Fixes the Build: Impostor Syndrome
Author: Jeffrey Stewart, Tools Lead
As a lead, I participate in lots of conversations about day-to-day frustrations, goal setting and career progression, and overall morale. I hear different perspectives from my own reports, other people’s reports, other leads, and more. Over the last few months it occurred to me that a certain topic—a specific feeling people said was bothering them—had come up repeatedly, in several otherwise unrelated conversations with people from across this spectrum.
Here are some of them, paraphrased:
- I feel like I should be working faster.
- I don’t feel like I’m able to keep up.
- I feel like I’m here because I’m really lucky (a subtly different thought, mind you, from “I feel really lucky to be here”)
- Eventually, people are going to realize I’m actually not very good at this.
- I didn’t do anything special.
- Why would anyone think I’m qualified to coach anyone?
- I’m not the right person to look into this.
In isolation, expressions like these might be weak signals at best—workaday frustrations. But in context it was clear what was being described to me, and what really surprised me is that the people I was talking with didn’t know that it has a name: impostor syndrome.
I’ve spoken to enough people who weren’t aware of this phenomenon that I thought building some awareness of it might be a good thing.
The term was coined in 1978 by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who were observing successful women who exhibited a tendency to undervalue their success. It has been further studied since, and found to affect both men and women.
It’s characterized by an inability to internalize one’s own accomplishments, and is typically associated with high-achieving individuals. People suffering impostor syndrome tend to be convinced that they are somehow “frauds”, don’t deserve their success, and/or dismiss it as good timing or luck. They might believe they are just barely convincing those around them that they are more competent than they actually are.
A Little Voice
It can lead to a vicious cycle of self-doubt: high-achieving people tend to work hard, and in turn garner more praise from their peers or supervisors. As a result, they suffer more anxiety over the feeling that the praise is misplaced.
I wonder: for engineers in an engineering culture, does this cycle manifest differently? It’s not hard to argue that many of us might fit the profile: engineers at VV are high-achieving individuals, after all. On top of that, engineers tend to be especially critical: faced with an observation it’s almost reflexive to begin looking for confirming and refuting evidence.
So maybe, for some engineers, this is an especially toxic brew? If the observation being evaluated is, “I’m not performing well,” or “I don’t deserve that credit,” then an engineer suffering from impostor syndrome might have trouble recognizing refuting evidence. Confirming evidence gets a free pass, and a vicious cycle can emerge when, in this case, “all signs points to yes”.
Super Good Advice (or Bad Counsel?)
As I was researching this I learned that impostor syndrome is thought by some to be situational, rather than being an ingrained personality trait. That is, these feelings of self-doubt can coincide with momentous events in a person’s life.
I reflected on this and found that it resonated with conversations I’d had where I tried to lend some perspective to people who had those feelings of doubt. I’d said, getting a job in the game industry—by all accounts a competitive, exclusive, and desirable gig—was a pretty momentous event in my life. Since then, when I have any sort of crisis of confidence, I take comfort in thinking that I might not feel that way if I didn’t care so much about the job.
One time, someone who I consider a high performer wondered—in a roundabout way—if “someone” could be let go for underperforming. In this case, their situation was weeks into a long slog through a particularly ornery codebase. I asked them to recall the last accomplished person (like themselves) who had suffered that fate, and of course they couldn’t bring any names to mind. I emphasized that VV leadership’s first course of action when they observe that someone might be struggling is to try to help.
That help should be considered a resource for anyone who is struggling—whether it’s struggling with some particular work or feelings about the work.
If you recognize any of these thought patterns in your work, I can’t recommend enough that you talk about it with your lead—or anyone in the VV leadership team that you feel comfortable with. Even if they can’t help you address the problem directly, they can at least listen, and optionally take steps toward connecting you with a support network.
If you’re a lead, consider helping to build awareness of this issue, and check in with your reports time-to-time to gauge their self confidence.
Maybe I’ve spent too much time interpreting gun names for this post, but I think VV’s values resonate with certain aspects of this anxiety in meaningful ways.
To any of you who can relate to anything I’ve written about, I say,
- We are fearless pathfinders: Impostor syndrome carries a risk of burnout, or worse, ongoing anxiety or depression. More subtly, though, it can shrink your comfort zone, and simultaneously rob you of the confidence needed to explore beyond it. Take it from a tools engineer: don’t suffer in silence!
- We are leaders of our craft: this is as much an assertion as an aspiration. We’re good at what we do: that’s a fact. You’re part of “we”. By the commutative property, you’re good at what we do.
- We’re all in this together: so we’ll be happy to help you.