The Imposter Syndrome and Knowing What You Don’t Know

I really have never thought I had Imposter Syndrome. I’m not a shrinking violet, I tend to talk pretty authoritatively, I’m confident, like to speak in public, etc. Yet, I joined a mailing list for women-techs and during discussions this term came up. I looked it up, and started locating this behavior in a few of my interactions.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling of inauthenticity, that you will be “found out,” that you don’t belong, and roughly that everyone has reached some basic level of knowledge or performance, that you haven’t.

Your accomplishments are due to:

  • luck
  • timing
  • or as a result of deceiving others

I only got that award/Hackfest win because of tokenism, or because our competition wasn’t that great. Or, they thought it did something it patently didn’t (good/fake demo?). Not only do I think these things occasionally, but, others tell me this. I’m not kidding. Right after presenting Ruckus at AngelHack this guy accused our demo of not working, of being faked. To our faces. Most presenters didn’t even have a demo, and very few had one that worked.

For me, the imposter syndrome rears its ugly head during technical interviews. No matter if I’m a subject expert, no matter if I don’t know the backgrounds of the guys (and they are always guys) interviewing me, I will give them more authority than they’re worth, and think they know things I don’t know, and doubt or diminish my own accomplishments.

Afterwards, when reviewing the transcript in my mind, I am amazed at my lack of confidence and surity, and, generally, how I give them more than the benefit of the doubt. My solution to this- work more and more on doing LinkedIn checks before the interview, or, ha, ask what material’s going to be in it so I’m prepared. Also, as women (or people,) we’re taught not to be braggy, but we have to be able to state our accomplishments clearly.

I also tend to over-estimate the knowledge and experience of speakers at conferences. Recently volunteered to be on a panel simply because I wanted to attend and I was wait-listed. It was on contracting in iOS. Turned out I was on the upper-median spectrum of experience on the panel. Why did I assume that they were qualified to speak with authority? Because they were men? I didn’t know the facilitator, and yet assumed he knew his stuff. So in a way the Imposter Syndrome feeds off itself, as more people undervalue themselves, they are also overvaluing those around them.

We all know that an accurate understanding of your own knowledge is what helps you grow and learn. It’s actually quite rewarding when I find out a pocket of knowledge that I don’t have, and I’m eager to get better at it. I am actually, as I write this, embarrassed to admit my latest learning. I recently tackled and won a battle with threaded programming, in Android and iOS, that has me eager to redevelop all of my old titles. I should write about it, but, having had bombed a (cough) technical interview about threading in Rails, I am shy of mentioning that it’s hard, and that I’ve figured it out, and it has really improved my apps. I’ve also done some serious image and sound encoding and now want to add voice and image creation to all of my old games. I got shot down on StackOverflow by some guy about a sound encoding issue, so guess what, I’m shy about writing about that triumph.

Anyway, it’s a journey, but having an honest assessment of your own skills is vital to learning, so in a way it’s inhibiting our abilty to publicly admit: I didn’t know this, and now I do, and I can now share it with others.

I wonder if this is the key element to why the percentage of women on StackOverflow is so low.

  • Jon Steiner

    I loved the post. 

    I have had the reverse happen to me - I have been been the recipient of privilege in a tech interview. Merely because I was male, white and in my 20's, I was assumed to be technically competent. Now that I'm 40, I am no longer given the immunity that many 20 somethings enjoy. 

    Engaging in humility while having the confidence in yourself to promote yourself is a hard line to walk, regardless of gender.

  • Thanks Jon, interesting to see it on the flip side, huh. I get the assumption that I'm good at design, all the time. Or, that I'm interested in "how things look." I recently was consulted on a women-centered hackfest, and asked "should we have centerpieces with flowers?" I'm like, WTF, for a mobile hackathon? Uh who cares?? (and why would I know?) 

  • Good job, both in realizing what's holding you (and many of us) back, and also in being courageous enough to write about it publicly!

  • Sallybschroeder

    You've hit the nail on the head, Anna.  I've suffered from Imposter Syndrome much of my career.  Now that I'm "volunteering" my services most of the time, and I've learned to follow my gut, and silly as it sounds, "believe in myself", I suffer less from Imposter Syndrome.  Maybe it's motherhood, because really, no mother could be an imposter.  Great post!

  • Thanks Sally! I think of you re: presenting at science conferences and winning grants (btw Sally has won some seriously large grants for CMV (immune/microvirology) research.) See, adoring sisters can brag for you :)

blog comments powered by Disqus