How Johnny Cultivated An Impostor Syndrome

I enjoy my inner place and very often I tend do focus inwards. Also, I found out that sometimes I stay there quite too much losing perspective. I would like to share with you my observations about being rather introverted, passionate about programming and competitive (I do think programmers are very competitive). I have seen, both in myself and in my colleagues, this very distinct form of inner game that make so many programmers stressed, insecure and make them constantly beat up themselves. So please come along and let’s delve into story of Johnny and few extra paragraphs.

Please, meet Johnny.

Johnny liked doing things on computers - but not the same things as many of his friends did. He especially liked making computer do things he wanted. Computer programs were logical, interesting, bit mysterious and completely addictive. He could program for hours not feeling time passing by. He also liked mathematics, seeing quite early that those two domains are finely intertwined. In school he was good, sometimes even the very best in those things he really enjoyed. His parents, family and teachers told him that he is intelligent, smart and bright person. As he was just a child, he believed those things (which is completely okay). He won’t of course ever admit that, because he is shy and modest. He grew up focused more on his inner world, getting better and better at building cool stuff.

Maybe he went to college, or maybe he did not. This is not the main point. The thing is he changed social context. There were people all around him better at different parts of programming. Some were better at algorithms, others knew more languages and some were just straight out better! Johnny never told this to anyone, as he does not want to be a burden, but this made him a little bit insecure. He liked being one of the smartest and after this context switch that was no longer the case. He of course also learned about his programming idols: Uncle Bob, Bjarne Stroustrup, Martin Fowler, Erik Meijer, Thomas Cormen and Kent Beck.

Johnny fell back to one thing he knew he can do to improve his situation - studying. In his everyday work and side projects he utilizes knowledge that is being pushed on the frontiers by his idols. He rightly buys all of theirs best books and start studying them thoroughly and furiously. He understands that day has only 24 hours and (quite unwillingly and bitterly) his brain has limited capacity to digest new information.

He got better, and got better a lot. Everyone praised him and once again he got the sweet, sweet dose of external validation. But after some point, he saw that he is not catching all of the concepts so quickly as he used to do, they were of course bit more advanced, but he understood the basics, he should be able to learn more and do more in the very same pace.

Some weird feelings have sneaked into his life. On the one hand he was not afraid to ask questions, but only if those did not make him look incompetent in his own eyes. On the other hand he got afraid of being caught not knowing something, something he felt he should know. This insecurity grew stronger and combined with his natural tendency to play within his inner world, he constantly felt like he was cheating, like his professionalism was only fake appearance, that he was an impostor.

He did not spiral down to became totally depressed, he still studied, he still was very good programmer, but he grew to be less likely to ask questions, less likely to actively participate in meetings, less likely to share his ideas, less likely to teach his colleagues. Most sadly the programming itself was not so fun in this unique, creative way anymore.

Let’s detach

I can easily identify with Johnny (duh, he is based on myself). Well, now for some of you diagnose is obvious, for other - not so much. Johnny is actively developing by himself impostor syndrome. I will briefly deconstruct and reflect on this process. Why? Because I think it is important for people (not only programmers!) to be able to self-reflect, detach and understand the process, so in the end we can have more fruitful culture of creativity, professionalism and very distinct breed of fun.

First things first, we should notice that Johnny from the very beginning had a natural tendency to indulge his inner world, to some extent he was an introvert. This is by no means a reason why Johnny ended up beating up himself, yet I believe this is part of equation.

Second, Johnny was smart, maybe even really smart. He was used to being very good, if not the best. He learned quickly, efficiently and just was very good. Again, this is not a reason, it is just another ingredient.

Then he was naturally thrown in this indirectly competitive, intellectual environment and he was not the very best anymore. All of this combined pushed him down the spiral of the infamous impostor syndrome.

What to do, oh, what to do?

Well, if you found yourself on this path, you should definitely try to take some action. If you are developing depression seek professional help, do not try to marginallize it, by saying “oh it is first world problem”. Usually it is not as severe as depression, yet very bothering, both emotionally and professionally. I’ll provide shortlist (that means it is not complete) of skills that Johnny was missing that I believe are in reach of being developed by anyone.

Knoweldge of one’s feelings

Yes, even if you are very smart you maybe missing the very basic knowledge about your very own feelings. Many people (especially those that heavily rely on their analytic skills) try to outsmart their feelings and fears by rationalization. Key here is to find a way to observe and acknowledge your own feelings. There are multiple ways to do so - keeping a journal, meditation, being present with the moment, kinds of self-analysis and probably many, many more.

Understanding of one’s feelings

After you actually know how do you feel, it would be good to understand that feeling. Many people are just floats through mysterious currents of their feelings. I believe that in order to maintain this growth attitude it is extremely important to understand what stands behind our feelings and then actually see patterns in our feelings and reactions to those.

Understanding goals and being realistic

Let’s get back to Johnny. Although he wound never admit it, basically his goal was to be:

  • better in agile/object-oriented programming and design that Uncle Bob and Martin Fowler (probably combined)
  • know and understand C++ than Bjarne Stroustrup
  • be better in and more natural in Functional Programming than Erik Meijer
  • write better unit tests than Kent Beck
  • understand algorithms more thoroughly than Thomas Cormen

I guess Johnny was not even aware of this himself, but when creating goals it is important to create appropriate comparisons for measuring progress. Goals need to be realistic, conscious and accomplishable. Instead, getting all pumped up about being better programmer, one should focus on the journey that leads there. When you realize it, this is actually basic thing. Instead of just saying “I am going to write better tests” it’s definitely better to state it this way “I am going to go through whole book without skipping exercises of Write super-cool tests for your super-cool app” and/or “I will stick to TDD for straight four weeks, even when it is not convenient”. Also, when learning something - compare your present self with your past self, as this is not a competition (With whom it would be?). This is just an example, but I do believe you’ve got my point.

Looking back

Take a look back once in a while, plan those if you need it. What do I mean by taking a look back? Quite often we tend to push forward so much that we do not see and appreciate the long way we already traveled. I felt bliss effect of this on myself. It is tempting to constantly look at the shiny, distant, radiant goal and diminish the hard work we already did. Don’t do it. Stop for a minute and see what have you already accomplished, how far have you moved forward. It feels good and it definitely did replenish my motivation pool.

Afterthought

I wrote this, because I believe that it could help some people, or at least point them to direction from which problem comes. Finding out all these definitely helped me. Remember that this is definitely not unique for programmers and can happen to people in all walks of life. Of course usually it is not as dire as depression, but it should not be downplayed, because it really can drown a person, or at least their joy of being creative and confident in their work.

Let’s nurture this unique joy of creativity and being truly professional in ourselves, our friends and our workplaces. It is always beautiful day to code.

Your comment or email in this topic is always appreciated.


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