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Why I feel like a fraud (asmartbear.com)
266 points by gthank on Nov 15, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

Holy shit.

I thought this was just me. I spend a lot of time churning on this.

I'm a little shell-shocked at the revelation that others feel this way too. I wish I had something more compelling to contribute than catharsis, but... wow, thanks for (re-)submitting this.

I'm there too. I often measure myself against the fact that Einstein invented the theory of relativity in his early 20s. Meanwhile, I'm 30 now with a Masters degree in CS that I feel is worthless, writing what amounts to string concatenating programs all day at work.

The only thing that keeps me sane, really, is a combination of doing iphone development after hours and playing with arduino. It also helps that I have an amazing wife who is unrelenting in pointing out my accomplishments, however worthless I may think they are.

+1 on the recognition of having a supportive spouse - this is a huge factor in my motivation and lack of depression. I know what you mean about comparing yourself to someone accomplished. I keep this as a google document for when I need a reminder to keep going:

A list of Abraham Lincoln’s Failures:

- Lost job, 1832

- Defeated for legislature, 1832

- Failed in business, 1833

- Elected to legislature, 1834

- Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835

- Had nervous breakdown, 1836

- Defeated for Speaker, 1838

- Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843

- Elected to Congress, 1846

- Lost renomination, 1848

- Rejected for Land Officer, 1849

- Defeated for Senate, 1854

- Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856

- Again defeated for Senate, 1858

- Elected President, 1860

You forgot to add "killed". Probably the biggest, finalest "loser" moment anyone can face. :/

I wonder how well history would have judged him had he not been killed in office. Certainly some positive aspects, but we may have focused a bit more on his negatives (and he would have had more negatives in his life).

BTW, find and read "Lincoln the Unknown" if you can get your hands on it. VERY good read (imo).

Thanks for that book suggestion I'll look for it. I don't have his death on here, that's true. The list is more about overcoming adversity than chronicling all his failures - though you may be right that he would be seen more negatively if he had lived. Perhaps the circumstances of his death helped create the legend around him - a lemons out of lemonade sort of thing (admittedly those are some damn sour lemons however).

It's out of print, but try to find a copy at a used bookstore if you can.


I think America's collective view of JFK works the same. If he hadn't have died so young, what might we think of him now?

Labeling the death of his sweetheart as one of his failures seems a bit harsh.

I think Lincoln's case doesn't support the "good to have supportive spouse" idea but rather (1) persist, and (2) talent/genius wins out in the end, given the right context and times that let it manifest and become critical. Heck, even without much talent, persistance is helpful.

welcome to my world :-(

Me too, for what it is worth. At least three times this year half my brain was screaming "They're going to find out any second now!. Flee, flee!"

It all worked out.

"They're going to find out any second now!"

That's really it, isn't it? The whole thing just boils down to an odd, amorphous they capable of seeing straight through you if you happen to give them half a chance.

I wish I could understand the source of this better.

I like this feeling. It makes you try harder, just in case someone comes looking.

Yep, and that's why the person best capable of making you truly miserable is yourself.

Me three. I'm not as high-achieving as you guys, but I have an okay sheaf of academic qualifications (up to PhD) which to this day I'm absolutely convinced I don't deserve.

It's not rare at all among people I know, too, most of whom are way smarter than me.

3 times this year? It's 3 times a week for me.

If you want to read about more people who feel this way, it's usually called "Imposter syndrome" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imposter_syndrome).

I feel this way from time to time, I assume it comes from being self-taught and not always knowing what my peers know. Meditating helps, as does having a supportive SO.

I, too, am self-taught. I spend a decent amount of time in terror, imagining a sea of unknown-unknowns just waiting to ruin my projects or make me look the fool.

Try to let it be a source of motivation, rather than insomnia. And don't worry, after a few years, all that extra work trying to keep up with imaginary peers really adds up.

This is why I never contributed to open-source software. I guess it's just an irrational fear of failure at the bottom of it.

