I felt that I was surrounded by people far smarter and more knowledgeable than me. All the time. My team  had amazing machine learning experts, C++ gurus, and so on. I felt inadequate. This hurt my career progression (mostly because of self-doubt) and my general happiness in life.
Until I got my hands on this very interesting project that involved designing an instruction set for a custom CPU, implementing a VM, a code generator for the instruction set, a server that did all this on the fly, and some infrastructure around the whole thing. I have written CPU emulators in the past for fun , so this was not particularly challenging - it felt like a really exciting project to work on, but at all times I was confident in what I was doing.
Then one of my teammates, whom I really looked up to, asked me how had I pulled that off. She was in awe, amazed - exactly how I felt about her incredible machine learning antics!
And that's when I understood why I had impostor syndrome, and so did so many people at Google: Google hires really good engineers, but it hires them from very different backgrounds. So you're likely to be surrounded by people who make things you consider impossible black magic seem easy, but crucially, you don't notice that the things that feel easy to yourself are seen by them as impossible black magic!
Understanding this actually let me get over my impostor syndrome pretty much entirely. I later left Google to join Improbable and had a fresh start, which I used to consciously avoid falling back into these negative patterns. Although I'm surrounded by the smartest people I've ever worked with, to the point where I still ask myself "how the hell did I manage to get here?" from time to time, I've largely succeded in avoiding falling in the impostor syndrome trap again :)
1. "I'm a normal person surrounded by idiots"
2. "I'm really good at this, surrounded by regular people who I can help this way"
As for other people around you being able to help/assist you, again, as a kid, I didn't have any peers capable of that. I do find peers now who can help me in many ways, and are far better at things that I'm not. It's (generally) not threatening, and I welcome it in most cases, but it's taken years to get out of the #1 trap ingrained as a kid. One of my earliest memories(~6 years old) was thinking that the other kids around me must be dumb because they couldn't do the schoolwork. Yes, I know it wasn't healthy, but I had no other real options explained to me.
This is not a simple problem. Calling people idiots does not make it simpler. It just feels like it does.
I had constantly feelings of this when I studied at the University of Cambridge. It never really bothered me, but there was just this nagging feeling of "should I really be here?". Weirdly enough, it was a drunken conversation with a medical student about calcium channel blockers, and realising I could understand the concepts quickly and have a reasoned discussion despite being a computer science student (and being about 4 hour into an event that had free-flowing Champagne...), that finally made me realise why I'd been invited to study there and the impostor syndrome feelings never bothered me again.
I also had another realisation a year or so later when studying at different university - my supervisors at Cambridge were constantly pushing us (me and two other students from my college) forward, going far beyond what was actually needed for any of the formal exams, something which seemed far less prevalent at the other university (not to say the staff were poor - they would address happily issues beyond the syllabus if asked, just not actively introduce them). It suddenly made the feeling of never being on top of stuff at Cambridge make a lot more sense.
I'm definitely glad to have had my time at Cambridge, but it was certainly not easy going.
Happy that you're cured of the curse.
No. Do not do this to yourself. Google is all about making you think that your job as an employee is to only solve billion dollar problems and everything else is failure. You are constantly told you need to do more, work faster, be better... But also you're entirely responsible for own career, and no one in leadership is there to help you.
So no, it's not your fault. Google doesn't provide an environment for people to succeed, and I suspect it's by design. They think they're a meritocracy, and express that by not helping anyone.
How can you possibly have the arrogance to tell a stranger that their analysis of their own behavior is wrong based on a paragraph they wrote about themself? GP laid out, very clearly, the insight they had in dissecting their own imposter syndrome and found it was from an incomplete model of the world. In your rush to slag Google and assure GP they're a good, valued person, you seemed to completely miss their entire point, and along with it, the feeling of success that I assume they felt after having grown personally and professionally.
> entirely my fault
> So no, it's not your fault.
1- You can decrease the imposter syndrome if you are more aware your own strength and weakness and those of your co-workers.
2- Google's internal organisation can accentuate the imposter syndrome problem.
Both can be true at the same time.
I'm not sure why more people don't pick up on this.
