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Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Reading time: 4 minutes

It’s more common in tech than you think

Feeling like you’re faking it at work is more common than you’d expect. In fact, a survey of 15 of the world’s largest tech companies found that 58% of tech employees suffer from imposter syndrome. Here’s a little more about what it is, why it’s so widespread and what you can do about it.
When it was first identified in 1978, imposter syndrome was defined as a feeling of "phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement." While that initial study focused on high-achieving women, recent research has shown that imposter syndrome affects men and women in tech equally.

The five kinds of imposters

According to imposter syndrome expert Valerie Young, there are five different ways you may be sabotaging yourself:
  • Perfectionists set impossible goals for themselves. Even if they achieve 99% of what they intended, that missing 1% will make them feel like a failure.
  • Experts feel like they need to know every detail of information before they begin a new project, otherwise they can’t start it at all. They might not offer a solution for a problem because it might not be exactly right or apply for a job where they don’t have every single qualification.
  • Natural geniuses are used to getting everything right on the first try. If they have to work or struggle to learn something new, they immediately feel incompetent.
  • Soloists try to do everything they can on their own. If they get to the point where they need to ask for help, they feel like they’ve failed.
  • Supermen and Superwomen are multitaskers who need to excel in every aspect of their lives—work, relationships, family—and may feel inadequate if they’re not accomplishing something at all times.

What you can do

Tech is a rapidly changing field: New programming languages, new cybersecurity tools and processes, new ways IIoT and machine learning may be altering your business model…plus dozens of things that are specific to your own career. It makes sense that many tech workers feel out of their depth sometimes.
Interestingly, on-the-job experience does help: A survey of software developers last year showed that those who had been coding for a decade or longer showed a marked dropoff in imposter syndrome. In the meantime, here are a few things you can do to stave it off.
  • Embrace a growth mindset. There are two ways you can approach your work: With a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset avoids challenges and thinks one failure means they’ll never be good enough. Someone with a growth mindset looks for new challenges; if they fail, they view it as a learning experience and keep going.
  • Ask for help. It’s OK not to be the smartest person in the room (and if you are, it’s probably time to move on to a more challenging role). Talk to your colleagues about issues you’re having on a team project; post a question in a GitHub community forum; reach out to a mentor if you want to make a career jump but feel insecure about it.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. This is easy to say and very hard to do. Try to remember that everyone is on their own career path; and since you’re in tech, in 10 years you and your coworkers will all have completely different jobs anyway. Focus on doing the best work you can do without looking over your shoulder.
  • Remind yourself that imposter syndrome is very real. Do it every time you second-guess yourself before speaking up at a meeting, or want to pass on a project that’s beyond your skill set, or cringe because you committed some code that ended up buggy. Remember that more than half of your colleagues feel the same way. Awareness is the first step towards keeping imposter syndrome in check, and you’ve already got that in the bag.
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