Dive 10: 2 Simple Steps to Reduce Impostor Syndrome
Hey, it’s Alvin!
For those who don’t know, I’ve been working as a software developer for over 10 years. And recently, my team put me on a new project.
It was exciting… yet terrifying.
Being a software developer in the corporate world can be fickle. You’ll often be (re-)assigned to new projects as the company needs. Changes are constant, which means one day you can feel like an expert who knows everything, and the next day you can feel like a beginner who knows nothing. And that shift can be terrifying.
If you spend months on a project, you become familiar with its ins and outs. You become the go-to expert on the software’s idiosyncrasies, the edge cases, the domain, and the project history. You probably know things that only you know. So, it’s easy to think of yourself as a general “expert.”
But that’s an illusion.
Fear of inadequacy is something I felt strongly whenever I was placed in a new project. I’m supposed to be the “expert,” right? But now:
I know nothing about the project.
I can’t answer questions about the project unless I lie.
I need help from others to understand how everything works.
I don’t just have to learn about the software we’re building. I have to learn about new tools, new processes, new domain-specific terminology, and the project’s history. Going from thinking of yourself as an “expert” to “beginner” can make you feel like an “expert” who knows nothing. A fraud. Some call it “impostor syndrome.”
But this isn’t exclusive to corporate software development.
What I learned over the years is if you ever hope to learn something new, if you want to grow more, you must get over this discomfort. Let me share with you ways I found to lessen this fear:
1. Start like a Student.
What many people don’t realize is that beginnings are blessings.
If you’re afraid of looking dumb, here’s what you HAVE to know:
There’s no better time to look dumb than in the beginning.
I’ve made the dumber decision in the past of not asking important questions at the beginning of a new project because I was afraid of looking stupid. Then, I’d inevitably have to ask them weeks or months later to get things done—when I was expected to have known the answer a long time ago.
The lesson? The longer you wait to ask questions, the dumber you’ll look.
Don’t lie. Don’t fake. Don’t pretend to know stuff you don’t know. The sooner you ask questions, the sooner you learn what you need to know to be competent and confident in what you’re doing.
The smartest thing you can do is ask questions at the beginning.
2. Be like a Beginner.
Are you good with step 1? Take it further. Instead of thinking of myself as a beginner at the beginning and an expert later, I strive to think like a beginner ALL the time. It means questioning, learning, and growing are constant. It’s what the top-notch mentors I’ve had are like. They’re real experts; they know what they’re doing because real experts are experienced beginners.
If someone has a question for me, I’ll share what I know. Of course, I don’t have ALL the answers. So, if I don’t know the answer, I’ll say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.” Or better yet, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.” Learning with others is a great way to share diverse perspectives that broaden our minds. It lets us see things we might otherwise miss. And it’s a great bonding opportunity, too. I grew closer to teammates this way.
To be clear, none of what I said is easy. Thinking and being a beginner student is a skill that takes practice. But because it’s a skill, it’s something everyone can improve. In the beginning I said I still felt terrified starting a new project. And in the past, my fear of inadequacy and impostor syndrome would last months and years.
Recently, my team put me on a new project. And by thinking like a beginner student, my fear was over in a flash. As soon as I started the project, I focused on asking questions to understand as much as I could as fast as I could. My fear quickly gave way to excitement. In less than a week, I shipped my first feature on the project. I also pushed my first bug to production on the project. I fixed it quickly and learned a TON in the process. And that knowledge and experience filled me with the confidence to tackle even greater challenges. It ended up being a fun, exciting week, and I didn’t feel an ounce of impostor syndrome.
Will that always be the case? Maybe not.
But as long as I can tap into that beginner student in me, I know I can learn and tackle any challenge that comes my way. Which means…
I no longer need to worry about looking like an expert.
I can be a real one.
And so can you.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of impostor syndrome. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Let me know how you deal with impostor syndrome. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.