The Surprisingly Simple Way to Handle Impostor Syndrome

Let me tell you a story about a guy named Joe. Joe has recently joined a superstar tech company, in pursuit of his college dreams. He has spent the last couple of years working regular hours at his previous job, and spending countless more during the night, tweaking his side projects. All but sleeping, dreaming of that day, when his skill would be noticed by the guys that he's only been reading about.

And here it finally comes. The moment when Joe cracks the interview and finds a place in the company of his dreams. The beginning of a long downward journey filled with long working hours, self doubts, burnouts and depression.

If you are in the tech business, I am sure you know the feeling. You join a team, only to feel threatened by the knowledge and capabilities of your teammates. The tech industry is very competitive, and people are constantly being judged by peers and superiors, based on what they know or can. This constant pressure to overachieve and beat one's peers, usually ends up having an opposite effect. One becomes more and more enclosed, paying much closer attention to what others achieve, rather than being proud of one's own successes. With time, this develops into a kind of a hidden inferiority complex that often goes under the name of "impostor syndrome". The more one manages to succeed at work, the bigger the fears that one day others will find out the "truth". That, sooner or later the myth will bust, and a better candidate will shine, leaving one without a job.

It's all in your head, Joe!

There used to be a saying that the problems are the ones that one makes up oneself. Our brains have been preprogrammed with a distortion lens of reality called perception. The evolutionary idea of perception has been to allow our brain to make snap decisions, based on far simpler model of reality. IMHO, it is one of the examples of an evolutionary step that is going in a slightly wrong direction. Why? Because most of us are so accustomed to perception that perception becomes our reality. Think people who follow different stereotypes are narrow minded? Well, consider how much your own perception of reality might actually be narrowing your view of the world.

Chances are that whatever you are secretly going through, your teammates (and, perhaps your superiors, to an even greater extent) are going through as well. And that leads to a surprisingly obvious conclusion:

Solving impostor syndrome is both a personal and an organizational issue.

Look at the picture below. There is perhaps no better illustration of what the perceived reality under impostor syndrome is, vs reality itself.


The perceived reality of under impostor syndrome, vs reality itself. Source: Alicia Liu

Underestimating one's own potential, team members secretly feel threatened by peers, assuming they know more and are more capable of doing the job. In reality the majority of teams (assuming that the hiring team did a good job) contain equally skillful members, with diverse backgrounds, who do a much better job by complementing their skills than competing with each other.

That's why, I propose that if you are a team lead or a senior member, take the initiative, and put a copy of this picture on the wall. If you are not, point your superior to this post. A good team leader must strive to create an environment of openness, where members admit their weak points, as well as their strengths. By putting members with complementary skillsets and knowledge work together, one does not only get the job done on time, but also gives members the chance to learn from their peers.

Do it, and you'll see Joe and his peers happy and productive again.

Further Reading

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome | Alicia Liu on Medium

8 Practical Steps To Getting Over Your Impostor Syndrome | Fast Company