What is Impostor Syndrome?
I first came across this as a “thing” when I was promoted to my first managerial position. I was suddenly in charge of delivering shared infrastructure across a reasonable sized enterprise operating in four countries in Europe with around 10,000 employees.
I joked by asking how ‘a fat bloke from Stoke’ who had pretty much failed high school, managed to get to a position where he was making decisions to spend millions of pounds on various projects. My mentor, during one of my first sessions said to me something along the lines of “we all question why we are here and how we got here, but you’re here because you earned it”.
The bit of that statement that stood out for me wasn’t that I’d earned it, but the fact that he suggested I wasn’t the only one that felt like I was in a position I should not be in. We talked about that for some time during that session together, it was the first time I had admitted to anybody that I thought I shouldn’t be doing what I’d been employed for, it wasn’t the first time I’d thought it though. I left that session feeling much better knowing it wasn’t ‘just me’ and I started to investigate it some more.
What is Impostor Syndrome
So, what is Impostor Syndrome. It is discussed a lot especially in the Information Security domain, Wikipedia has this to say:
“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud” “Wikipedia, Impostor Syndrome
Time Magazine wrote an article in 2018 which described it as “The idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications”
In the Time Magazine article they quote from the book Secret Thoughts of Successful Women written by Valerie Young and for me as a technical person, these particular excerpts stood out.
“Experts” feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.
When the “natural genius” has to struggle or work hard to accomplish something, he or she thinks this means they aren’t good enough. They are used to skills coming easily, and when they have to put in effort, their brain tells them that’s proof they’re an impostor.The Secret Thought of Successful Women, Valerie Young, 15 Oct 2011
I am sure others will find that they resonate better with other examples, but these hit me like a freight train.
How Has This Affected My Life?
Well let me start by explaining that I didn’t always feel this way, indeed, during my time in the Royal Air Force, I oozed confidence. More importantly I wasn’t afraid to admit that I didn’t know something and that I needed help.
I believe that my problems started when I left the RAF and moved to Civvy Street. I wasn’t prepared for that at all. My life had been structured, there were very clear instructions, commands and deviation was not allowed. Working in the private sector came as a shock.
There was no doubt that I had the technical skills, but a series of failed interviews to move up the managerial ladder soon had me questioning if I was actually as good as I thought I was.
I remember one day, my manager stood behind me waiting for a report to take to a meeting. He’d asked for the report an hour before the meeting and it generally took between 60-90 minutes to run. We were using Filemaker Pro on an Apple Quadra 800, I couldn’t make it go any faster, but he stood there and said “well, you’ve let me down again”. It wasn’t me, it was the tech, and the fact he had had asked for it at the very last minute with barely enough time to produce it, but I was already struggling and it fed easily into the narrative in my head that told me I was faking it.
I found out later he had been making false statements to management, this was a ploy to divert blame from him, or at least to delay them getting to the truth. The damage was done nonetheless.
As time passed, I stopped applying for jobs because I felt I wasn’t capable of doing them, no one told me that, I told myself. I was also very miserable in the job I was in. I found myself in a vicious circle, I didn’t have the confidence to apply and try to get out, but I was failing at everything I did and falling further and further into a serious depression.
Eventually I was diagnosed with clinical depression and I was off work for several months. During this time the company claimed to have found evidence of negligence and misconduct and a disciplinary hearing was held in my absence which I chose not to contest on the advice of my wife and doctor. My time with that company came to an end.
For the next few years, I worked menial jobs. I drove a taxi, built a window cleaning round and washed windows and even signed on as an office temp. My passion though, the one thing I remained good at, was computers. Fixing them, building them, upgrading them, I could pretty much do anything on a computer, but I still believed that I wasn’t good enough to do it “for a living”.
When I did eventually return to employed work, it was part time, in a school where there was nobody really to challenge me or my skill set. I stayed there for almost five years and it was the best five years. I had supportive colleagues, I had a mentor who helped me and drove me, and I succeeded regularly at every task I was given.
