#selector & Impostor Syndrome
You can hear about something for years and still not recognize it when it has you in its grip.
I'd read about impostor syndrome long before I started C4Q. I nodded in recognition when I saw the definition and then moved on with my life (no one ever provided a cure, so what else was I to do? For those like me, skip to the last paragraph for my TL;DR takeaway). More recently, I sat through a rewarding panel/Q&A specifically on Impostor Syndrome with three C4Q employees who were people of color. Just last week I did a role-play exercise with a stranger in an impostor syndrome workshop at a Women in Tech conference that I found quite helpful. Heck, yesterday at a Kickstarter HQ developer panel I asked if any of the panelists had experienced it and every one of them nodded—one panelist even adding that they were feeling it "like, right now."
The shitty thing about impostor syndrome, besides everything, is how much sense it makes in the moment. It's natural to want to protect yourself from the unknown, from making a fool of yourself, from hubris. Those desires are made to look particularly delectable if you're a woman/non-binary/trans and/or a person of color/an immigrant/a person with disabilities, and/or from an underprivileged background. Compliance is offered to the historically oppressed as the runner-up prize that will make your life easier and better, if not perfect. Just comply with the expectations others have of you, or that you've been taught to expect they have of you, and this'll all be so much easier, smoother. You may even get part of what you want! Not all of it, mind you—goodness me, no. But some of it. Eventually.
My impostor syndrome took quite a few forms in these last few months of the C4Q program. The first was applying to more and more jobs that were more in line with my pre-C4Q life (for me, this meant tech design jobs where at least I knew the software from my time in publishing). I told myself that at least they were tech design jobs and not publishing ones, but to be honest I felt my blood rush when I would stumble upon the odd publishing employment opportunity. It seemed so familiar and safe, even if a part of me did bristle at going back to something I'd already worked out didn't have much of a future for me. But I also knew publishing had more women, more artsy folk, more chubby readers, all these lenses I’d been used to being seen through for years were back there... waiting for me to comply.
I also repeatedly caught myself talking myself out of listening in class when the work got hard or the complexity of the discussion ramped up. The self-talk would start out cloying (shouldn't you be working on your portfolio instead of trying to wrap your head around this bit-shifting DSA problem?) but always ended with a barb (you're not really smart enough to do this, anyway, no one thinks you're ever really going to get paid to be a developer).
Need I mention the grey squares following one after the other on Github? (For the non-programmers, GitHub tracks your commits/work with daily grey or green squares on a grid on your public profile. A grey square means no commits for the day).
This is the exact opposite of what I was like during the tech prep part of C4Q, when I would bare down harder on things I didn't understand in class and only really drifted because of exhaustion or, fine, the occasional moment of weakness when confronted with something funny on Slack.
So what had changed since then?
I'd failed a part of the final, true. But I more than knew that was a possibility, and I still did my best to understand as much as I could before the test so I wasn't ashamed of my performance, just bummed. I also wasn't daydreaming about falling back on my old skills for any ol' job then. Afterwards, I’d started getting help with things I didn’t understand and felt I was preparing myself to do a retake of that part of the test which I would be able to pass (took it yesterday, should know for sure after the weekend!).
Was it getting rejected during the job process? I don't think so. I've done job searches before, so I know the game. It's a lot numbers, some networking, and some luck (backed up with perseverance and all the consistency you can muster).
Classmates getting jobs before me? No, I was genuinely happy for them and I knew my journey would probably be slower than the stronger/quicker performers in the class. I also know their success will be a boon to mine in the long and short term.
Other general signs that the program was ending (historically I'm less than great with transitions)? Hard to say. Parts of my brain are weird, so who knows?
I love me some introspection and to wonder why, but with long-term problems like imposter syndrome that are never really eliminated introspection has limited use. What matters: recognizing when it is happening. What really matters: what finally helped me break out from my under-the-influence-of-impostor-syndrome tendencies?
Despite the pull from impostor syndrome to keep everything to myself and just fade away out of sight, I shared what I was doing (searching for design jobs) with classmates. Some were ok with it (I was often Design Lead on projects in class), but one wasn't, and recommended I talk to a mentor we'd met over the course of the class. I got a great pep talk from that mentor. That talk revealed to me that if I gave up on being a developer I was throwing away something I'd worked hard for with both hands, and doing so for an old career I'd already rejected.
