Five ways to reduce impostor syndrome

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This T-SQL Tuesday is about Impostor Syndrome. I think that the term gets used in a broader context than the original meaning. From Wikipedia:

Imposter Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.

To me, it’s a syndrome when there is a persistent fear of being outed as a fraud. But I think there is a broader and more diffuse feeling of one’s skills falling short of what is expected or what other people perceive. I think a lot of people mean this when they say impostor syndrome. Heck, it might even apply to a broader sense of “winging it” or figuring it out as you go.

In this blog post I’m going to list concrete steps that have helped me fight this sense that I might be a fraud or don’t know what I’m doing. I personally believe it’s a tractable problem.

Pursue a growth mindset

Do you feel that you are born with a certain amount of intelligence and talent, or do you feel that it is something you can grow? When I was young, I felt that you were born with a certain IQ or a certain amount of smarts. The problem with this mindset is when you encounter evidence contrary.

Let’s say you screw something up at work. If you believe that you have a fixed amount of intelligence or skills, then you will see this a reflective of you as a person. If you have a growth mindset you are less likely to see this as reflective of you as a whole.

Build a peer network

So much of imposter syndrome can be broken down into two things: a disconnect with reality and a sense of invalidation. The disconnect is that, unless you are an actual fraud, your thoughts and feelings are not lining up with reality. In cognitive behavioral therapy, these things are called cognitive distortions.

The invalidation is the sense that this isn’t normal. That you are alone or unusual in the struggles you are having. That you should be feeling x or doing Y.

In both cases, having a peer network can ground you. Hearing other peoples experiences can be validating and reassuring. You’d be surprised how many of us are winging it. You’d be surprised how many of us have been handed a task and need to figure it out on the fly. For example, I am probably going to do a course on Azure Event Hubs and I know absolutely nothing about them.

Focus on just-in-time learning

In consulting, if you never say “I don’t know”, then you are full of crap. You can’t know everything. If you merely say “I don’t know”, then you are a fool. A good consultant says “I don’t know, but I can find out!”. That is one of the keys of consulting.

So much of my confidence in working as a consultant is knowing that I have a strong peer network I can reach out to. So much is knowing I have a strategy for just in time learning.

One way to do this is to practice presenting and blogging as a way of practicing your research skills. Another is to work on home labs. Multiple times I’ve had to learn something new like mirroring or availability groups for a customer job. By doing those home labs I was able to build confidence for the project as well as confidence for future learnings.

Present, write, and teach

A lot of this vague unease comes from never achieving mastery in a specific area. From those lingering unknown unknowns. One way to rout out those unknown unknowns is to create and share content on the subject.

Doing so will force you to think through the subject, to think through what questions people might ask. The first dozen presentations might be a bit rough. But as you continue, you’ll have a better sense of what it means to really know a topic.

Do paid consulting

I realize this simply isn’t an option for most people. Consulting can be stressful and anxiety inducing, especially if you are struggling with impostor syndrome. But it’s amazing how good it feels to charge for a project and by the end of it have a happy customer.

I still giggle when I tell people my hourly rate, and I keep expecting to get pushback about being too expensive. But it doesn’t happen. It turns out that other people value my time and skills more than I do.

Summary

My suggestions boil down to three things:

  1. Build confidence in your ability to learn on-demand
  2. Experience mastery through content creation
  3. Find people who value your skills enough to pay for them

5 thoughts on “Five ways to reduce impostor syndrome

  1. Having happy clients depends on people skills more than technical skills. I don’t have impostor syndrome, but many of my jobs have left me feeling I could have done better, even when the project was successful and the client happy.

    Successful means almost on time, almost on budget, and pretty. Pretty is very important.

  2. Those are fantastic suggestions Eugene. Presenting, writing, and researching are all things I recommend to people who want to get better at whatever it is they want to improve in. If you can teach it, you probably know it. That summary at the end definitely wrapped up the post neatly, thank you for sharing!

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