That role was at times though, a contradiction. I succeeded at every task they gave me, I developed some self-confidence and often spoke up or disagreed and was able on more than one occasion to reverse decisions on spend and activities. Despite this I still had this nagging doubt that I wasn’t good enough. I can’t tell you why.
Looking back, I think I would reject any opportunities for certificated training. If I had to take an exam, I’d fail it and that would show everyone I was a fraud. I was unconsciously sabotaging interviews, or withdrawing my application. I didn’t believe I was capable and terrified of being found out. I was convinced that I didn’t have the skills and knowledge to be doing what I was doing.
It wasn’t until 2018 that I finally took my first trade certification exam. I had been dallying with security, playing with Backtrack and the company I worked for asked me to go and do C|EH. I was excited and upbeat but if you work in Information Security you all know what some parts of the the industry think of that qualification. At the time I did not.
If you don’t either, this might give you a sense.
I wasn’t ridiculed per se, but the qualification was. I thought I had finally settled into something I could do and I could prove my worth. I finally had succeeded and overcome a very big obstacle in my life. Unfortunately the qualification I did was denigrated, loudly and publicly.
That Impostor Syndrome came back with a vengeance. It wasn’t that my employer had chosen the wrong course for me, I wasn’t good enough. It never entered my head that employers might value the qualification even if some of my peers didn’t. My first thought was that the ONLY qualification I had ever obtained in my professional life was actually worthless. I was worthless.
You’ll see that the writer of that linked article, promotes OSCP. I couldn’t do OSCP, I didn’t have that level of knowledge or skill. I still don’t, the difference now is that I know I don’t need to. Back then I thought – I could only manage C|EH I am an impostor! I slunk back into my shell of doubt.
One positive thing that came out of this move towards Infosec was that I learned I had to take control of my own life and my own learning. It came from a blog post by a lady in the US who I only new as Tara, her website is no longer live, but you can read the post on The Internet Archive. I am not sure why this written text moved me so much, maybe it was because it gave me permission to fail. Whatever the reason, it did and I determined to learn and keep learning.
As part of my new positivity, I decided to let go of things that weren’t important to me and concentrate on those that were. In doing so I was very fortunate to move to a new role where I met someone who, as a manager, was the polar opposite of many others I had encountered during my career. He was so supportive, so uplifting, so kind he helped me move forward and remain in this field. It took some time, but he helped me believe that I could do this. That I knew enough. That I wasn’t a fraud. It was quite subtle, and I didn’t see the change until much later, but I see it now, looking back.
Unfortunately, he left, but before he did, he put me in the role I am now in. He drove me to take another certification (CySA+), this time there was no malicious commentary, this time I was congratulated. It helped. It gave me a boost and a lift and it further reversed my feelings of doubt.
The Here and Now
I still live daily with some impostor syndrome, I go to answer a tweet or a post on LinkedIn and I delete it because “what if I’m wrong”. I still find myself avoiding certificated course because “what if I fail”.
That is where I am now, I can’t bring myself to do the certificates because I might not pass and if I don’t pass that proves I am an impostor. I really have to get more comfortable with failure.
I convince myself that I am only good at this job because I’ve been in the current company so long and I wouldn’t have that safety in a new role. I don’t apply for jobs because I don’t believe I am good enough, they will find out and I’ll be out of work quickly.
Putting it Right
So, what can we do about it?
I had a lovely conversation with a great friend I know from this security field. The advice he gave me is quite simple, but also quite intense. He said, “You can do what you do, some can do more, some can do less. You know what you know, others know more, others know less. If you can do the job you are doing, satisfactorily, however you manage that, whether by skill, luck, downright hard work, or a combination of the three, you’re not an impostor”. That has stuck with me.
You can read his thoughts by visiting his blog post on hiddentext.com don’t let the inflammatory title put you off, it’s an interesting and balanced read.
I frequently tell people I live with depression and anxiety. I am not depressed, not anymore, but I believe that I live with that disorder in a similar way that a recovered alcoholic lives with their illness daily. I have learned to manage the symptoms, to make changes when I need to and to prioritise my health. I have strategies to anxiety so it doesn’t become disabling.
It’s the same with Impostor Syndrome. I don’t believe that it ever goes away, we have to learn to identify it and manage it in order to live with it. We have to not let it rule our lives.
