I recently read David Walsh’s excellent post, “I’m an Impostor“, and it certainly hit home. I even DM’d him on Twitter to thank him for making me feel less alone:
“Thank you for writing that post. I can relate so much to what you’re going through. I feel it all the time as well. Glad I’m not alone.”
Like many others, I’ve had to cope with Impostor Syndrome and while it’s not a great feeling, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great support system in the community that has regularly helped me recognize my contributions. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t suffer self-doubt on occasion, especially in the presence of people I know are amazing technologists. This is especially prevalent because my role at Microsoft puts me in constant exposure to folks who build a browser and whose technical understanding is off the charts.
As Your Name Grows, So Does the Pressure
After thinking about this for a couple of days, I’ve come to realize that these feelings seem to be exacerbated as your influence grows in the community. Some of it is clearly self-imposed self-doubt such as what David eluded to but I also believe that as we gain recognition, we begin to set expectations (sometimes unnecessarily) that we need to know EVERYTHING that’s going on within our specific development niches. It seems obvious that it would be impossible to keep up with every framework, tool, pattern or technique coming out. There’s only so much time in the day and that has to be balanced with normal work duties and most importantly, family time.
But when you’re perceived as an influential part of the community (as I’ve been told I am and as I view David), there’s a clear pressure to be “in the know” and talk intelligently about the new coolness that’s being used. I even gave a talk at Fluent’s Ignite about this:
It’s especially difficult to rationalize not knowing these things when you see all the cool kids using them and talking them up. When people look to me to give them guidance and I can’t offer them solid feedback, it’s an incredibly deflating experience. I mean, aren’t I that guy that’s supposed to know?
And I believe folks in developer evangelism roles are especially susceptible to this because we don’t have the same opportunities to build real-world, production code as the typical software developer. While we spend a lot of time evaluating and creating proof of concepts for new technologies, this doesn’t equate to the real-world issues that developers at Twitter, Reddit or any numbers of sites encounter during their day-to-day work. So we’re constantly working to stay on top of things but challenged by the fact that in many cases, we don’t actually create real production systems. It’s a real conundrum.
I Don’t Know Everything
I’m trying to manage these feelings by simply telling myself that:
- I don’t know everything
- I can’t possibly learn all these new frameworks AND be good at them
- I need to focus on what I’m good at
- Learn things that accrue value to your job, not to everyone else
The last point is especially important. I can’t continue to worry if the community will perceive my lack of understanding of all the new toys as a negative. And after reading the vast comments on David’s post, it makes me feel good to know that I’m not alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed. I need to focus on things that will bring value to my career and trying to learn every framework or tool out there just isn’t the way to go about it. Spreading myself thin to satisfy a non-existent perception isn’t bringing value, just stress and I need to stop that.
I know there are a lot of people out there who have insane amounts of time on their hands who can spend nights and weekends focused exclusively on the new shiny toys. More power to them. That’s not me nor do I want to that. I much prefer having great work/life balance.
So no more hamster wheel for me. I’m jumping off.
I jokingly refer to myself professionally as the Frog Pond using the analogy of a Boston Landmark (http://bostonfrogpond.com/) – I cover a lot of ground, but I’m not very deep. I used to be an expert in one language or tool or another, but that’s not really the goal of my work in community and developer relations…and I’m perfectly ok with that. I enjoy learning, and positions like yours and mine offer an incredible amount of learning opportunities, even if we’re never the deepest experts we once were.
Well said Brian. Love that perspective.
This seems closely related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect… generally, the more you know about something, the less highly you tend to evaluate yourself, and vice versa.
I feel like it has a lot to do with the fact that as your expertise in something grows, you also gain a greater understanding of the scope and depth of that area, and consequently, you are better able to assess how impossibly large most areas of study are and how you’ll probably never really understand them in as much depth or breadth as you’d like! That makes you feel small – and as a result underestimate your own skill relative to others, being overwhelmed by the scope of the discipline itself.
As an analogy to our understanding of the physical universe, the most advanced scientific thinkers would probably be the first to admit that there is so much that they don’t know, and consider their own knowledge to be insignificant compared to the mysteries of the universe, whereas the ignorant tend to think they have all the answers.
Jamie, Dunning-Kruger doesn’t seems to fit what I’m feeling at least not how it’s described in the Wikipedia entry you linked to. But your second paragraph does touch on some good points which are little closer to home.
We need to stop the culture of wrong shaming that is so prevalent in our world today (i.e., so what if he said nucular?) But seriously, we are crippling our potential by fearing error. I guess being publicly wrong, something I no nothing about in my absurdly small circle of influence, is a bigger problem then just being wrong, but failure is growth. To be cliche, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, even if it hurts like hell and makes you the office fool for a couple of days… weeks.
Amen on that!
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