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How To Avoid Feeling Like a Loser at Work

Its a given that real programmers start programming at their early teens, code in their spare time and are always up to date with bleeding edge technologies. But these great expectations may lead to great burnouts.

The office is large and empty, everyone has left already. There is just me staring at a screen, eyes glazed over and head totally blank. Last 6 hours I’ve been refactoring bunch of code that functionality-wise could have been ready yesterday. But I thought it could make it look better. Hence I took it to pieces to put it back together again, just to foolproof the darn thing so the next developer who looks at it would not think „What idiot wrote this crap!?“.

Now I’m overdue, tired and frustrated, because I’m still not sure if I have the correct solution. Come to think of it, I’m actually not trying to make the code better, I’m trying to imitate what a real programmer would do. It’s just like in the university where I imitated being a good student by learning what answers the professors wanted to hear, or being a good daughter by doing what was expected from me. All I’m really good at is imitating. I feel like I’m in Philip K. Dick’s short story „The Exit Door Leads In“ where the protagonist loses his only chance to do something amazing with his life, just because he choses to do as he thinks is expected of him.

All in all – I’m an impostor!

It’s Just a Feeling

Then I stumbled on an article in Business Insider about computer programmers suffering something called the „impostor syndrome“.

„That’s when you’re pretty sure that all the other coders you work with are smarter, more talented and more skilled than you are. You live in fear that people will discover that you are really faking your smarts or skills or accomplishments.“

And it hit me – I actually may not be an impostor. Working in IT for ten years, I have to have done something right, because I still have a job, I’m still trusted with writing code and my co-workers ask for my opinion. Somehow the fact that I could put a label on my feelings, that others much more qualified and experienced people felt it too, makes me feel a bit more at ease. And being at other times like a phony at even being an impostor.

The term “impostor syndrome/phenomenon” first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 who observed many high-achieving females tended to believe they were not intelligent, and that they were over-evaluated by others. Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.

The Education Trap

I discussed the topic with few of my close friends, who are the most brilliant and intelligent people I know – one of them an editor and the other a researcher. They both confessed that quite often they feel lost and unworthy doing their job. Mostly because as specialists they have no way to measure how good of a job they are doing or even if the direction they have taken is the correct one. They have to invent it themselves and in the long run, probably will have no feedback how their work has affected other people or the goal they are helping to achive.

It’s not that they or I have a low self-esteem. At times I’m quite sure, that I’m above average in many ways and at rare moments can even be arrogant, but a life long training of trying to please parents, teachers, mentors, professors and so on, it feels quite intimidating to do something without having someone going through your work evaluating it and giving you feedback. Ain’t no one got time for that any more!

No Proof Of Competence

When your work is part of collective effort and your code is part of a project that 10 developers are working on, what do you have as a proof after 7 or 10 years of work? Your code has been rewritten or deleted by someone else. Technologies have changed and you still sometimes can’t understand what others are talking about, what is this new thing you haven’t heard of. You are empty handed and hope that the fact you have been employed all this time is some kind of proof of your skills, because you have never been creating something physical you can point at. Your work never belongs to you. You are just a employee who produces well, nothing more no matter how many hours of work you put into it.

Getting Over It

Some masochistic part of me says it’s good to feel like an imposter. It drives me to try harder, to learn more, to fake more. But on the other hand it’s stressful to be scared, to worry that you will be found out and fired. It burns you out.
The most effective technique to overcome impostor syndrome is to simply recognize that it exists. For me it has helped to discuss my fears and feelings with co-workers and friends, to know, that these great people occasionally feel the same. And when you don’t know something don’t be ashamed to ask questions and to admit your ignorance and never shame someone who does the same.

By On April 20, 2014

  1. You have nailed it right there with “When your work is part of collective effort and your code is part of a project that 10 developers are working on, what do you have as a proof after 7 or 10 years of work? Your code has been rewritten or deleted by someone else. Technologies have changed and you still sometimes can’t understand what others are talking about, what is this new thing you haven’t heard of. You are empty handed and hope that the fact you have been employed all this time is some kind of proof of your skills, because you have never been creating something physical you can point at. Your work never belongs to you. You are just a employee who produces well, nothing more no matter how many hours of work you put into it.”

    I would like to add “after slogging on, working whole night to save a project, you see that after 3 years it is no longer there and the home page exists only in internet wayback machine, it is then you feel depressed but you slog on, maybe try to look back at it from a new angle, maybe try to think what you did and what you could have done.”

  2. Really well written article, that comes up on the spot on the topics I tried to wrap my mind around in the last weeks. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Just started really reading this blog. Skipped it for a long time thinking it was all about your product. I appreciate that you let your employees share things not really related to the product. Very fresh idea, and makes me feel like I know your team a bit better. And yes, I can feel the pain you feel Janika, everyday, as I am in the IT industry where I was only self trained and often feel like I get paid too much for my skills, though I do work very very hard trying to make up for it. J

  4. Self-consciousness is messy business with a doubtful foundation. Like an image forever bouncing between two parallel mirrors, the exercise carries your thoughts to a meaningless conclusion. Your starting position was awesome, so just keep your eyes forward, your ears and mind open to opportunities, and you will always be in great demand, nothing fake about it. While it is a waste of time to revisit solved problems, it is an excellent use of creativity to discover solutions that existed before you were born. -stay keen, stay wonderful, stay…for tea!

  5. Just found out about your app and will be signing in a minute.
    Funny how much of what you’re writing about here can relate to the musicianship.
    “Imposter Picker” after 30 years in the business … But it’s like you wrote in the “Getting over it” section, it’s a motivating factor as well 🙂

  6. “Some masochistic part of me says it’s good to feel like an imposter. It drives me to try harder, to learn more, ”
    It makes sense and I don’t think it’s being masochistic at all, rather, being realistic. The pride of not being an imposter, of being relevant, is in deed a source of motivation – and a very legitimate one – I think.

  7. Thanks for the good words Mikk and Graeme! And please do share it, Graeme. I know how intimidating it may feel to find a job as a developer for the first time. It’s too simple to opt for a less technical job.

  8. What a great post, Janika! Your honesty and humility are brave and refreshing. Humans are getting so much better at talking about these things, which may once have been considered a sign of weakness, or an unwelcome invitation to intimacy. I have certainly felt these things too, although sometimes men are expected to maintain a strong and silent composure, so we often bluff. I am going to share your post with a young, female friend, recently graduated from college, who is allowing her feelings of inferiority and unworthiness to prevent her from finding a job.

    Thank you!

  9. Very nice article. Its good to see that developers are talking openly about burnouts. Thats a subject that definitely needs more attention.