Living With Imposter Syndrome

Recently, an old friend and I reconnected over the fact that she had started as a student at a software bootcamp in a different state and I was working at NSS as a junior instructor. I told her that I was happy to act as a resource, should she need anything, and she immediately replied with the following:

At what point, if ever, does the feeling of crippling inadequacy subside?

It’s a question that gets asked, both implicitly and explicitly, over and over again by bootcamp students and working developers as well. The answer is simple: “No.”

That’s it. My contact with numerous students and graduates of NSS along with some more widespread “research” of speaking with working developers has led me to basically conclude that the feeling of inadequacy never really goes away.

So, now that I’m done acting as a raincloud on your day, let me go one step further and tell you that it’s OK. A good healthy feeling of inadequacy is just fine, and I will tell you why.

Everyone is there. Not even “everyone has been there.” The feeling of inadequacy that you’re feeling is so prevalent there’s even a name for it: Imposter Syndrome. What is imposter syndrome?

  • Feeling like you are a hack that tricked someone into letting you write code.
  • Feeling like everyone but you knows what going on.
  • Feeling like you’re just a newbie dressed in a developer’s hoodie.

You can make this feeling work to your advantage. A little feeling of inadequacy can be just the motivation you need to continue to grow as a developer. This industry is quick moving and we all need to continue learning in order to stay current. Knowing how much you’re unaware of can be great motivation to never stop learning.

Feeling inadequate can actually mean that you know more than your more confident friends. It’s science; and it’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Whether or not you’ve heard the term before, you’ve probably experienced this effect in your life. When you first start learning a new skill, you make quick progress through the first basic steps without being aware of how much you have left to learn. (Perhaps this happens to developers who write their first website in HTML and CSS, without knowing how much JavaScript is out there.) By the time you progress past this “expert beginner” phase, you realize how much is still out there to learn, and the imposter syndrome starts to set in.

In the end, in my conversation with my friend, I recommended that she try not to overcome or ignore the feeling of inadequacy, but to embrace it as part of the developer experience. Imposter syndrome is real and ubiquitous, so we might as well work with it instead of against it.

Caitlin Stein is a graduate of Cohort 10 and is currently a junior instructor for Cohort 17.

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