How to Live with Chronic Imposter Syndrome

[ career life learning ] · 8 min read

My earliest memory of imposter syndrome is from my first day at IBM. Of the 20 people in my cohort, 18 had technical degrees, of which 10 were PhDs. I was one of two hires with a non-technical background (my Bachelor’s was in Psychology). After IBM, I joined Lazada’s data science team. Similarly, I was surrounded by an army of PhDs and felt unqualified for my role. They must have been desperate, I thought.

To soothe my imposter syndrome (among other reasons), I took a Master’s in Computer Science. I hypothesized that having a technical degree would help me feel less like a fake. I gained a lot from OMSCS, but it didn’t help with imposter syndrome at all. Even now, I feel like a charlatan without a PhD among the scientists, and a phony without proper engineering training among the engineers.

Given my experience with chronic imposter syndrome, I’ve picked up some tricks to salve the feeling of being a fraud. Some require a shift in mindset, others require behavioral tweaks. Maybe you’ll find them helpful too.

At some level, everyone’s an imposter

Sometimes, we feel like an imposter when we do things we’ve never done before. But if you think about it, everyone had to start from nothing. The new engineer didn’t have work experience as an engineer, the first-time founder didn’t have experience starting companies, and every surgeon had to conduct her first surgery. At that point in time, they had no track record and might have been seen as imposters.

There are no certifications, classes, or portfolios for many things in life. No one qualified Orville and Wilbur Wright to invent the airplane, no one taught J.K. Rowling to write Harry Potter, and no one checks the portfolios before allowing new parents to have children. They just did it.

I like how Tim Urban puts it (CMD+F “how to be a chef”): You don’t know shit. But no one else knows shit either. Everyone’s playing Grand Theft Life and trying to figure it out.

Even the best among us have imposter syndrome

The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.

This person is viewed as one of the greatest physicists of all time with his theory of relativity and contributions to quantum mechanics. For his work on theoretical physics, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. Yet, a month before he passed in 1955, Albert Einstein confided to a friend (via the quote above) that he saw himself as a swindler!

I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.

This person’s first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, brought her international acclaim and recognition. In total, she wrote seven autobiographies and several books of poetry, many of which were best-sellers. Yet, after writing eleven books, Maya Angelou still felt like a fraud.

You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

This person is described as the “best actress of her generation” and was nominated for a record 21 Academy Awards (of which she won 3) and a record 32 Golden Globe (of which she won 9). Yet, during an interview in 2002 (by when she had won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes), Meryl Streep felt like she didn’t know how to act!

It’s okay to have imposter syndrome—even the best and most celebrated among us have it. But it also means that Nobel prizes, Pulitzer nominations, and Golden Globes don’t really help with imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is part of learning and growth

Think back to when you felt like an imposter—what made you feel that way? For me, it’s doing something I’ve never done before, surrounded by people way better than me, and feeling scared because I’m out of my depth.

But put aside the feeling of being an imposter and consider the other aspects—doing something new, awesome people, way out of depth. What are these ingredients for? Learning and growth! The same conditions that cause imposter syndrome are also a catalyst for growth. I would even go as far as saying that you can’t have learning and growth without some imposter syndrome.

It’s like working out—if you’re benching 100 pounds and not feeling any strain, you’re probably not going to gain muscle. The same goes for doing. If you’re working on something and it feels like a breeze—congrats!—you excel at your crafts (though make sure you’re not an expert beginner). However, the lack of challenge or fear may also mean that you’re not growing.

Ask for help; it doesn’t make you an imposter

Sometimes, feeling like an imposter is a sign that you can’t do it all on your own. You can address this by being confident and fake it till you make it, or asking for help. It can be hard to decide when to do which. You don’t want to be the person that asks for help on questions that can be googled. But you also don’t want to be stubborn and flounder for weeks. If people give you feedback that you should have asked for help earlier, listen to it.

Sometimes, we might not ask for help because we think it affects our credibility. We don’t want to be seen as someone who wasn’t ready to step up. If this is you, get over it. No one wants to be surprised by failure after a long period of “everything’s okay”. When you ask for help, instead of losing credibility, you come across as being aware of your gaps and the full extent of the work. This earns trust, increases transparency, and improves your chances of success!

Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to do some self-learning or research before asking for help. If you have to build a Spark pipeline and know nothing about Spark, go through some tutorials before asking for help. If you need to design and implement a machine learning system, study papers and tech blogs from other companies to get up to speed. Don’t ask for help empty-handed and expect to be spoon-fed.

Still too difficult/nebulous/uncertain? Ask for help! Here’s one way you might do it:

“I’m working on something new and challenging and have some doubts; could I run it by you to get your feedback please?”

I’ve never been refused help whenever I asked for it. Here are some general tips to make it more productive and satisfying for everyone:

  • Share sufficient context: This could be 2 - 3 paragraphs in an email, or a design doc for review. Just don’t start out of the blue.
  • Make it easy to respond: Don’t ask for too much time (15 minutes usually works) and settle the logistics of booking their calendar, getting a meeting room or zoom.
  • Listen to their feedback: Don’t act like you already know everything and have no problems—you’ll be surprised how some people do this.
  • Thank them and keep them updated: Acknowledge them in your work and tell them how their help made a difference.

Collect evidence that you’re not an imposter

Having evidence that you’re not an imposter is a great way to combat imposter syndrome. One way is to keep a “brag document” of your milestones and achievements, even if it’s just for self-reference. List the tangible results, intangible outcomes (e.g., learning, mentoring), how you’ve helped others. For work, I write a career plan listing the projects I’ve shipped (and the measured results), what I’m working on, and my learning plans. Outside of work, I track my writing and speaking via this site.

Other than concrete results and artifacts, it also helps to have a “wall of awesome”. I collect the words of thanks and favorable feedback I’ve received and consider it a measure of the positive impact I’ve had on others. My subscribe page is an example of this where I share compliments about my writing. Referring to my brag document and wall of awesome helps push back imposter syndrome when it strikes.

Work on small, achievable tasks to build confidence

Grinding on a challenging project for a long time can sometimes lead to an onset of imposter syndrome. The uncertainty and lack of results can cause us to doubt ourselves.

When this happens, I find it helpful to take a break and work on smaller, more achievable tasks such as feature implementations, refactoring, unit tests, etc. They provide fast feedback and are a respite from the difficult, ambiguous work of designing and implementing something from scratch—great for boosting confidence and morale.

Stop comparing yourself to others

The last tip I have is probably also the hardest to do—stop comparing yourself to others!

When you compare yourself to people who can do things you can’t, or who perform levels above you, you can start to feel negative about yourself. “Oh, I’m nowhere as productive a coder as her.” “My work isn’t as scientifically advanced as his.” Don’t. Instead, focus on your superpowers and how you contribute uniquely, and rely on others to make up for the areas you’re not good at.

Imposter syndrome ain’t that bad

Imposter syndrome has its downsides such as causing self-doubt, reducing confidence and risk-taking, and hampering career growth. Nonetheless, I’ve grown to love it—I think it’s rocket fuel for learning and growth. Plus it prevents my head from getting too big.

If you’re occasionally feeling (i) like an imposter, (ii) unqualified and in over your head, and (iii) scared about not doing a good job, IMHO, you’re playing Grand Theft Life right.

P.S., Next week, we’ll have Susan Shu also share her take on imposter syndrome.

Thanks to Yang Xinyi for reading drafts of this.


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