Whether preparing to land that first job in the software industry or writing code as a full-time professional, many people experience anxiety and self-doubt about their ability to succeed in software development. Maybe I'm not good at this. I probably just got lucky. I'm sure someone is going to realize I don't belong here sooner or later. Known as imposter syndrome, the insecurity and fear that our lack of skill will be uncovered is something that every developer I know has experienced at one time or another. If you're thinking that it sounds like you have a case of imposter syndrome too, let me be the first person to welcome you to the club!
Originally referred to as "imposter phenomenon" in an academic paper published in 1978, what we colloquially know today as imposter syndrome is more common than you might think. According to research findings published in 2020, the prevalence of imposter syndrome is potentially experienced by up to 82% of people! Though it is reported more frequently in women and ethnic minority groups, imposter syndrome is common among all genders as well as across a wide array of age groups.
Knowing that the vast majority of us experience episodes of self-doubt, let's collectively take a deep breath and cut ourselves some slack.
In mentoring conversations I have with developers I work with, whenever one of them shares their feelings of being an imposter with me I'm quick to point out that real imposters don't worry about being a fraud. They know they're phony! Simply acknowledging our own difficulties internalizing success should actually be seen as validation that we do belong and are trying to do hard things!
That perspective often provides some relief. Still, nobody wants to sit around as imposter syndrome bears down unrelentingly. Naturally, we want to learn how to thrive and enjoy the work we do in spite of imposter syndrome. So, what can we do to push self-doubt to the background?
Talk About It
A common strategy medical experts suggest is to talk about it (or in my case, blog about it). As we open up to trusted colleagues, family members, or friends we benefit by "getting it off our chest" and inviting others to provide feedback that will likely help us develop a more realistic perspective about our own capabilities and competence. Additionally, choosing to vulnerably share the feelings we have with others will inevitably lead us to discovering that we're not alone. In my personal experience, whenever I've confided in a colleague that I feel like I'm faking it till I (hopefully) make it, that colleague replies with "Me too!"
Collect Your Own Data
Another thing we can do to challenge the negative self-talk inherent in imposter syndrome is to collect objective data. Version control systems like Github offer one place to start. Rather than focusing on completed projects that you've built, key in on commits you've made, comments you've left, and tracking a general pattern of time spent with code.
Celebrate Your Successes . . . and Failures
In her book Reality is Broken, world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal teaches her readers about fiero. She writes, "Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it--and when you see it. That's because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell."
We've all experienced fiero, likely multiple times throughout our life. From playing video games, to passing an exam, to crossing the finish line of a marathon, the celebratory experience of conquering an obstacle, whether publicly or privately causes our brain to release dopamine, often referred to as a 'happy hormone' due to the role it plays in increasing positive moods and emotions.
Laughter does the same. In fact, laughter is an incredibly import tool our bodies use to cope with stress, release tension, and reset our brain to adopt a more positive outlook.
So, when you figure out the solution to the coding problem you've been working on, throw your hands above your head and celebrate! When the next problem leaves you wanting to bang your head against the wall, sit back and laugh about it. You're human after all. Your body will thank you for the dopamine.
As with any worthwhile pursuit, learning how to be a skilled software developer is a long-term journey. It takes no time at all to imagine a future where coding seems natural. But imagining that far-off future alone won't get us there. In Leaders Eat Last, author, speaker, and unshakable optimist Simon Sinek reminds us that "Though it may take small steps to make a big leap, it is the vision of the big leap and not the action of the small steps that inspires us."
It's likely the vision of the big leap that inspired us all to get where we are in our pursuit of software development. To effectively manage the imposter syndrome that says we can't make it, remember to take the small steps of 1) talking about your feelings with others, 2) collecting your own data, and 3) celebrating your successes and failures along the way. Truth be told, maybe you're not good at coding . . . yet. Very few of us were when we started. As I said before, welcome to the club!