I coped with Impostor Syndrome, let me tell you how!

Now, this is a story all about how
My life got flipped turned upside down
And I’d like to take a minute
Just sit right there
I’ll tell you how I … coped with Impostor Syndrome.

In the ’90s, during my teenage, there was a great sitcom where a young fellow called Will Smith played a charismatic character. This character, funny enough also called Will, was born in West Philadelphia and moved to Bel-Air to live with his uncles as punishment for his misbehaviour. Well, for starters, he went living with his uncles in “a palace like a prince”. The comedy was rooted in this awkward punishment and his feelings of not belonging.

Some years before the premiere of this sitcom in Portugal, I remember listening to my parents chatting about the lack of opportunities in big IT companies with global outreach. My father was a developer turned manager in the early days of IT.

For a young kid, those sort of Hollywood fantasies helped my daydream. I mean, the correlation was strange, but in my head, it was like “I was born in West Philly” with not that many opportunities, and all the big breaks would be in the United States. I started developing a thing called “Impostor Syndrome”.

This syndrome is another deviation in the correlation between Confidence and Wisdom. (for the first deviation, check this article)

Time passed. We are now in a new century, in a new Millenium. I was already working as a developer, and I started to have my first invitations to be a speaker in conferences by Microsoft and Adobe. I could not see that as an accomplishment by itself. I mean, how could I “compete” against fellow developers that travelled from the US and worked for BIG tech companies? I was just a random developer, working for some fantastic but national companies. Yes, I took part in some accolades that some of those companies won, yet, it was always nation sized. Things got a little more complicated when I won the best talk of the day and the second-best talk at the entire conference in a 3-day Microsoft conference. My wife, then-girlfriend, was happier and having more fun with the situation than me.

Impostor Syndrome, by definition, is the feeling “people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence, people are convinced they are frauds and do not deserve success“.

A person dealing with this syndrome constantly feels that he is not good enough. I gave all the credit to pure luck for most of the achievements. And someday, I would run out of luck and then people would find the fraud I was and that I had not that much knowledge.

How dreadful this constant feeling was.

So I studied even more. I picked the habit of reading through the night. Burning the midnight oil was something I started calling “the new normal”. But the feeling was ever-present. The more I knew, the more frightened I was.

It took quite some time to deal with this feeling, but I had two critical moments in my resolution.

I attended a conference where I watched Alicia Liu’s (@aliciatweet) talk about her impostor syndrome episodes:

  • My repertoire of keyboard shortcuts was relatively pathetic.
  •  “I was not found of esoteric details of various programming languages.
  •  “I did not try to implement algorithms in academic papers for fun.
  •  “I did not skip meals to code.
  •  “And surely the nail in the coffin was that I had not watched a single episode of Star Trek.

Weren’t her fears comical? I believe you thought it too. People started laughing during her presentation because it resonated heavily with us.

For myself, it was the first moment of truth. I was not alone in this endeavour. And some of those people were not people from my “West Philly” beliefs. Those are people that were working for some top US Tech Companies. At that time, Alicia Liu worked as the Head of Engineering at NavaPBC. Currently, she works for NotionHQ.

The second moment of truth occurred when I fitted the Human Psychology subject in my studies.

Now I learned that my demons were only living inside my mind. And, unlike the “A Nightmare in Elm Street” film, my Freddie Krueger would not gain life and shredded me to pieces.

Our body of knowledge can only expand when we accept that we can not know everything. And the same happens with the rest of the World.

It was time to design a game plan for the win! This was my plan.

Acknowledge the rate at which technology is changing.

Technology is evolving at warp speed. It is not human to keep up with it. Accepting it will take off enormous pressure from one’s shoulders. Explain to your people the T-shape developer mindset. It is easier to have more profound knowledge in one subject and a more delicate knowledge on other several exciting topics. A developer doesn’t need to know every language, framework, and everything happening in the tech-World. Realize it. Accept it. Embrace it.

Acknowledge programming consists of near-constant failure.

This one is tough. Programming consists of solving logical problems with machines’ calculus power. It is almost impossible to hit the bullseye in the first attempt. And if we add to the mix all the stakeholders, stock owners, clients, you name it. Ahh, the joy of facing the ultimate boss enemy in a game at level 3000. Assume your code will not strike the target on the first try. Realize it is an ever-evolving solution. Accept you will be iterating your solution with a more complex variable in the mix, Humans!

Accept positive feedback and do not attribute your success to luck.

Sometimes you hit the target on purpose. Could you not assume it was Fortuna’s doing? Presumably, you hit the mark because you know what you are doing. And if people provide positive feedback and kudos, humbly accept and savour it, slowly. That success was your doing only!

Keep a journal with your successes and failures.

It is essential to keep our wins and losses written somewhere. Our internal hard drive is quite limited. Our minds will keep the bad memories fresher between the good and bad. So we need to write everything down. Writing will add an additional memory slot, with the added benefit of an easier way to see your balance sheet between wins over losses.

Embrace humbleness and accept successes as much as failures.

When facing losses, welcome them. Do not see them as failures; instead, take them as lessons. It is known that we learn faster while doing. So, there is no better way to learn. Please do it! If you fail, learn from it. And do it again. And fail better the next time. And keep re-doing this process in an infinite loop. You will look to your journal one day and finally recognize how far you have come.

Expose yourself.

Don’t try to be someone you are not. Confidence and arrogance might seem similar but are, in fact, far apart from each other. If you keep humble, you will confidently accept you do not know everything. You will expose yourself for what you are. If you want to start improving, this is the initial step.

Seek mentors.

Having mentors is paramount to solving this syndrome. If today I can say that I know how to deal with the Impostor Syndrome, to them, I have to give thanks. I’m indeed a fortunate guy. Be a mentor to your people if you can be the solution; excellent. Sometimes you may not be the proper change agent. Use your broader network to help them find good mentors for their cases.

We, with leadership roles, face the “Impostor Syndrome” twice. With ourselves and, if we are genuinely attentive, in our people as well. One of our concerns is to help them evolve and if they are dealing with this “Impostor Syndrome”, to guide them through it. My humble intention is that any one of those tactics may be handy to you and give you an edge against this “Impostor” thing.

So, time to say goodbye. And until next week, check the new reprise “Bel-Air” on PeacockTV, which we premiered on the Super Bowl LVI weekend. The same weekend we broke the Super Bowl streaming record with the most viewers on average per minute – 6 million. If only the young kid from the ’80s knew what he would experience and be part of in 30 years.

Yours truly,

Ricardo Castelhano