There's a bunch of development companies that I have interviewed at that mirror a lot of what Google does and as soon as I started hearing the same stuff, I just "noped" right out there.
These places are designed to burn you out - the whole business model relies on people working themselves into a ditch and then taking a few weeks (or much less) off before starting all over again. The smart ones get out after one cycle, others take a few cycles before they figure it out.
Either way, this business model is not conducive to your overall health and well being (even though they try to make you think they really care) and I've had several friends burn out epically; one was so bad he was hospitalized and spent 2 months in the psych ward.
That's really what irritated me the most when I worked there. The leadership is kind of invisible and often, so I felt, powerless. As an engineer you are supposed to find your role among your peers pretty much by yourself.
I think they are doing this to apply some kind of "natural selection" where the "leaders" show themselves more quickly but all it does is create a Lord-of-the-flies-like informal organization where manipulative and political behavior is rewarded.
1. My fault (I failed)
2. Out of my control (I'm powerless/helpless).
Both are pretty shitty ways to feel. I think many people who advise/coach/mentor forget this when they give this sort of advice. I remember listening to one well-meaning coach talk through the "victim vs. owning mentality" and I walked out of the session thinking about everything that was wrong at work and how it was because I was incompetent.
Feeling inadequate is common and natural in a highly competitive environment. It's not our fault, we're human beings.
Bear in mind, everyone who works at the company contributes to this culture. When you say "it's by design," you're implying there's some elite group of people at the company who are doing this out of malice. Even the execs who we might cast most of the blame for this on (who are also human beings) are probably feeling inadequate too.
But at the same time, we have the ability to recognize these thoughts and challenge them. So there is hope to rise above it, even though we will probably always struggle with it to some degree.
I worry about tech's focus on impostor syndrome because it is a non-clinical diagnosis (by which I precisely mean that it is not a condition described in the Diagnostic and Statistcial Manual of Mental Health Disorders ). This means that there is no accepted criteria of diagnosis and no standard protocol for clinical treatment.
That does not mean that I think people's experiences are not valid. It does meant that the treatment for any underlying mental health issue is more likely to be within the same context of pop-psychology as the diagnosis. To put it another way, impostor syndrome is not an accurate clinical diagnosis.
The thing that concerns me about Beck's story is that it is based on self-diagnosis and only presents self-treatment as an option. Talking himself through boughts of doubt seems to work for him. That may not work for the next because everyone is different or the self diagnosis may be inaccurate or a less constructive course of self-treatment might be the chosen out of habit.
The description of impostor syndrome, but for the individual being high achieving, are similar to the description of low self esteem (another non clinical diagnosis often used to describe a possible cluster of symptoms related to the clinical diagnosis of Dysthymic Disorder for individuals).
It doesn't have to be pathologized to be true. Syndrome may be imprecise due to modern connotations, but it is a widely-observable condition.
What word would you use?
If you look at how the DSM has changed over time, new entries are often added that reflect new 'syndromes' that appear prevalent in society, while older ones are dropped.
Basically there's no particularly strong reason to view a mental health issue as being 'less real' just because it's not listed in the DSM, because the DSM itself is just a (out of date) grab bag of common syndromes that are seen in the wild.  .
Clinical mental health generally follows the medical model of symptoms as observable fact, syndromes as clusters of observable facts, and disorders in the realm of mental health and disease in the realm of medicine being the set of conclusive diganoses.
The distinctive symptom of impostor syndrome is success. It is hard to see how it reconciles with the medical model while avoiding Occam's razor.
None of which is to suggest that anyone's experiences are illegitimate or their concerns are any less real. My concern is that pop-psychology self-diagnosis may increase the odds that a more serious issue goes without clinical treatment. The acceptability of having impostor syndrome is the flip side to the stigma attached to receiving treatment from a mental health professional.
My favourite part of HN is the race to claim to have aspergers/adhd/anxiety disorder in every thread remotely connected to psychology.
Maybe Kent was too used to be in control, and in these situation you have none. And you need a clear, trusted communication channel to know how to parse things.
The analogy with music sounds odd to me. Music has this property that when done wrong everything falls quickly apart and you will realize it on the spot. If the vibe is still there, then to me you're doing music good enough.
