David Walsh Blog

Conquering Impostor Syndrome

Two years ago I documented my struggles with Imposter Syndrome and the response was immense.  I received messages of support and commiseration from new web developers, veteran engineers, and even persons of all experience levels in other professions.  I’ve even caught myself reading the post many times with the hopes that I would just snap out of it.  The truth is that most of us will never be free of self-doubt…

…but if I’m completely honest, I don’t ever want to be free of Imposter Syndrome. A bit of humility, intimidation, and fear is a healthy feeling to keep us hungry and prevent complacency.  Imposter Syndrome, however, can be paralyzing and can lead to feelings of depression and lack of motivation.  The good news is that I have some tips to share with you that have helped me keep these negative feelings in check!

It’s All About Momentum

When I take a step back and think about the little things I do to stave off Imposter Syndrome, they’re essentially small contributions to build momentum, helping me accomplish the medium to large goal I’m tasked with.  I liken it to basketball:  I love shooting three-pointers, but when they aren’t going in, I need to make a few layups and hit a few free-throws to work up confidence because there’s nothing like hearing the sound of the ball hitting the net.  These tiny bits of validation add up, and as those positive feelings keep coming, I suddenly find myself with an air of confidence that pushes me to take on bigger things.  So how does that strategy apply to my every day work?  Let’s have a look!

Little Wins

“Little wins” are by far the most effective way to gain momentum.  Too often we see our large tasks as a huge mountain and knowing where to start can demotivate or overload the brain, paralyzing us into doing nothing or causing us to lose interest.  When we break down tasks they become more manageable, something you can chip away at.  But the little wins don’t even need to relate to your big tasks or even your assigned project at all — they’re all about getting something on the board somewhere.

Here are a few ways you can score little wins to jumpstart your day:

I accomplish a few small wins every morning to get myself moving.  A few examples:

Little wins are all about doing something, anything, to gain a feeling of progress and momentum.  No task is too small or beneath your title to not consider a win!

Commit to Tasks in Front of the Team

There was recently a task added to my team’s Trello board that I really, really didn’t want to take.  It was a task to update code in a programming language I don’t consider myself an expert in and it touched some pretty critical functionality.  I was a bit hesitant due to lack of confidence as well as having a health dose of “ugh, I hate touching this codebase.”  So I did the most logical thing:  put my face on it and declared in standup that it was mine.

Essentially what I did was force myself to be accountable.  I could have pretended to do other things but the reality is that the task wasn’t going anywhere and the sooner I completed it, the sooner it was something I didn’t need to worry about.  Two hours later (way less time than I thought it would take) the pull request was shipped and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

The moral of the story is that forcing accountability is an excellent way to motivate yourself.  It also shows that sometimes we build things up in our head so as to paralyze ourselves; in reality the task usually isn’t as painful as we’ve made it out to be.

Schedule Quick Meetings and Pair Program

Scheduling meetings and especially pair programming is a great way to force accountability and motivation as:

These gentle pushes are a great way to find motivation and positivity.  Being with someone else also removes the feeling that you’re on an island and everyone is waiting for you to do your part.

Contribute to Passions

I cited a few small patches I created for the Firefox DevTools Debugger above.  Did I mention I’m not on the Firefox DevTools team?!  While my passion is JavaScript, CSS, and front-end development, my current Mozilla team does more PHP, Perl, and Python!

Contributing to projects more inline with your passions, whether inside or outside of your organization, is a great way to feel positive and productive to start the day.  The rush of coding in your comfort zone, coupled with the little wins that come out of that effort, provide a springboard into achieving work you aren’t as excited or as confident to complete.

Talk to Your Manager and Colleagues: They Care!

Even the worst of managers wont put you in a position to fail; it’s their ass too if the project doesn’t get done properly or on time.  Your manager and colleagues have faith in you to accomplish tasks and likely wont throw problems at you that they don’t believe you are capable of solving.  If you think a problem is beyond you, Impostor Syndrome or not, you should talk to your manager or colleagues as soon as possible.  Your manager and colleagues will provide assurance that you are capable and, more importantly, will help plot out how to start solving the problem.

Remember:  no teammate wants to see you fail and will be happy to help get you on the right path.  If you find the rare case where teammates or even your manager aren’t willing to help, it may be time to look elsewhere.

You Are Not Defined By Your Work

I said it in my original Impostor Syndrome post but I’ll say it again:  work is only a small part of your life.  Find a way to smile!  :)

Impostor Syndrome doesn’t go away, and if it does, it means we’ve become complacent or arrogant, which is a far worse fate.  Whatever your industry, role, or experience level, conquering Impostor Syndrome (if only for the day) is about little wins that build yourself up for the bigger tasks.  You’re smarter and more valuable than your Impostor Syndrome will let you realize — just keep punching and chipping away until you’ve conquered that evil.