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Leveraging Impostor Syndrome
Why feeling like an impostor might actually be a good thing and how to turn self-doubt into self-confidence.
“Soon, they will think I'm a fraud. I'm not as competent as they believe. I have got in somehow, but I don’t know how, and for how long. Look at the others around me. It is only a matter of time before they realize it was a mistake to bring me in. Man, this is crazy!”
That is you, me and almost every other person in this world at some point in time. We believe that we are deep into something, where we do not belong. We feel we are in over our heads. I have had this feeling come and go for several years now. For a long time I could not find the right term for it. Much later, I learned about something called Impostor Syndrome and I could relate to it. So let’s get one thing straight, if you have had a similar feeling - You are not alone!
During my Master's degree, for my final semester before I graduated (2005-06), I had to do an internship at a software company. As part of the internship I would have to be part of a team and participate in building out a piece of software end to end and present it to my university. I would be graded for my work. The other option was to come up with something innovative and build the project all by myself. After interviewing and trying out a few software firms, I chose the second option and decided to build an autonomous maze-solving robot (Micromouse). My professors were thrilled, as it was the first time anyone had attempted something like this. Usually, students would take up positions in software firms to build software related to management systems, like hospital management, library management, or content management. But I was going to build the hardware, electronics, and software for a completely autonomous robot.
The professors had no idea that I had absolutely no background in electronics, hardware, or embedded systems programming.
The doubts started to kick in. I was in over my head as I had committed to build it. There was no way for me to back out. All thoughts of my professors being disappointed in me, started flashing. I did not know where to start, how to plan, or know what to learn to get all of this together. My grades were on the line. If I failed at this project, I could fail this year. All of these thoughts started consuming me, day in and day out. I could see my friends interning in some of the top software firms and there I was sitting in my room trying to figure out things from scratch. I was scared and my confidence was dipping. I felt like an impostor.
I started taking baby steps, spent days and nights learning the basics of electronics, microcontrollers, embedded systems programming and mechanical design. I started reaching out to people who could help fabricate the parts of the robot, teach me electronics and embedded systems programming. I spent weeks learning how to design a PCB and then solder components onto them. I was faced with rejection time and again. It was exhausting, but I kept moving forward. I did not freeze.
After 3 months of tireless efforts, one step at a time, with hundreds of failures, burnt components, troubleshooting complex hardware and software bugs my robot finally took its first steps (wheel spins). I just kept going. I did not freeze.
After another month of deep work, the project was complete and I was able to turn it in. It was well received and the buzz that it created landed me a job in one of the top software firms as a real time systems developer.
When I look back at it the only thing that I did apart from having a lot of self doubt, being scared and anxious was to keep going and not freeze. Pushing myself to carry-on allowed me to experience success on the other side of feeling like an impostor.
That was not the last time I felt like an impostor. Here are a couple of examples:
A few years later I started blogging about a then upcoming technology in the large scale data processing space (Hadoop). I started blogging purely with an intention to keep learning and sharing. The blog caught the attention of a publisher who approached me to write a book. I agreed and signed the contract. There I was again, too deep into something I had no idea about - writing a book, being an author. However, again, I did not freeze. I just kept going, despite all the self doubts. I learned everyday and wrote a little everyday. In around 6 months I had my first draft. The book did well and allowed me to land a job in one of the top companies in the Hadoop space. Yet again, there was success on the other side of feeling like an impostor.
The new job came with new self doubts. The book got me this job, however, I was surrounded by the best engineers in the space. They are going to find out that I am just a one trick pony. However, by now, I knew that all I needed to do is to grind. One day at a time - just be slightly better than yesterday. I observed everyone around me everyday. Soaked in every small little detail. I learned everyday and eventually I saw success on the other side again. From an individual contributor to a Team Lead to a manager and so on. I did not freeze.
These cycles of doubts and successes continue to this very day and all I know is that I should not freeze, no matter what.
Years later, I discovered a YouTube video, a TED talk by Mike Cannon-Brookes the co-founder and co-CEO of Atlassian called - How you can use impostor syndrome to your benefit. Here was someone who was just talking exactly what I was going through. It was then that I discovered the term, Impostor Syndrome. I knew I was not alone. He too, did not freeze.
A few things I have learned along the way:
Everyone faces Impostor Syndrome, in some form or the other. Some face it everyday whereas others face it when there is a major event in their lives like a new job, a promotion, etc.
People feel like a fraud, despite having evidence of strong achievements in their past. Individuals develop bursts of self doubt. They believe it is luck that got them success.
When an individual grappling with Impostor Syndrome achieves a certain level of success they set a new level. They consider their new level as zero and start thinking that they are not capable. They raise the bar.
When faced with this feeling, you should compare yourself from what you were yesterday. Are you getting better? That is what matters. If not, work on getting better.
What you know, is all that you know. The rest has to be learned. Knowing is what gets you the confidence. There is nothing to be feared, it only needs to be understood.
Almost every time, there is something positive on the other side of feeling like an impostor. There is success.
Great leaders and managers recognize this feeling and know one thing - not to freeze. They know that there lies success and newer experiences on the other side of this feeling. They keep learning. They look for that discomfort as soon as they feel comfortable. They search for that feeling where they will be out of their depth. They know that specific feeling is what is going to get them to be better than what they are today.
So, I would urge you all to recognize this feeling when it comes up, and most importantly - don’t freeze, there is success waiting for you on the other side.
I would love to hear your feedback. Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!
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