The Time Magazine article I quoted earlier has some suggestions.
Dealing with those thoughts.
In order to live with it, to identify it and to manage it we need to be able to do those things and develop strategies to cope. How?
Learning to value constructive criticism, understanding that you’re actually slowing your team down when you don’t ask for help, or remembering that the more you practice a skill, the better you will get at it can all help.Time Magazine Article, June 20, 2018
This is quite key for me and I think that it took me a while to come to terms with some of this. I couldn’t handle criticism, I would ponder on it and let it fester inside me and grow and grow until someone counteracted it with an approval or compliment.
I am much more open to criticism now, but it needs to be given formally, in a review or on request. I now actively seek regular sessions with peers and managers and ask them for constructive criticism. I manage the delivery of that and can deal with it.
A sense of belonging fosters confidence, the more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel.
“The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. The goal for me is to give [people] the tools and the insight and information to talk themselves down faster, they can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life.” Valerie Young, Author and Impostor Syndrome Specialist
The first part of this is tough, because to find a place you belong, requires you believe in yourself and your abilities and that is the problem we are discussing. You can though, find people like you, without having to find them in your sector, your industry.
I accept that like many things in this current society that this is much harder for those in minority groups. I am a white middle aged male, I can not comment at all on what support minority groups can find, or need, and I don’t intend to insult them trying to do so.
I found my group of people by attending conferences. Meeting folk, chatting and finding out I wasn’t “different” or “alone”. I was the same as many. The more people I got to know, the more I realised that I “fitted in” the more my confidence grew.
Acknowledge the thoughts and put them in perspective. “Simply observing that thought as opposed to engaging it can be helpful, we can help teach people to let go and more critically question those thoughts. I encourage clients to ask ‘Does that thought help or hinder me?’”Audrey Ervin, psychologist, PA
Given the strategies I have learned and employed to ensure my anxiety is controlled and my depression doesn’t return and destroy my life a second time, this should be something I can do as part of that. I intend to try.
Writing this has helped me understand where my Impostor Syndrome started. How when I tried, in my late twenties, to climb a corporate ladder, I failed miserably and then started to question my skills and abilities.
I am starting to believe that maybe I have something to offer this industry, maybe I can continue, even at my age, to grow, develop and enjoy the latter part of my career.
Remember that technology changes quickly. When I worked on my first computer in 1980, many of you weren’t born, mobile phones didn’t exist, C# didn’t exist, Windows didn’t exist, Metasploit didn’t exist, Python didn’t exist in fact computing as we now it today didn’t exist. The first commercial computer system I worked on would have filled my living room.
I thought I’d finish with this. Mary Schmich wrote an article some years ago in the Chicago Tribune. As I get older I realise that the advice, despite being her own meandering experiences, was actually quite insightful. I don’t dance, I’ve never danced, maybe I’d have been healthier if I did. I didn’t look after my knees and yes I do miss them. You’ll need to read the whole thing to get these references, but as you start your own journey to try and control and overcome Impostor Syndrome, let me leave you with these thoughts from her.
Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young, Mary Schmich, 01 Jun 1997
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Good luck on your journey.
- Imposter Syndrome does not Exist – Ignore the title and read it anyway
- Why Impostor Syndrome Is my Superpower – Barbara Oakley, Time Magazine
- Six Ways Impostor Syndrome is Literally Making you Sick – Brianne Hogan
- My Impostor Story – Valerie Young
- 10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Impostor Syndrome – Valerie Young
- 9 Ways to deal with Impostor Syndrome – Lindsay Kolowich Cox
- Impostor Syndrome Offline Test
- Impostor Syndrome Online Test
Bibliography and References
- Wikipedia, Impostor Syndrome
- Time Magazine Article, June 20, 2018
- The Secret Thought of Successful Women, Valerie Young, 15 Oct 2011
- Valerie Young, Author and Impostor Syndrome Specialist
- Audrey Ervin, psychologist, PA
- Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young, Mary Schmich, 01 Jun 1997
- Everyone’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), Baz Lurhman, 1998