn is I cannot do this.

This leads to a second answer to the impostor syndrome: learn to live in your limits There is a difference between pushing yourself to achieve something and pushing yourself too hard. I cannot tell you how to know the difference, because I think it is different for every person, but I know there are times in my life when I have pushed too hard. The more you realize that everyone has limits, the less limited you will be by your own limits.

For instance, I recently picked up a small bit of thinking by reading about Keith’s Law in the area of complexity. One of the corollaries of Keith’s Law is this:

You can only know what is at your layer, and a little above and below. The rest is rumor and pop psychology.

We work on complex systems. When I was in tech school in the USAF, we had one classroom where all the circuit diagrams for the AN/FRPS-77 RADAR system had been pieced together into one large diagram on the wall. This is before the days of the computer being common, of course, so everything was on paper. Folks from other career fields would borrow that room from time to time, and that set of patched together diagrams always gave them a start. Yes, a RADAR system is complex. But the systems I deal with now, networks and their environment, are far more complex. I can describe the intersection topological aggregation and summarization, virtualization, and protocol stacks, but there is no way I could draw it.

The reality is I cannot know it all. And that means there will be many times when I push a button, thinking it will do one thing, and it will actually do another. In other words, I will fail. Not because I intended to fail, but simply because I do not have all the knowledge in the world.

Not knowing does not make me a bad person, or a bad engineer; it just makes me human. It is okay to be human, and it is okay to fail because I don’t know everything.

Another answer to the impostor syndrome is to learn more. This is in tension with the second point, I know, but it is still an important point. Just like being afraid does not let you off the hook of dealing with hard situations, accepting that you cannot know everything does not let you off the hook of learning new things. There is a technique to learning, of course, but I have talked about this enough in other places (here, for instance), and this post is already too long.

Intentionally learn to counter your fears.

Finally, there is something else that needs to be said here: perhaps the best guard against impostor syndrome is to live and work in a community. Not a community of competitors, or a community of followers, but rather just a community. This means you need to stop trying to compete with everyone around you, and it means you need to stop treating everyone around you as competitors. It means not thinking I am better than another person because I know more, or I have done more. It means opening up about my fears with that community, and not being afraid to ask for help when I don’t know. It means accepting that I am never the smartest person in the room.

Intentionally build, and be a part of, a community. It’s okay to fail in front of other people.

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  1. […] was going to write an article on imposter syndrome, but didn’t think it would be as good as this one. Hat tip to Stephen Foskett for […]

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