More importantly, the message I got was that there was nothing standing in the way of my being a developer besides hard work, focus, and dedication. Nothing.
That last message was the one I really needed to hear. For me, imposter syndrome convinces me that inborn traits and my worst past experiences define me and ultimately someone is going find me lacking. It’s not quite a fear of failure? For me, it’s fear of being found wanting in front of someone who holds my life in their hands. Not a fun place to be. Fear of helplessness, of confronting forces more powerful than me, are some of my “deep darks.”
In the clear light of day, of course, this all seems silly. It’s a tech job search, not dragon slaying. But impostor syndrome doesn’t happen in the clear light of day. It grows best in dark shadows from seeds of doubt. And it doesn’t need to be very convincing logic, particularly if you’ve been primed to give into those kind of ideas because of the culture that surrounds all of us (comply!), or because of incidents in your past that seem to reinforce what impostor syndrome says.
I think I was saved from this by having this friend (mentors can be friends) shine a bright clear light on what I was doing to myself because of impostor syndrome, and give me back some power by saying what I was doing was my decision and in my control.
It was so important for me to hear that, especially right after owning up to what I was doing. Impostor syndrome sees vulnerability as weakness, and here was someone I trusted who listened to me be vulnerable and then reacted to that vulnerability with fortitude and passion for what was still possible (as opposed to rejection or, worse, a request for me to comply). It reminded me of when I had had both fortitude and passion—that I still had both and that they were options open to me. For me it was an eye-opening realization that when I felt at my most vulnerable and low I actually was within reach of my most powerful act: perseverance.
The mentor also spelled out in no uncertain terms exactly what I was losing and how little I was gaining by giving up on myself. I wasn’t saving anything by retreating to the sticky embrace of the familiar, old, self-inflicted failure. Self-sabotage sometimes feel like the safer option (it’s NOT), particularly when you’re haunted by memories of—or even anticipation of—actual sabotage.
When I reflect on what I liked about the mentors and personalities I’ve met in C4Q, I didn’t connect with the ones whose priority was saving face (and isn’t that what impostor syndrome ultimately wants out of you?), but the ones who learned in public. Another thing impostor syndrome feeds on is black-and-white thinking (my absolute favorite default way of thinking) of the sort that says, “If you’re not The Best ERGO you’re The (Irredeemable) Worst.”
Black-and-white thinking goes against the portrayals of public learning I saw at C4Q. Public learning means occupying a grey space of knowing what you want but not being sure how you’ll get there (i.e., adjusting your roadmap for how to get there as you go, based on data and feedback). Public learners aren’t experts, but they are skilled at something vital for developers: humbleness in the practice of their craft. And that’s better than “expertise”; that’s a kind of mastery.
I don’t have a cure for impostor syndrome and I'm no expert, but if I’m going to share what I’ve learned about it in public from my most recent bout, I’d say to do the opposite of what it compels you to do. If impostor syndrome wants you to isolate and shut up about your self-sabotaging efforts or thoughts, do the opposite. Share what you’re going through with as many people you trust as you can. If the impostor syndrome is pulling you towards black-and-white thinking about yourself, try to remember and find the grey areas in between. Seek out others who show they are trying to practice self-mastery and perpetual apprenticeship and do as they do: push yourself to learn in public, just like your best teachers did, so you can pull others up behind you. Finally, impostor syndrome finds a thousand different ways to make you fear different aspects of your career, creating all these different scenarios of how your fraudulence will be found out if you don’t “fake it” or hide “it” (what "it" is will vary from person to person, but we all have one... or a menagerie) well enough. So, do the opposite. Find one scenario you can partly control and take responsibility for and use it as a way to humble yourself in the practice of your craft bit by bit, day by day, green Github square by green Github square. Impostor syndrome says to fear humiliation. Day by day, I’m trying to counter that fear with a healthy respect for the role being humble can play in being a better developer. I believe if I practice humbling myself to the craft (with careful study and creation) I’ll actually grow my respect for myself as a developer, thus inuring myself to the worst of my flavor of impostor syndrome.