Are We Alike?

Most of my life, I've had a knack to pick things up - a new subject, a new instrument, a hobby. Whether it was making our logistics team more efficient in one of my college jobs, eking the best quality out of some of the early (and terrible) recording software in versions of Windows I've blocked out, lest I need therapy again, or writing web applications like I do today...I savor the challenge of new things. I love to create from scratch, but I also love making existing things better...realizing their potential.

This knack of mine is loaded with inexpressible joy and sheer terror - and extricating the joy from the terror is impossible for me. Why?

When I do my best to objectively analyze the "knack", I come away with this ugly "truth": In most situations, I feel I've only been able to "pick up" the new skill at a rate moderately faster than those who happened to be around me at the time. Combine that with the fact that I was the undercover introvert in a mostly-extrovert-dominated upbringing, I learned how to navigate the social politics of life, and focus the comparisons of how quickly I assimilated new skills and knowledge with those it would most contrast against. The dark side of loving to learn new things all the time is the irrational, but entirely real, fear that this knowledge would steal away in the night, leaving me to wake up with the sense that something's missing....but never being able to put my finger on what.

In other words - I live with the constant background fear that I will be found out. I'm not that good. I'm not that smart. I have conceptual gaps in what is, at best, a vintage-block-of-swiss-cheese-knowledge. I can trace the borders around what I don't know, but the chasm within seems impossible to adequately fill. I consider the positions of influence and leadership I've found myself in over my life, and all I can think is that I've gotten lucky. Been at the right place at the right time.

I'm a fraud.

IFR

I first heard the term "Impostor Syndrome" a few years ago:

"...a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be." (a la wikipedia)

Pauline Clance (one of first to coin the term) developed the "Clance IP Scale" to help measure how much, if any, you may struggle with these feelings. I'm fairly certain I scored a solid 100 on the short version of the test.

Notice the phrase in the above quote: "despite external evidence of their competence". Being a (mostly) rational person, I've often compared the inner tortuous turmoil of feeling like an impostor to the evidence of how my life has actually unfolded. Clearly, if every significant success in my life was due only to luck, timing and my ability to fool others about what I (don't) know, then I need to be studied by statisticians - as my ability to buck the odds has moved from "unusual" straight into the paranormal.

So, I know that my own assessment can't be trusted. It doesn't line up with the facts. Still - those storm clouds outside the cockpit window look menacing, even if the instrument panel tells me I'm OK, and the terror of this metaphorical plane going down is too primal to simply wish away.

One does not simply "decide to not be an impostor". The very nature of this struggle means that you are right at least some of the time about being one, and you tend to forget or minimize the times where you clearly prove otherwise. If this seems odd to you, stay with me. Let's take a brief look at what it's like to be an impostor.

Cliché Complications

Impostor Syndrome is that supporting character in a story whose acidic cynicism saturates everyone who stays too close. You're loathe to see the main character get sucked in by it...but the plot gets complicated due to the element of truth running throughout much of what the cynical impostor says.

How many times have I proved myself right? "See, I didn't really understand that concept."

How many times do I involuntarily re-live those embarrassing moments? The embarrassing break-up, the time I forgot to check for global variables, the time I aimed AOP right at both feet and blew them clean off....

When software developers face problems, I often feel we fall into two camps. They're best described by these reactions:

"I hate this 3rd party library. It sucks. The API doesn't make sense. The documentation is awful..."

OR:

"Man, I'm stupid. I still can't get this thing to work. I wish I didn't suck at this."

The problem with immediately assuming that I'm the problem is that I'm right. A lot.

Impostor syndrome is the bloodhound, constantly catching the scent of what you don't know. It's the taskmaster demanding you work harder and harder, but never being satisfied with any effort. It's the quintessential "arm-folder", seated in the front row, leering at you...waiting for the inevitable mistake. It's a nimble thief, often stealing joy the very moment it occurs. In my musical days, I worked with a band that covered U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name". I meticulously worked on matching the Edge's tone. Even the skeptical Nashville musicians in the audience lit up when we kicked the song off. Our delivery was excellent, and local guitarists I was deeply intimidated by were complementary of my execution. Despite all that - do you know what I remember most about that performance? The fact that I couldn't get the muffled, percussive attack on the strings exactly how I wanted, and to this day I think about what I could've done differently with my pick, my hands, my pickups and strings to get it to match what I heard in my head.

We Are All Afraid

Most of my experience has shown that the loud, outspoken genius developer - the kind that gets away with being a complete jerk due to their sheer brilliance - is every bit as rare as a unicorn. Everyone is afraid. Some, like me, will hang around the edges, questioning if they really know something. Others have perfected sounding authoritative (and often bossy), hoping to not be challenged, lest the house of cards collapse.

Being an uncategorizable kid, I got picked on quite a bit in middle school. A seminal moment for me occurred in 8th grade - where one boy, and his 'wingman' had, for days, blocked me outside in between classes, insulting me and doing everything they could to get me to cry, throw a punch or run away. At one point the wingman looked to his friend and asked "Are you afraid you can't take him?" I realized, for the first time, that my bully was afraid of me - maybe not as much as I was of him. Still, that realization changed everything. He never messed with me again - because I called his bluff without having to throw a punch (a rare thing when it comes to bullies in childhood, unfortunately). It shaped my perspective on all that came after. The popular kid was afraid he couldn't take me. Me. I was baffled. I was empowered. I was suspicious.