I also think there are two notions being discussed here: feeling like an imposter, and self consciousness (anxiety, overthinking, rehashing things long after).
I wish I could just pat him on the back and tell him not to torture himself. As he said, he didn't get there by accident. I also wonder if he talked with colleagues at his jobs, or people in the field before writing this.
Same thing is happening to me, just started my PhD in one of the leading robotics labs, and I feel like I don't belong there. It's beginning to cause insomnia and depression, or symptoms of those.
You're there now.
The sooner you do the better.
I had to take a break from my studies because as things got worse, I told myself if I just pushed harder I could get through it on my own. That didn't work out.
Also, with a bit of mental training (say meditative thinking) you can tame some of this effects. I know I now can recognize when my brain take an unnecessary turn and can slow down. It's far from perfect but it helps. Don't think it's unavoidable, get fun time, stop listening to the fears too much.
They chose you.
You belong there if you want to be there.
You have an amazing opportunity, be inspired!
You got this.
it is actually an asymmetric situation clearly more beneficial to you as you do have a meaningful upside here - you can learn from them - while they are "surrounded by only a grad". I feel sorry for them or for any other people in similar situation who is surrounded by me :)
There's a differential equation side to human relationships. It's like pressure equilibrium.
I'm coming up on 3 years at my current company. Been promoted a few times. Given a raise every time I've asked, once even when I hadn't asked. And yet “That’s it. I’m fired” is also my first thought when that happens. It feels good to read that someone I respect a lot also is the same way.
From what I've seen (in this thread and in real life), people mostly combat this internal monologue in a couple ways that ignore reality (at times):
Counter Belief #1) I'm not as bad at skill A as I thought. (e.g. look at all these examples where I did well at skill A)
Problem: If the reality of the situation is that you aren't actually lacking in skill, this works. However, if your peers legitimately outclass you, you're just tricking yourself -- which presumably won't work for long.
Counter Belief #2) My peers are aware that I lack skill A, but are not negatively judging me for it. (e.g. what evidence do i have that they're judging me? they're probably just thinking about themselves all day)
Problem: This works when your peers aren't actively negatively judging you. But, how are we to determine if that's the case? Lack of evidence isn't proof at all -- especially in a work environment, social norms are that they won't express negative criticism to you (even if you ask for feedback). Certainly, there are environments where your peers ARE indeed actively negatively judging you in which case this counter belief does not work.
What is the right way to cope in a situation where reality is:
1) you ARE outclassed by your peers
2) your peers ARE judging you for it
One solution seems to be to get better at the skill than your peers. However, this isn't foolproof if you don't have the resources to do so.
The more foolproof solution seems to be:
1) learn to stop comparing yourself to your peers. your self-esteem should not depend on the relative amount of skill you possess to your peers
2) learn to stop caring what your peers think of you. your self-esteem should not be dependent on outward signals like this.
However, this seems REALLY hard to execute. How does one develop these sets of beliefs? Are there other logical solutions?
In that case you are a little fish in a big pond. Consider moving to a smaller pond. If no pond is too small, consider switching careers.
I would also add you should learn how to negotiate.
If you're honest and say:
"Bob, you know what? I think this place would really push my abilities, are you willing to train me to be a better developer if I agree to take less money then what you're offering?" A company will then know up front that this position might be a bit over your head, but if they're not paying you like a senior developer, and have an investment to train you - its a win/win situation.
"Bob, I'm a developer, but would prefer to be a project manager. Would you let me come on and work as a developer and in my spare time, learn the project manger role under the expectations that I would transfer to being a PM within 18 months?"
All of these allow you to leverage your current skills while using those to barter for a better role, a different role, learning new technologies or learning new skills while you continue to work and help the company on its current projects. My last four gigs I've taken this approach and its been incredibly valuable for me.
Given that all skills are used to achieve an objective, we can measure mastery of a skill by looking at how effectively we are achieving the objective. e.g. I am good at programming because it used to take me hours to solve task A, and now I can solve it in minutes.
> Problem: If the reality of the situation is that you aren't actually lacking in skill, this works. However, if your peers legitimately outclass you, you're just tricking yourself -- which presumably won't work for long.