I'm self-taught too, your comment really resonated with me. I'm a contractor so I'm always having to try and figure out what "level" my peers are at. Once I start to get to know people though I start to realise that they usually have the same self-doubting attitude as I occasionally do.

It's not just self-taught people. Many professors, who have gone through the full range of degrees from bachelor's to master's to phd's, also suffer from this. (And grad students, who are proto-professors.)

Naw, I've been in this thing professionally since the early '90s and every single day I have to convince myself that I'm not a fraud. We're all frauds.

I think a particular quote from Sh#t my dad says will resonate here.

“That woman was sexy… Out of your league? Son. Let women figure out why they won’t screw you, don’t do it for them.”

Let customers find out if your product is shitty. They won't buy it if it is.

Offtopic: why did you self-censor the first "shit" but not the second "shit"?

Assuming he's referring to the book version, he's just mirroring the book title's self censorship.

Wow, I had no idea such feelings were so common. I've largely felt like this for the last couple years, as I've gone from "that weird kid that does something with computers" to "startup founder" (and now back in a real job again, which has been an odd (and refreshing) adjustment, but that's a subject for a post of its own). While I can recognize that I'm doing cool things, I just don't feel like it's that big a deal; when someone acts like something is actually a big deal, I feel like I'm overselling it. Hard to explain, but it's nice to see that I'm not the only one in the community that feels this way.

Just because there's a name for feeling like a fraud even if you aren't one, doesn't meant you aren't one! I felt like a fraud in graduate school and it turned out I was one.

Exactly - how can we be sure that our feelings aren't in fact real or just the cause of some paranoia?

You were an actual fraud? By what definition? [edit: I wonder if you were really a fraud, or are just feeling down on yourself.]

Well, I dropped out after 1.5 years :).

You're not a fraud. You changed your mind. It's OK to do that.

There is no "typical entrepreneur".

If you look at wall street traders, Fortune 500 CEO's and other populations that have been through intense selection processes you'll find very homogeneous populations.

If you look at entrepreneurs, you'll find confident people, anxious people, short people, tall people, thin people, fat people -- all kinds of people. That's because entrepreneurs select themselves rather than being selected by a bunch of people who want to select other people like themselves.

Well, I think it's fair to say all entrepreneurs are persistent, but that's about it.

I was talking with a professor about my work on the bus last night and mentioned that having faith in what I'm doing is what makes me possible to do it.

He shared that he's a born-again Christian and he's thought about faith is important in what he does, since you've never got any guarantee that a research project is going to be successful.

I'm a pagan, so I like the Japanese word "Haruhi" which means "full of spirit." (It's been popularized in the U.S. by a post-modern recent anime which I can't decide if I like or not.) But it's an important thing. For the idea I'm working on, I find that being "Haruhi" makes me invincible... I used to be a terribly anxious person but I believe in what I'm doing so much that nothing bothers me.

Quite funny, my business plan from the very beginning assumed that the system I was building would soon become more than the sum of it's parts, but I was quite amazed to see it happen... For me it's a miracle.

Specifically, successful entrepreneurs are persistent.

I sometimes feel that I wasted all my years because I was developing quite diverse applications, so I am not an expert of anything. For example I am writing a Java to Scala translator now. I hate that I was dealing with completely other topics when I could have done Phd in programming languages and could have worked on compilers all the time. There is a company founded in 1995 working on source code analysis, translation, etc... I felt the same way when I developed a 3D game, when I developed Java web apps at my workplace, etc... I feel that I am not an expert of anything. That if I gave a lot of time to one topic (years) then I would be much much better than I am now. I feel like a fraud because I have to pretend that I am a specialized expert of one topic, but in reality I am a jack-of-all-trades programmer.

