Bryan Fordham

Imposter Syndrome

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There’s a downside to working at a place like Focus Lab. Let’s start with one of the great things. A great thing about working at Focus Lab is that everyone is really good at their job. I'm about twenty years into my career, and the people here are honestly some of the best I have ever had the pleasure of working with. If you follow Focus Lab at all, you probably know this already.

But there is a downside to working with such talented, hardworking people. The downside is, they're all really good at what they do, and sometimes I have no idea how I managed to sneak in among them.

It does not matter that I’ve been involved with successfully building large, complex applications. Nor does it make a difference that I was (quite literally) learning to code before some of these folks were even born. 

“There are still times that I honestly feel that they've made a mistake, and that soon they will discover their error.”

To be fair, I have felt this way about previous jobs I’ve held, so it’s nothing to do with Focus Lab itself. You may be familiar with the term Imposter Syndrome (IP), which is what I’m describing. There are estimates that as many as 70% of people feel, at some point, that what they have achieved is not a result of their abilities. Instead it’s the result of luck, or a mistake, and that at any time people around them may find out that they do not belong, that they have an imposter in their midst.

I’m not a therapist, but I have had to figure out how to manage these feelings of inadequacy, and to deal with the problems it can cause. I hope that, by sharing what I’ve learned, you might find some suggestions that will help you in your work, too.

The first step is to recognize what’s going on. What does IP look like? One aspect has already been pointed out, that you may feel that you some mistake has been made, and you will be found out. Another sign is an inability to accept praise, because you feel you don’t deserve it. Perfectionism is another symptom. You might feel that the work must be perfect, and so you stress about absolutely every detail.

Here’s the most common symptom: Self-sabotage. This was actually noted in the very first study that coined the phrase “Imposter Syndrome,” way back in 1978. Here’s how it works: You have a deadline coming up in two weeks. So you wait until 24 hours before to actually start any serious work. Why? Well, if you manage to pull it off in a single day, people may think you’re a genius. But if you fail? You only had a day to do it. The problem must be procrastination, not that you’re not good enough (in other words, an imposter).  You self-sabotage to try and hide the fact that you (at least feel) that you do not belong.

“After recognizing IP, the second step is to talk about it. ”

This can be incredibly scary because, what if you’re right? Here’s the thing, though: IP lives in the dark parts of your brain. It can’t survive as well in the light. If you read journal articles on this kind of stuff (which you do if you’re a nerd like me) you will find a number that speak of the importance of dealing with IP early in your career. Finding that a lot of people deal with the same issue can be life-changing. Others can also help you see areas where you may need to improve without making you feel that you are simply inadequate for the job.

Next, keep a record of your accomplishments. When you feel IP rearing its ugly little head, go back and review what you’ve done before. You may think this sounds a bit cheesy. I certainly did. But it does help.

Finally, be honest about your areas of self-sabotage and do what you can to eliminate them. This will not be a quick process. You may need help working through them. That’s fine, we are all works in progress. But excusing procrastination as “just how I work” is a great way to keep shooting yourself in the foot. This kind of honesty is difficult but pays off in big ways.

I find it funny in a dark kinda way that 70% of people feel like imposters. 

“Most of us feel like we’re the only ones faking it, when the reality is that most of us are experiencing the same thing, maybe just in different ways. ”

I found a few years ago that, when you start talking about this sort of thing, you realize just how much help is out there. A lot of people will support you, and they need your support, too. We just need to open up about it.


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