How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

I just want to preface this blog post by saying that I’m going to talk about some stuff that makes it seem like I’m bragging about myself. I’m not. I hate bragging about myself and I dislike hearing other people brag about themselves, so I just wanted to be clear about that 🙂 I’m going to be writing about stuff that I’ve experienced and what I think that means for and what it could mean for others. Everyone’s experiences are so different.. and I think it’s important to use what you know to try and learn from it. So use my experiences as some guiding ideas, maybe not so much as gospel truth.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the term “imposter syndrome” lately on the podcasts I listen to. For those that aren’t familiar, imposter syndrome is “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’”. It’s most commonly talked about in developer podcasts when referring to the idea of a developer feeling like they’re in way over their head and feeling like there’s no way they can succeed. It’s the idea that you aren’t smart enough, good enough, etc. to be successful as a developer.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m at an interesting point right now in my journey of learning to code, where I know a decent amount of information and I’ve made it through quite a few valleys. In other words, I’ve been several situations where I felt like, “there’s no possible way I’ll ever figure this out” but then somehow I managed to make it through the other side. The experiences helped me realize that instead of freaking out, I can be confident knowing that everything works out in the end. Does this mean that when I take on a new project or try to learn a new technology that I don’t feel overwhelmed, insecure, or ‘out of my league’? Absolutely not. But I’m starting to realize more and more how important it is for us to get out of our comfort zones.

Recently, I read a book called “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins. Talk about a guy that’s been through some hurdles in life. To sum up some of his life: he was abused as a child, joined the Airforce after failing the ASVAB test twice, lost over 100 pounds in 3 months to qualify for Navy SEAL training, joined the SEALs after getting injured during his training twice, trained and competed in the Badwater 135-mile ultramarathon after barely running long distance previously, and in 2013 he broke the world record for most pull-ups done in 24 hours with 4,030 pull-ups in 17 hours, despite being almost 200 pounds. Even just listing out those accomplishments is pretty amazing (he does a much better job in his book, and I highly recommend it), but his main point throughout the whole book was that his overall goal wasn’t to do crazy things, but to gain more control over his mind and unleash more of his true potential.

Goggins subscribes to the 40 percent rule. Imagine you’re doing pushups and you get that last rep where you feel your arms shaking and you know you just can’t do another one. The 40 percent rule basically says that you’ve only hit 40% of your potential; you still have 60% left in the tank.

The combination of this 40% philosophy and ‘imposter syndrome’ are really conflicting ideas, right? So this is what I’ve been battling with in my head. Here’s what I (with Goggin’s help) have come up with:

Being uncomfortable is a GREAT THING.

Some of the best things in my life have come from being uncomfortable. I can’t remember how many times I felt so stupid while learning how to program. I remember when I was confused for like a week about how FUNCTIONS worked! If you’re at this point, keep pushing through it and you’ll laugh about it later!

I try to tell my students this as often as I can. Failure is good. Being out of your comfort zone is good. But it’s so hard when you’re actually the person failing and you’re experiencing those feelings of confusion, isolation, anger, and defeat. How are you supposed to remember that it’s only going to last a finite amount of time and that somehow you’ll be better because of it?

Well, what I’ve been thinking about lately are my moments of victory. Goggins also says it’s important to get those victories in so you can feed off of them later. For example, last year I ran an ultramarathon. I’m a big dude (250–260lbs) and I have no business running a 50k up and down hills in Oklahoma. But I trained for it and I did it. And the following year after training even harder, I beat my old time by 1.5 hours. So here’s what I’m saying: after that first year, I felt like there’s no F&*(ing way I can go faster. Hell, there’s no way I can do that again. I was at 40%.

The next year, I dug deeper, put in more miles during the week, had longer runs on the weekends, and crushed my old time. Probably still not much more than 40–45% of my threshold.

After beating last years time by 1.5 hours

But here’s the cool thing (and the main point of holding onto your moments of victory). In my mind, I know now what I’m capable of. In fact, I know I’m capable of even more than I think I’m capable of. So if I decide to go out for an 8 or 10 mile run one Saturday after not running for 2 weeks, in my head I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before. All of these prior ‘wins’ allow me to go tackle this task I used to think was ridiculous. I mean, 3 years ago there’s no way I would decide to go out for a 10 mile run!

Being uncomfortable means you’re growing. Running 20 miles on a training Saturday was not comfortable. I grew tremendously from it. Learning JavaScript was so uncomfortable it made me want to quit more than running did. It made my teeth itch and made me want to punch my computer sometimes. But I’m still here and now I know so much stuff I didn’t before.

Let me try to tie this all together: just because you’re learning something new or training or trying to lose weight does not mean you have ‘imposter syndrome’. Just because you can’t remember why React is different from Angular does not mean you’ll never make it as a programmer. Everyone has their weaknesses, and you can’t compare your own weaknesses against someone else’s strengths. Going through these peaks and valleys are just fact of life, and you just have to remember that EVERYONE experiences them and that they don’t last forever.

Best of all, if you’re willing, you are going to learn something after getting through a low point. I mean if you really think about it, how do you really learn something new? By failing over and over again and refusing to give up. Think about when you were a kid learning to ride a bike or if you’ve ever tried to learn another (verbal) language.

So celebrate failing. I mean, not to the point where you are trying to fail on purpose. But the next time you are in a moment of being overwhelmed or feeling like an ‘imposter’, just be on the lookout for opportunities to learn. And if you are feeling like you just can’t do it, think about the last time you were stubborn and didn’t give up. Gain strength from your prior victories and continue crushing shit.

 

-Matt

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