Being a generalist isn't always an easy sell, but we can be uniquely valuable in a small shop that lacks an army of specialists. Just since last year I've been called on to document several protocols for partners, design and back-test a Bayesian estimator, troubleshoot a balky load balancer using only a tcpdump (it was reusing port numbers too aggressively), sleaze together some last-minute map/reduce analytics feeding Excel graphs, and track down regressions caused by bad svn merges. Nobody sane would put all of that in one job description (nominally I maintain a soft realtime Java app server), yet someone had to do it, and there I was. As a specialist I'd worry about only getting asymptotically better at solving one problem which could become irrelevant.

Actually it's the stuff I'm supposed to know how to do where I feel like a fraud, because I compare the imaginary progress of an idealized version of myself to what I've actually accomplished. When I'm handling one of these tasks from left field, everyone knows I'm winging it, and that makes success sweeter.

"All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it." --H. L. Mencken

I often feel like other people are frauds. I call this Taleb syndrome.

Here's a little secret:

Nobody really knows what they are doing; they're just winging it, more or less.

That's not to mean extremely talented people aren't doing some amazing things, it means that there is no documented pattern to follow that once completed equals success. It also means that you can in fact be as good or better at every "expert" in your chosen field, and that many of the people reading this probably already are.

Everyone is using a blank piece of paper, and everyone is painting their own portrait their own way. Knowing how to both create demand and deliver a perceived value is much more valuable than whatever it is you are actually doing to deliver the product. There is nothing fraudulent about it. Every mechanic is a genius to a person that has never seen a car.

I definitely feel like a fraud all the time. In meetings someone will introduce me as an information security expert and it makes my blood run cold. I keep thinking to myself, "This isn't rocket science, it's just common sense surely?" but bizarrely there are still developers out there who haven't heard of input validation, bounds checking or even how to do authorisation properly.

I worked out the other day that I've been doing this job for about 12 years. There's that whole 10,000 hours thing when it comes to being an expert, and I think I've put in several times that but I certainly don't feel like an expert in anything. If anything I keep expecting someone to turn up and point out blatant flaws in everything I say, but somehow it doesn't happen.

I struggle with this often: I KNOW I'm not as smart/talented/capable as other people think I am, especially at programming. I haven't been programming for that long, and it takes me an hour to write something that should take me 10 minutes to write.

However, my skills continue to amaze my peers (who are all non-technical) and they think I'm a genius because I can build a web site with a login form, or register a domain name.

It's really hard to reconcile the two things, especially since, eventually I will be a 'real' programmer, but I still won't think I'm any good.

That being said, it drives me crazy when people call themselves an 'expert' in everything. Just because you read a book, and wrote a few blog posts doesn't make you an expert!

Just because you read a book, and wrote a few blog posts doesn't make you an expert!

Or it does make you an expert, but "expert" doesn't mean what we think it means. ;-)

My dad always said that "x is an unknown quantity, and a spurt is a drip under pressure".

I tend to take self-professed "experts" with a grain of salt.

"First you get your Bachelor's degree, and you think you know everything."

"Then, you get your Master's, and you realize you don't know anything."

"Then you get your Doctorate, and you find out that nobody knows anything."

> Then you get your Doctorate, and you find out that nobody knows anything.

Took me about 3 months to figure out why the java class I was taking was so screwed up. The professor had never seen Object Oriented Programming (or Java) before. He was staying one chapter ahead of the class and picking assignments that required his domain expertise to complete.

As annoying as it was to find out, I still learned a useful bit of Java. Took me years (and learning ruby) to actually grok objects correctly.

Teachers are often just-in-time learners too.

I don't really have a problem with that in most cases. This case was a little special because I don't think the professor grasped OOP during my time in college. (Had him for a few of my classes)

Not grasping OOP makes using Java a tad difficult.

I used to work at a company that had its own teaching academy.

They once sent out a sectionwide e-mail announcing a new mobile app development course. One of my coworkers responded with a "thanks, I need that badly!" to which, amusingly, he was told that he was to be the teacher!.

