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Summary:

Does this sound like anyone you know? I’m not qualified for the work I’m doing. It’s only luck that I got this far in my profession without being found out. I’ve forgotten just about everything I learned in school about how to do this job. Other […]

Does this sound like anyone you know?

I’m not qualified for the work I’m doing. It’s only luck that I got this far in my profession without being found out. I’ve forgotten just about everything I learned in school about how to do this job. Other people really know what they’re doing, and I’m just faking it. One day they’ll find out, and no one will ever hire me again.

If you think I’m writing about you – don’t worry, I’m not. Well, not intentionally. I could just be writing about myself, or about the thousands of others out there with a dose of Imposter Syndrome. Because we work without the benefit of in-person co-workers to compare ourselves to, web workers may be peculiarly prone to this disorder. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be scary.

When I mention Imposter Syndrome to other folks I’ve met online, the first reaction is often the same: “you mean there are other people who feel this way too?” Knowing that, in fact, is a big step towards realizing that your feelings of inadequacy are, in fact, normal. There may be, somewhere, people who feel like they’re always at the top of their game and that they know precisely how to do every task they’re faced with. But I can’t say that I’ve met a lot of them in software development or writing, the two professions I spend the most time with.

The fact is, if you’re a successful web worker – by which I mean that you’re managing to get paid for your work – you’re very likely dealing with a complex set of issues on a daily basis. No one really expects you to have every detail of your chosen field at the tip of your tongue at all times. What’s important is knowing where to find things as you need them, and keeping customers happy by delivering satisfactory work on time. If you’re managing that, you’re not a failure.

If you find yourself facing desperate feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy on a regular basis, here are a few tips:

  • Watch out for “automatic thoughts” – if things like “I’m not smart enough” and “I can’t do that” pop into your head whenever you’re faced with something new, learn to recognize this reaction. Get some details on the job and think about your strategy before you jump to conclusions.
  • Think about the difference between feelings and reality. You’re smart enough to know that “I feel stupid” isn’t the same as “I am stupid.”
  • Keep track of your successes. When you complete some tricky piece of work and feel good about it, add it to a list or a blog that you can refer back to when you need a reminder of your own competence.
  • Keep some perspective. If you make a small mistake, look back at the list of big successes. Not every task is created equal.
  • Seek some support. Recognize that it’s OK to ask for help if you have a contact or co-worker who is skilled in a particular area. They may come back to you for help in turn when you’re more up on some job than they are.

Has Imposter Syndrome been an issue in your own web work? How have you learned to cope?

  1. I’ve wrestled with this syndrome since before the first time I heard the term, which must have been somewhere near 2 decades ago, give or take. It’s probably one of my biggest problems lately, because it’s hard to land work, or set an acceptable rate, if deep down you just can’t imagine that you’re really good enough.

    I like the success list idea. I’d been thinking along those lines recently because it’s so hard to remember and identify past accomplishments in order to tout them or provide a focused narrative.

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  2. Quite similar to the recent Blogger Imposter post from last week:

    http://www.problogger.net/archives/2008/06/24/do-you-suffer-from-blogger-imposter-syndrome/

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  3. Thanks for the pointer, Lisa. I hadn’t seen that before, but we’re definitely thinking through some of the same issues.

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  4. I feel this way all the time. I did a search and found some good tips at a site called http://www.impostorsyndrome.com. My sister saw her speak at a seminar at Boeing.

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  5. I started my own business in area I self-trained for, i.e., no formal education.

    I fought this imposter syndrome for awhile.

    I never realized there could be a name for it…

    People who want to have multiple careers in their life – who don’t go to school for X job and then do it all their lives, but instead hold a succession of different jobs in different categories – will inevitably suffer from this eventually I think.

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  6. Yes, in the world of software development, this is common. I know I’ve felt this way many times. But then, a piece of code comes together or a long battle with a problem is solved in one “I got it!” moment and I feel right as rain again.

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  7. I didn’t know this had a name! Somehow that makes me feel better. I’m just starting out as a community manager and working in social media, and I have definitely been feeling this way – I didn’t study this, what the hell am I doing, do my bosses realize that a lot of this is (not-so)educated guessing? It’s been helpful to think that other people feel this way, and that a lot of the time just projecting confidence and trying will get you far, so thanks for this post.

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  8. Me too!!!!!!!!!

    I heard somewhere that even guys like Einstein and Tesla felt like total frauds at times.

    Some things in the book “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” by Daniel Amen have been helpful, especially the stuff on ANTS, Basal Ganglia and Cingulate Gyrus.

    Maybe a lot of Web Workers all have similar brain imbalances???

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  9. Oh, yeah, a big me too.

    Another piece that causes impostor syndrome is that, as I get to be better at what I do (I’m a developer), my standards go up. So the code I wrote a few months ago always looks awful (by my newer standards).

    Occasionally I’m able to stop myself and say “hey, what would the me of a year ago think of this code — he’d be amazed”, but it takes a conscious effort to do that.

    Unfortunately, my standards seem to get higher a hair faster than my skills actually improve, so I always feel like I’m just short of producing really high-quality work.

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  10. I have talked myself out of so many potential possibilities, but, have begun to hear positive things around me by people I do believe care about me and are interested in my all round welfare not only the talent that I may have <- see! doing it there. I find it so hard to own work I create and see it for what it is, but this is improving – I am using the if at first you dont succeed try and try again technique.

    Thanks for the posts and website – been a real good eyeopener.

    Alan :)

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