When I started at CrossBrowserTesting a little over a year ago, I came here with no formal training in much of what I do. The people who I work with are all exceptionally intelligent, creative, and just plain cool people.
I felt out of my element — here I was, surrounded by all these people who I felt were so much more competent than I was. I found myself staring down a dilemma. Everyone here seemed brilliant — everyone but me, at least. I felt I might never stack up, and I was afraid I would cause the people who had taken a chance on me to have doubts that I could successfully do the job.
For a while, the anxiety took a toll on me, and I would be lying if I said that I was entirely free of that anxiety today. I’ve just gotten better at managing it.
For me, part of learning to deal with this feeling was learning more about why I felt this way. Understanding has always been a powerful tool for me to handle things that cause me stress. As it turns out, this isn’t an uncommon thing, it’s so common that it has a name: impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome — that feeling that you’re just one slip-up away from being discovered as a fraud, that you really don’t belong somewhere — has been estimated to impact up to 70% of people at some point in their lives. It has even been known to affect people at the top of their industries, such as Tom Hanks and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
“Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true,” said Schultz.
It feels like this is somehow more common in technology, though maybe we’re just better about talking about these things as a community.
Causes of Impostor Syndrome
While there is no one cause of Impostor Syndrome, there are many factors that play into it.
For example, take what some call the “Facebook effect,” which has existed in the world for ages, but is easiest to understand in the context of social media.
Most of the time we only ever see the positive side of someone’s life — their great relationships, the exciting things they do, their fancy vacations to exotic places. We rarely get to see their failures, their hardships, their struggles, and so it can be very easy to look at someone’s life and immediately think they’re so much better off.
This happens within tech, as well — we see people talking about their open source projects or their “next big thing”, and we almost always miss the context, the hours of hard work, and the stress.
Technology, as an industry, can also make it hard to avoid this trap. Within a company of any real size, there will always be people with at least some variance across their skillsets. Some people know CSS front-, back-, and sideways, while others know Go inside and out.
The potential problem here, then, isn’t so much that there’s a disparity between people, but rather a simple difference in skillsets. I look at the people who write our front-end and sometimes I feel like I must be an idiot, despite the work I do, because a lot of the specifics of what they are doing each day can go right over my head.
In addition to the breadth of skills present in the industry, the stakes in the technology industry can be enormous. It can be difficult to recognize that there are interesting, valuable, amazing companies that aren’t at the “unicorn” billion-dollar valuation level.
When all we hear about are the Facebooks and Googles, and those are where we think the brilliant people all go to work, of course it’s easy to feel like if you’re not there, you’re not a real programmer.
Compounding this is the fact that tech has incredibly low barriers to entry; it’s not at all uncommon for someone who is self-taught to be able to break into the industry. Anyone can end up at the highest tiers of the industry with little to no formal education, and we see constant success stories of people throughout our industry at all experience levels.
While these are positives in our industry, they can have negative side effects on our own mental health — “That person was able to do this, why can’t I? I must be faking it.” It’s a common, and damaging, thought.
Impacts of Impostor Syndrome
While the business impacts of Impostor Syndrome aren’t heavily studied, we can look at it through the costs of mental health.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety disorders alone cost the US economy upwards of $4.1 billion dollars each year, and can result in days of work lost per month for those affected most heavily. Depression can be even more costly, with a cost upward of $44 billion per year. While these don’t exactly capture the costs of impostor syndrome, they can help to illustrate the size of the problem, and how much of a business impact it has.
Even outside the direct monetary costs of impostor syndrome, there is a very real business cost — it can stifle creativity and innovation. Imagine that you worked with someone every day who told you that you were stupid, incompetent, or unqualified, regardless of evidence. Most people would end up being less creative, would feel less safe in their own career, and would end up taking fewer risks, which is where innovation really happens.
In other words, people who can’t feel confident in their own abilities can’t work as effectively, especially in an industry as heavy on experimentation as technology.
