Imposter syndrome is a huge topic to cover in tech right now. I constantly see people on Twitter bringing up their imposter syndrome when talking about their everyday jobs, their interviews, their life history. I especially see it now during the ramp up to the next conference season as CFPs are opening and closing. I'm not immune, either. I nearly posted my own version of this frustration today while sitting here staring at my screen like my next CFP response would write itself. Writer's block and imposter syndrome is a very brutal combination. As I started on my own coping strategies, I realized I've never written down the tactics I've used to combat my own imposter syndrome. I've shared it during talks, coaching sessions, and informal gatherings, but I've never really written some of them down. So how about we talk about how to work within imposter syndrome to get a positive result, instead?
What it looks like for me
For a bit of history, I actually come to the development world through a fairly circuitous path. I'm a self-taught dev. While I was surrounded by tech growing up, I almost always ended up watching or reading the manuals instead of doing any tech myself. I loved to tinker with hardware, though, from doing FIRST Robotics in high school to messing with old laptops in college. I installed a lot of Linux distros on the old laptops just because I could afford it and I wanted to see what my older brother was talking about. In college, I took one programming course, and I picked up the rudiments of a few other languages while I went through my degree in earth and atmospheric sciences. My love of hardware brought me to Arduinos and some C work and then to Python, but I was a hobbyist at most. Even when I ended up starting to teach Python to beginners, I never felt that I was a real developer. I was just an editor that did programming for fun. It wasn't until I joined Rackspace that I was given the chance to take development on as a profession, and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
As you might imagine, this checkered history means imposter syndrome for me comes out in a lot of ways. When I sit down to respond to a CFP, for example, it hits when I start looking at featured speakers or at how many attendees they expect. It hits whenever I sit down to write on this blog about anything remotely technical. It can even hit in the middle of a talk if I see someone getting up to leave—or someone coming in after I start to sit down and listen. The manifestation should be fairly familiar to many: Who am I to talk about this? How can my small experiences even compare to the history that person has on this topic? Why are they here listening to me?
Strategies from the writing world
When I end up facing my imposter syndrome periodically like when I need to respond to a CFP or when I know I want to get a blog post out, I start treating it a bit like I would treat writer's block. One thing that always worked well for me for writing was to change how I was writing. If I was staring at a screen, I picked up a pen and grabbed a notebook. I actually did that to start writing this article. Once I got moving, I could switch back to the medium I intended to write from and keep going. Just that change of venue helped tremendously. My theory is that it works for two reasons. First, my brain gets stuck in a loop staring at a screen thinking that I have nothing to write. By switching to a different medium, that thought process falls away and allows my brain to start a new train of thought. Second, the tactile stimulus of a pen and a piece of paper sparks different neural pathways, prompting the ability to think creatively about something new. Not the most scientific rationale, but if it works, it works!
Another strategy when I'm dealing with imposter syndrome in the middle of something is to get up and walk away. If I'm writing from a place of feeling inferior or a fraud, my writing will reflect that. I know that, even if I'm still moving, the momentum I have isn't going to get me to the end of the task because I will need to rewrite it again later, or I'll be fretting about it for hours afterward. So I actually physically leave my desk, often to go make a cup of tea. Leaving the task to go do something else, especially something so process-driven and calming as making a cup of tea, resets my brain. I stop thinking about how I don't know what I'm doing when I get a whiff of my favorite black tea or a good herbal blend.
Now, sometimes I can't physically walk away. Maybe I'm in the middle of helping with an incident, to go completely outside of the world of writing. The problem with imposter syndrome for me is it's often caught up in a charged situation. High stress, high nerves, strong reactions. In short, a situation where I care a lot about what's going on and about getting things right for one reason or another. Even in those cases, though, I can take a moment to take a sip of water, or to turn to a slightly different facet of the problem. It's a forced disconnection with the situation at hand, even for a moment. Something just long enough to let myself release that white-knuckle grip and release whatever thoughts of insecurity I have to remember that I'm sitting where I am for a reason, even if I can't believe it at the time. These kinds of highly charged situations really are more often solved for me, though, with strategies I learned as a performer.
Strategies from the performance world
Right before I got into editing, I was a science museum educator. I had to give shows and demos all day long. Despite my degree, you better believe that I had imposter syndrome come up daily! I learned a lot of coping strategies to help myself get through every talk.
Have you ever heard the phrase "fake it until you make it"? Well, that attitude applies to imposter syndrome for me when it comes to being up on stage. The illusion of confidence and knowing what I'm talking about goes a long way to actually making me confident enough to stand up on stage, and believing that I am knowledgeable enough to answer questions helps a lot. I get there by having a confidence booster collection that I'll read before I go onstage. It's a collection of messages, comments, testimonials, or anything really that come from other people that tell me I did a good job. If you use Slack a lot like me, starred messages work wonderfully for this. When I was at Rackspace, I starred every message that noted things I did well, from solving a production problem to positive messages about hosting our internal conference. Whenever I started really spiraling into imposter syndrome before a talk, I would flip through those messages to remind myself that others respected my voice. Back when I was at the museum, I would remind myself of where I came from by periodically writing the name of my degree or alma mater on the inside of my wrist under my watch in tiny letters. Whenever I needed that confidence boost, I would look at that message to myself and take a moment to remember. It's amazing how a small reminder that you've done harder things can help you fake that confidence in the moment until you actually believe yourself.
Another thing I had to learn was how to handle mistakes, missteps, or failures, including demo failures, during live shows. The fear of exposure as a fraud that comes with imposter syndrome is a lot like the fear of failing at something while on stage for me. Both situations, as I mentioned before, are highly charged. So I learned the art of acknowledging a failure live. Depending on the situation, I would turn the failure into a joke ("I guess the volcano is still tired from daylight savings time") or would just forge onward ("Well, that dataset isn't the one I thought it was. However, we can still talk about this one."). Sometimes, none of my coping strategies work and I still feel like a fraud. That's ok. I force myself to change the lyrics live. Rather than "Who am I to talk about this?", I respond "While I might not be the one to talk about this, I won't know until I try." Or instead of "Why are they listening to me?", I make myself think "Well, they're here, so let's make it fun anyway." Acknowledging that fear and then changing the focus is a strong strategy that I use whenever I can't seem to shake that feeling of inadequacy. It takes practice, just like handling situations live, but it's well worth the time it takes to learn.
I'll be using these a lot this week as I'm going to be presenting at DeveloperWeek Austin. I always get nerves and imposter syndrome before I go on stage, no matter how many times I've done it. If you happen to be here and look really closely before I go up on stage, you'll likely see some tiny letters on the inside of my wrist, waiting for me to need that boost, or me flipping through my phone reading my confidence collection. In addition to the conference, I have a lot more CFPs to respond to this month. I'll be using all of these strategies to get through the stressful process of getting words on a page.
How do you work from within your imposter syndrome? Come find me on Twitter and let me know.