Maybe I am as good as my peers, maybe I'm not. Who cares? There's room for junior devs, senior devs, and technical leads in the same company. The more important question is: Am I helping create value? That's our shared goal, after all - our skills are merely the means to achieve that. Assuming the worst case scenario for a moment, where I'm literally on the bottom of the totem pole:
If I am fixing simple bugs, those are bugs my betters don't have to fix.
If I am implementing simple features and tools for our users or managers, those are simple features and tools my betters don't have to fix.
If I'm writing simple dev utilities and debug tools for my coworkers to use - even the simplest things like missing container visualizers, for example - I'm enabling my betters to be even more productive than they already were.
If I'm soliciting feedback for how to improve, and pursing self improvement, I shall continue to close the gap, however slowly. And even now, the best of us have blind spots and weaknesses that even the worst of us can help cover for. And being surrounded by my betters means I will improve quicker, as well.
My betters thought that whatever I'm working on important enough to pay someone to implement - and even if they're wrong about that, there's value in finding out they were wrong.
...there is a potential problem with this, but "there's no value in even trying this, why is management committing to this waste of resources - this waste of my time?" isn't a problem of impostor syndrome, at least ;)
> Problem: This works when your peers aren't actively negatively judging you. But, how are we to determine if that's the case? Lack of evidence isn't proof at all -- especially in a work environment, social norms are that they won't express negative criticism to you (even if you ask for feedback).
Lack of evidence isn't proof, but there's statistical considerations as well. Surely someone won't be perfectly tuned into the social norms, and be straightforward and honest. This lack of evidence that you're an impostor is actually evidence that you're not one!
We can improve this further by extending the benefit of the doubt to these peers we're looking up to (which tends to be easier than directly giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt.)
Most of them probably aren't harshly judgmental misanthropes. Everyone started somewhere - no matter how great they may be at it now, at one point they weren't that great. They would not judge their own pasts so harshly. And should I be proven wrong about a few exceptions? Well, that says more about them than me! The exceptions should earn my scorn or pity, not my investment of self worth. If it's more than a few exceptions... well, that says more about the job than me.
I do still care about what my peers think of me, but only the ones who aren't assholes. The assholes can go fuck themselves. This feels harsh, but hey - turnabout is only fair play, right?
Now - are there areas we can improve upon? Sure. All of us can stand to improve further. And our coworkers and managers may get frustrated if we can't accomplish all our goals within our given timeframes, without being assholes - but they tend to be the sort who would simply set more and more ambitious goals until we couldn't no matter what our skill, no matter how large our team. I'd know - I'm one of them ;). If you can, don't take our infinite appetite for progress personally. Don't sacrifice your productivity and your leisure trying to crunch to achieve them either - you'll only further encourage the beast.
Being unafraid to say, "I don't know" is a really powerful skill. Now, for me, being surrounded by people who know more than I do, is actually a win. Now, "I don't know" turns into "Show me". It's an opportunity to learn and to grow.
If this is true, then current SV culture is intellectually bankrupt!
being surrounded by people who know more than I do, is actually a win. Now, "I don't know" turns into "Show me".
This is why they say, if you look around, and you're the smartest guy in the room, then you may be in the wrong room!
I had to laugh out loud at that. I'm not sure it works that way.
Thanks for the post. Its interesting to see / hear what others say about their cause for this syndrome. I think mine goes back to my childhood. I think the OP analysis is interesting and I would go with out any more data on the "Daddy issues" theory.
All the time. It's just that lizard part of your brain imbuing a healthy dose of fear. That fear is just a part of exploration and pushing yourself as a person. I marvel at people who go through life effortlessly being seen as "natural" or "talented" at something. But then I remember we're all the same and perspective and optics are everything.
Managing that fear is a part of mindfulness I have yet to achieve, so I use that fear as an indicator that I'm learning and doing something new and I'm probably in over my head -- which I think is where good and new things come from. I've just learned to live with it.
The real test is this: are you going to let the fear move you, or are you going to push through it? Eventually that fear you're pushing through goes away once your actions and thinking become habit. That's where you have a new trap: complacency -- that's the worst fate.