As an adult, these startling revelations follow a similar theme. My heroes & heroines - whose code I constantly wish to emulate - will suddenly make an awful decision. I mean a Limburger-cheese-quality-code-smell. I realize they're just like me - trying to make sense of the complexity that faces us every day, and boil it down to manageable parts. Hanging on to that revelation, though, is difficult. An impostor sees someone else's success and says "they've got the magic", but says their own success was dumb luck. They see someone else's mistake as an exception to the rule, but their own as a universal constant.

As an introvert - my inner impostor wants to sabotage my ability to connect with others and collaborate. Co-writing in music and pair-programming aren't too far apart from each other. The fear of being misunderstood, or suggesting a terrible idea (and it being remembered more than the good ideas) - these are emotionally charged mine fields. Thank God I've had the benefit of good experiences here - having felt the rush of a fruitful collaborative partnership. Otherwise, my impostor's cynicism and fear would have kept me from reaching out.

Co-opting The Impostor

So how do I deal with it? I've come to accept that I will never rid myself of my impostor. Instead, I've learned to co-opt him into being my ally.

I constantly have friends tell me "Wow, blogging, writing OSS, speaking at conferences...I could never do that. You have way more confidence than I do..." If they only knew! I love to teach and share what I know. But the inward battle rages fiercely between a love of learning, and feeling I don't know anything worth sharing; between a love of sharing what I know and feeling no one gives a rat's behind about what I think. Speaking stresses me out so fiercely that the 48 hours before a talk is no-man's land for me - I ignore the storm clouds entirely and focus on the instrument panel. It's the only way I can make it. Usually, though, when the session starts, it "clicks" for me and I savor the moment and feel more like myself than I often get to.

Leveraging The Impostor For Learning & Quality

Committing to speak is a big deal for me - since I never ever want to waste the time of someone who attends my session. I will pour hours and hours into session prep and never feel prepared enough. I feel the same way about blog posts. I'm not satisfied putting out a fluff post. I know that my inner impostor will torture me relentlessly if I commit to speak or write on a topic. The only thing that will soften the impostor's voice is if I deep dive and learn everything I can about it. As a result, if there's a particular framework, language or tool I want to learn - I will often commit to writing or speaking on it. In this way, it's an "unlikely ally" plot device. How many times have I wanted to hug my inner impostor when my conviction that I don't really know something leads me to plunge into the subject and assimilate loads of new concepts just before I end up needing to bring them to bear on a project? My inner impostor drove me to practice Andrew York's "Sunburst" in front of anyone who would listen, so that when it came time to perform it before an audience, I executed it (mostly) flawlessly. I'm still working on applying this to development, but I'm getting there.

Leveraging the Impostor for Balance

The number of times I've nearly written and published my own client-side framework(s) is more than I care to admit. I can simultaneously feel like a fraud and be convinced that I could write a better implementation than {framework x}. At first, I held back because the impostor's fear loomed over the entire horizon. What if I executed it poorly? What if someone that truly gets Big O notation examines my code and publicly ridicules me? Over time, I realized that I preferred focusing on targeted libraries (like postal.js and machina.js) over attempting to write full stack frameworks. My inner impostor would torture me to no end if I attempted to write something with as large a surface area as AngularJS. While my own "focused" libs have tons of room for improvement, I embrace my inner impostor here. Why? Because I can manage the torture I feel internally in wanting to constantly improve a smaller library with a limited focus. I can do that and still have a life. In this way, the impostor is both a bouncer and a receptionist - helping guard my life from over-commitment.

Leveraging the Impostor for Humility

My impostor keeps me from being the loud-mouth troll that I would be otherwise. He knows all too well how our culture reacts to know-it-all-jerks when they screw up and get it wrong. We are less likely to respect and follow someone who isn't teachable - so I can agree with my impostor that I'd rather question myself constantly over whether I truly understand something, rather than lash out insensitively at what might be perceived as a stupid "n00b" question. This has lead me to avoid many classic bike-shedding arguments. You want tabs on this project? OK, sure thing. I won't waste my time arguing for spaces. I'd rather spend my political capital on higher level ideas and concepts. My impostor demands that I truly commit to the course of action laid out by my words, otherwise he won't let me sleep at night. So I'm much more selective over what I argue about, and how I go about debating ideas.

Offset

Regardless of how I've managed to co-opt my inner-impostor, the single most important decision I've made in this area is to build an inner circle of friends and colleagues that I trust and respect - men and women who've proven themselves to be knowledgeable, humble, patient, teachable, and thoughtful. These people have been a lifeline to me when I've been drowning in self-doubt. They've been patient teachers, eager to see me grow and excel, without judging or mocking me for what I don't yet know or understand. They've been excited students, as well, in those moments that I actually do have something worth sharing.

At the end of day, what any impostor needs is love and acceptance. We may be thoroughly convinced we don't deserve it, and we could never earn it - but we are deeply grateful to have it nonetheless.