The Munroe Group Archive

I’m Not so Smart After All, or Maybe I’m Suffering From Imposter Syndrome

05 August 2013

Next week I will be presenting at the Boston Ruby Group on imposter syndrome. I’m looking forward to doing this talk because I think it is such a great topic that many are not aware of, but I think a lot of smart people suffer from. I was surprised by the number of colleagues at the office who were not familiar with the term until looking it up online after hearing the topic of my talk.

Wikipedia defines imposter syndrome as follows,

The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

As with all things, there are different degrees of impact in how people are effected. I believe this is very common in the software industry and even more commonly felt by conference presenters and book writers in the software industry, but also somewhat impacts the sharing of code for open source projects.

Those three examples all share the same underlying issue, the presenter, author, or developer writing code feel knowledgable in the topic area, but at the same time feel that the community they are presenting to either already knows more on the topic or will actually think the presenter, author, or developer is a fraud because they do not have good command of the topic shared.

Ben Orenstein and Jon Larkowski covered this topic quickly on a thoughtbot podcast, around the 22:40 mark. A quick summary is that this problem is more common in the programming community because we are a group evaluated on the merit of our intelligence. Ben refers to a conversation with Katrina Owen having imposter syndrome with a peep cast she had worked on. The same women who presented one of the more well known talks on refactoring, feels inferior relative to the community she is providing knowledge material to.

Another great podcast to listen to for some more background is the Ruby Rogues 107 Podcast with Tim Chevalier. Katrina Owen is a rogue and stated the following during that podcast,

I think one of the really scary things about Impostor Syndrome is it feels so real. I feel, when I’m feeling it very strongly, it’s my reality. My reality is that I don’t belong there and at any moment, my whole life can come crashing down because if people discover that I don’t belong there. And there’s no help in people saying, “Well, you’re a good programmer. You’re smart,” or “You’re doing fine,” or “You’re delivering plenty of value.” It’s like, “Ugh, well no. I’m not. But you just don’t see it yet.”

Those that suffer from imposter syndrome are afraid to present, afraid to write, afraid to share code and more.