Edit: I have found that "The best way to learn is to teach" (attributed to Frank Oppenheimer) is quite true.

hn rerun. Orignal thread with comments:


Sometimes good posts are worth rerunning.

I certainly agree, but linking to the previous comments is also valuable. He didn't call it a dupe, he called it a rerun. I think that's appropriate.

I often feel this way too. The hardest is when you are up in front of a room of people who are there to see you because you are an "expert".

Every misstatement or generalization feels like a punch in the face as soon as it leaves the lips. Even worse, sometimes there's a person in the crowd who takes pleasure in calling out the "expert". Even after days of research and practice for a single hour long talk this person is what I fear the most.

You can tell them that you will discuss it after the meeting or just say you don't know. Most people will laugh when you say you don't know and think you are cool.

I like this idea that if you don't feel like an imposter, you're probably not challenging yourself enough. It rings true with my experience starting a blog without much design or web experience (http://wayofthescholar.com) and diving into neuroscience research without any neuroscience background. The most I feel like a fraud, the more I'm forced to find smart ways to figure out where I'm at and where I need to head next.

Actually the Impostor syndrome has another positive side: it prevents over-confidence and preserves a degree of humility.

Self-doubt can also make you a more likable person, especially if you are successful.

Ignorance is very scary. I went to TEDxBrooklyn this weekend, and heard Richard Saul Wurman say that he lives by embracing his ignorance, because it is the only unlimited resource he has. I think that the only way to overcome this self-doubt is to accept that you will never overcome it, and make it part of your confidence to be doubtful.

It's funny, even writing an essay about this very topic hasn't made the occasional feeling cease. Though, since then, I feel much better equipped to deal with it and get on with my day.


Thanks for that post, excellent.

It's quite comforting, yet scary at the same time, to realise that the stuff you know you don't know is probably going to grow throughout your life, but that this is a good thing! Because it beats the hell out of not knowing what you don't know. Although I wonder if that would lead to a simpler life sometimes.

I think experts are people who know they don't know much. Humility.

What scares me most is, when I find someone sharing the same feelings on these lines as me, and yet being far more productive then I am. This is when it gets really scary, and the little voice inside your head screams, "dude, you ARE a fraud".

But, at whatever level, we all have to fight it for the rest of our lives. :)

I often feel that I lack the delusion to build a premier company. I try to build a great product, but I can usually point out to other companies that do an element of what I do better. Perhaps no more SWOT analyses.

Such a weird balance that a startup founder must create.

I sympathise entirely with this post. I too didn't realise that it was a common way of thinking until I saw this a while back:


One day they'll expose me!

I used to feel this way for first 6 years of my career when I was working for other people and doing pretty well. But to myself I used to think - am I really good.

But ever since I became an entrpr I feel totally natural & confident in doing what I m doing. I guess its also about are you really you are totally passionate about. If yes - you are to absorbed in it that you dont have time for these things

There was a really good episode of "This Week in Startups" a while back with a psychologist who talked about this phenomenon: http://thisweekin.com/thisweekin-startups/twist-episode-21-w...

Ok great article, also read the wikipedia entry...

Now, anyone has resources on overcoming this beyond just a few bullet points?

This reminds me of http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1902892 , in a way.

I wonder if it's the obsession with metrics that makes engineers act in such a self-deprecating manner? I know I certainly do this, too...

HN is teaching me that I'm not so abnormal. Amazing.

I think anyone who experiences some success sort of feel like a fraud. I know I do. I think it's a common thing.

> I would explain how my tool cuts code review time in half, but was that actually true or had I just repeated the argument so many times that I stopped questioning it?

Am I missing something here? He says he feels like a fraud but if he's telling people something that he doesn't know to be true.. that's not 'imposter syndrome', it really is more like fraud.

Just get an SSL certificate for your site, you will instantly feel a lot more legit!

Isn't this the Dunning-Kruger effect in action? Illusory inferiority, etc...

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