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:
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.