I had a lovely dinner with a few fellow Recursers yesterday. During our conversation, we talked about “guessers”—i.e. people who only ask for something when they think they will most likely get it—versus askers—people who, when they are unsure, will just ask for it and see what happens. Someone then promptly asked what the others thought they were and we made a little circle, everyone asking someone else what the other person thought they were. To my surprise, no feelings were hurt.
I'm a guesser, I've been told, but with an asterisk. “You're a guesser, but you know you're good”. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it stroked my vanity, and in lack of a better response I just said that. And then I thought about how not too long ago I would've vehemently fought against that statement, and we talked about impostor syndrome, and how to overcome self-deprecation.
I want to share my thoughts here as well. A fair warning: I talk about myself a lot.
A story of a boy who couldn't
After repeatedly chiming in to the chorus of self-deprecation I learned that that hurt other people's feelings. It turns out that, if people regard you as higher in some intellectual hierarchy—hierarchies are as stupid as they are pervasive—and hear your self-deprecation, they mostly react in one of two ways:
- They realize “smart” people have these feelings too, and maybe that makes them worry less.
- They go into full panic mode, because if “smart” people think they're dumb, what does this make them?
After learning that the second reaction was a thing I stopped openly self-deprecating. Of course I never implied that anyone else around me was stupid, but I definitely see how that sentiment can be inferred.
Naturally that didn't change the underlying feeling. It just stopped me from perpetuating the same old truisms about myself. But it also led me on a journey to reflect about who I was and who I am.
I had no background in Computer Science prior to my studies. This was in stark contrast to most of my fellow students, who had varying degrees of exposure to programming before going to university. I really was the stupid one in the room. Instead of letting this get to me, though, I openly acknowledged it and tried hard to overcome this. And, with equal parts sleep-deprivation and luck, I managed to bridge that gap and succeed at my studies1.
But my mindset didn't change for large swaths of my studies. I still thought of myself as a bad programmer. In some ways that was good, because it compelled me to work harder. In other ways it was bad: mental health, self-worth, social life—the small things, you know. I also knew that I was not worthy to study with the others, and I learned about impostor syndrome after I'd overcome the worst parts of it.
When I stopped self-deprecating, I reflected on how I'd changed and how anyone could sincerely regard me as intellectually superior, and for the first time realized that I had made tremendous progress. It helped me cast myself in a different light and acknowledge positive thoughts about who I am.
Taking others seriously
But taking others' opinions of myself at face value required effort. After all, maybe they just haven't seen me struggle enough. Maybe I've only shown them my succeeding side, and hidden that pile of garbage that is the other half of me?
Then a thought hit me: if people I respect talked about someone else in the same way they talked about me, what would I think of them? If a former colleague walked up to me and said “I know this person. They are nice, and a really good programmer”, I would probably want to meet them. I wouldn't ask about their emotional backyard first. Sure, maybe they fooled my friend and are really just an impostor, but I think my friends are really smart and generally hard to fool.
If I discount my friend's opinion about me, I discount my friend's opinion in general. And I know better than that.
This still feels like a mental card trick, but it's good enough to fool me most of the time. It gets easier and easier to just accept compliments, smile about them, and treasure them, instead of thinking or saying I don't deserve them.
'twas but another rant
It is hard to talk about myself, and this blog post definitely feels too positive. I'm wary of positive emotions, and even more wary of overtly displaying them. But this feels important.
Impostor syndrome and self-deprecation are incredibly common in the tech community. Everyone is different and has different ways to cope with feelings of not-belonging, and I feel like we all should share our personal collections of tools.
I invite you to think about how you deal with these feelings, if you have them. Do you have special tools that others might profit from? Even if they sound stupid. Most of what I've detailed in this blog post feels stupid to me, but that doesn't mean it really is. Chances are that what you have to say is valuable and I would like to hear it. If you'd like to talk, you know where to find me.
1. I know there is some parallel universe where I try exactly as hard and, due to no fault of my own, fail. I've seen it happen to others, and it's important to keep in mind. It might not feel like it, but if you succeed at anything ever, luck was on your side.