There’s a very real personal cost to impostor syndrome, as well. For those affected, impostor syndrome often increases their stress levels — this can impact work relationships, personal relationships, and can even spiral into drug or alcohol problems. Careers can be limited by one’s own skewed perceptions.
What You Can Do
There are plenty of things that can be done to help, depending on who you are.
I’m someone who feels this way
- Find yourself a good, supportive community. A lot of the people in the CrossBrowserTesting office in Memphis are involved with the Memphis Technology Foundation, and we find a lot of support, both technical and personal, in the community. For myself, at least, it has helped me to feel much more confident.
- Learn everything you can. While learning can be frustrating when you feel like an impostor, the more you know, the more you can avoid that feeling of not understanding something others do. Even better — learn how you learn so that you can get the most out of your time.
- Teach everyone you can. Chances are, you know a lot more than you realize, and teaching people is a great way to examine your knowledge and learn more.
- Push your boundaries. While it can be uncomfortable, if you start pushing past your boundaries, you’ll find your needle for where you’re lacking slowly moving. So apply for that conference you want to attend; go to that hackathon that looks interesting — just keep doing things that will push you outside your comfort zone.
- Take care of yourself, too. Many of the people I’ve known with impostor syndrome end up pushing too hard and burning out. Take the time to do what you need to do, and know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking out mental health treatment, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, when the burden is too much.
I work with someone who might feel this way
- Teach your colleagues about what you can. Not only can this help them feel more confident, it also has some real benefits for you, such as breaking down information silos and helping you know your team better.
- Be a role model. Talk about your own struggles when it’s relevant or when you think it might help someone. Take good care of yourself, and keep pushing your own limits.
- Encourage the people around you. As long as it’s genuine, a little encouragement can go a very long way toward helping anyone, especially those who aren’t entirely confident in themselves. Let people know when they’ve done a good job, when they bring up a good point, and so on. Most importantly, though, even if you aren’t the encouraging type, avoid demeaning or degrading people. Pointing out their mistakes or calling them unqualified might feel good in the moment, but words like that, especially when they’re used repeatedly and over the long term, can really impact a person and their work performance.
I am an employer/manager
- Encourage people to do new things. Every time someone goes to a conference, presents at a meetup, or learns a new tool, they will likely feel more confident, more productive, and more content.
- Listen to people. Everyone has a unique perspective, and it’s always nice to be heard, especially when you constantly worry that you’re not good enough. Even if you can’t do something a particular way, having your ideas acknowledged is important and sometimes newer people make great suggestions because they aren’t stuck in the same mental ruts — what I like to call being “unburdened by experience”.
- Support people. Sometimes, mental health is hard to understand, especially when it’s not something you’ve experienced. Sometimes, an otherwise amazing person may be struggling with it, and it’s important that they have stability and support. Sometimes, flexibility can be helpful, sometimes helping someone with the load they’re under is in order. As long as the people you manage feel that you have their back when it matters, it can go a long way in helping them feel more confident in their work and their abilities.
- Mitigate toxic influences. Some people just drag a team down by being negative or distracting. Unfortunately, these impacts can be amplified if a team is already in a position where they might lack confidence. By mitigating these impacts — by teaching team members to act or speak with care, by moving roles around, or, in extreme cases, completely removing a negative influence — not only can you improve the mental health of the team, but you can also have far-reaching impacts on your company’s culture and direction.
Impostor Syndrome has a scale. For some people, it manifests as a realization that they’re not the best they could be and they can use it to push themselves to better things. For others, it can become a crippling anxiety that leaves them barely able to function both professionally and personally.
The key to working with this is to know how you, and those around you, work best and try to capture all the strengths of any team, while mitigating the downsides as much as possible. There is no silver bullet, but it’s still important to keep working toward improving the work environment for everyone.
This blog is based on a conference talk I gave in Huntsville, AL in October of 2018, and will be giving again in May of 2019.