Mastery and Authenticity

When I was around middle-school age, I wanted to be a skateboarder. Thrasher magazine was all the rage and some of the coolest people I knew at school rode skateboards and wore just the best graphic tshirts and these amazing shoes that I never could convince my parents to buy for me. I was obsessed with the art and the music that surrounded skating. I could draw well enough, so I would cover my notebooks with sketches of company logos and board designs. I don't remember ever having the magazines, but I'd borrow them from friends and I'd try to find out everything I could about pro skaters.

Thing is, I never really learned to skate. My parents were supportive, but there was no way I was going to get a Santa Cruz or Powell Peralta - my preferred brands would change weekly - so I made due with a Valterra from the local department store and a pair of knock-off Chuck Taylors. I could ride my board, but I never really learned tricks and I didn't get near a ramp until many years later. As much as I loved the sport, it didn't love me back, and the kids I wanted to much to be like tagged me with the most horrific of labels: Poseur.

There's a Problem

I have often said that I suffer from a terminal case of Impostor Syndrome. If, for some reason you have not heard of this afflicion, (and consider yourself blessed if you haven't) it is a potentially debilitating crisis of confidence that is all too common among knowledge workers. As an engineer, I have been familiar with this disease for quite a long time. It is spoken of at nearly every developer and hacker conference I attend, and it is becoming a common topic of conversation in similar circles. My wife, a Registered Nurse - certainly among the knowledge worker professions - was less familiar with the term but all too aware of its implications as she, too, has suffered.

At its heart, Impostor Syndrome is a nagging sense of self-doubt. As I have observed, in myself as well as in others, this is often in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Objectively I know that I have had a long and successful career. I have a decent reputation and the respect of my peers. But there is part of me that is never really convinced. I mean, I've never published any books or gone on any speaking tours. I don't work for any of the top tech companies, and my name is not reknowned for originating any algorithm or open source masterpiece. None of these things is required to be a good, even excellent engineer, but it is so easy to tear one's self down over it. It's like somewhere in the back of my head is still some shitty thirteen-year-old skater kid calling me a poseur.

There is something, though, that I feel I and many of the other Impostor Syndrome sufferers I've encountered have in common, and that is integrity. This is one trait in which I have confidence and it is in this that I find the silver lining in what is otherwise a pretty dark cloud.

Let's Look at it Another Way

Here is where I humble-brag this flaw into a virtue.

Suburban childhood trauma aside, I believe Impostor Syndrome stems from a longing for two noble traits: Mastery and Authenticity. As engineers we are driven by curiousity and the thrill that comes from having overcome a challenge. What we do is difficult and our skills are hard won. Each accomplishment paves the way to the next, and in a field that is forever growing and changing, the road stretches long in front of us. This is a quest for Mastery, and it is good.

But it's not enough to simply learn a new language or a new tool, we want to use it well and too its full effect. How deeply we understand vi or bash matters to us. We seek genuine, deep and meaningful knowledge and we are willing to work day and night to achieve it. This is the desire for Authenticity, and it, too, is good.

Mastery and Authenticity, like any virtues, are easier to see in others than in ourselves. I'm constantly reading blog posts and tweets, and watching YouTube videos of my fellow engineers who have built amazing things. It seems like they are all friends having the best time and it drives me crazy! Thing is, these same folks are themselves suffering from the same self doubt. More and more people in our field are sharing their own experiences, whether writing articles or preparing to speak at meetups and conferences, and we learn that we're all struggling through it, even the glamourous ones.

Because we want it to be good.