There Is An Imposter (Syndrome) Among Us

So many of us have been there. Feeling like the only one who doesn't belong. The only one who doesn't deserve it. How does one live with Imposter Syndrome?

There Is An Imposter (Syndrome) Among Us

You can’t get it out of your head. The voice that tells you all the reasons why you don’t deserve it. Why you don’t belong. Why you aren’t as competent as others may say.

I stepped into my first term at UNSW CSE as a completely blank canvas. Prior to university, I had never coded and didn’t know anything about computer science at all, save for a cheeky Youtube tutorial I had watched over the summer break. Though it would be a hard pill to swallow, that 4 hour introductory Python course wouldn’t nearly be enough to catch up to those who had taken CS courses in high school, or been tinkering with computers from when they were tender toddlers.

In fact, for the first week of term, I was completely unaware of the demographic of CSE, too busy celebrating how I had finally created a kangaroo (consisting of slashes and spaces all in a singular print statement) after a solid hour of strenuous ‘coding’.

The correct code to the left, and matching output to the right.
My code.

But it wouldn’t be long until it hit me – a gripping sense of imposter syndrome. The chat in online lectures would blow up with students discussing this mystical beast called ‘recursion’, asking if it were okay to use it in the upcoming assignment. I started to wonder. Am I the only one feeling left behind? Am I just not suited for this degree? Then, the joys of seeing the green text of passed autotests gradually started to feel less satisfying, and became more so a reminder of how far I had to catch up.

Objectively speaking, it’s quite easy to realise that many, if not the majority of CSE, first start off with little to no prior experience. But for me, it had been quite hard to imagine that there were other blank canvases like me, fresh and naive amidst what seemed to be a sea of Van Gogh’s and Da Vinci’s. Instead of learning how to code, what had I been doing for the past 18 years of my life? (Fortunately, I didn’t actually question my entire existence over the fact that I was struggling with pointers; though I would say I was reasonably close).

To state the blatantly obvious: everyone has lived a different life, and to think that all CSE students should have had the same experiences, passed the same checkpoints, is flat-out absurd. But imposter syndrome solidifies those absurd thoughts, eventually manifesting them into certain convictions.

What is Imposter Syndrome

So what exactly is Imposter Syndrome? With my anecdote being a singular case among infinitely many others, it can be hard to define such a flexible concept. Hayden Smith (an alumni and active lecturer at UNSW CSE), provides a satisfactory definition: “Feeling not good enough, when you are. Feeling out of place, even when you belong.” In other words, this phenomenon of perceived fraudulence is absolutely, and utterly groundless.

Even when you have objectively earned your achievements and objectively belong in your current position, a shocking amount of people fool themselves into the impression that they don’t deserve whatever it may be. A 2019 study showed that around 70% of individuals will experience signs and symptoms of imposter syndrome at least once in their life. So if you can recall a time when you have felt like a fraud, or undeserving of anything at all, you definitely are not alone.

Signs and Symptoms

1. Self-Doubt

Wait, isn’t Imposter Syndrome just the same as self-doubt? How is it a symptom? Let’s compare the two as a Pokemon evolution sequence, self-doubt being analogous to Pikachu. Generally, Pikachu’s are more common, as self-doubt is a natural reaction that often allows us to re-evaluate our options and decisions in our daily lives. On the other hand, Imposter Syndrome is Raichu, the comparatively less common, less liked, evolution. It has become more than a trivial moment of reconsideration, as it has manifested into a conviction. If that analogy flew over your head, Imposter Syndrome is essentially just a bigger, scarier, stronger version of self-doubt.

2. Overachieving

Many of us have been there. Even from a young age growing up, it was always about the next step, the next achievement. Okay great, you got accepted into a good high school. Now, make sure to work even harder so you can bring home a booklet riddled with A’s in it. You got that too? Okay, now that you’re in the final stretch of HSC, try to... Even if you may not have heard, or told yourself these exact words, a constant feeling of pushing yourself to the next task before even celebrating the achievements you’ve made on the way, is dangerous enough. It could be all that is needed to kindle a strong sense of perfectionism and overachievement, snowballing downhill especially from an early age.

3. Attributing success to external factors

How did I even get into FaceZonGoogAppFlix? I must have just gotten really, really lucky with my nice interviewer. Or maybe it was... Without getting swept into in-depth details on  Attribution Theory, the theory essentially tackles the reasons behind the perceptions of our failures and successes. Ironically, Imposter Syndrome causes us to dismiss our successes to external factors such as luck and chance, whilst internal factors such as ability and effort are the first to blame in the face of failure.

Locus of Causality - Source: The Salience

Imagine working tirelessly toward a goal, driven by effort and determination, but all the while battling your strong self-doubt. And when you achieve it, all you can think about is how lucky you got, and how this chance wouldn’t happen again. Then, imagine you trip, fall, fail. Suddenly, you’re waking up to the ‘reality’ that you are incompetent, and that there was never a doubt you didn’t belong. A vicious cycle of negative thinking.

Case Study: Mike Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder of Atlassian

Okay. You’ve made it this far listening to some first-year’s underwhelming story and advice, and maybe you’re starting to question whether I actually know what I’m talking about. To dispel such doubts you may or may not have, let’s dive into the personal experiences of an objectively successful figure: Co-Founder of Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes. Atlassian is an Australian founded software company worth around $100B (yes, billion), with millions of users globally. So, it might seem quite safe to assume that the co-founders of such a company would be basking in their success. In reality, it turns out to be quite the opposite.

In 2017, Cannon-Brookes did a Tedx Talk on Imposter Syndrome that shattered my naive presumption that people who were ‘objectively successful’, never felt the same feelings of fraudulence as I did. He began by detailing multiple experiences where he felt like an imposter; finding himself in a t-shirt and jeans surrounded by suits in a meeting; not understanding business jargon and so hurriedly writing down terms to search up on Wikipedia.

Mike Cannon-Brookes: "How you can use Imposter Syndrome to your benefit" - Tedx Sydney 2017

Above all, his unexpected journey in the early stages of Atlassian shocked me. In 2006, after entering the NSW Entrepreneur of the Year competition, the two co-founders surprised themselves when they not only won in their own category (Entrepreneurs Under 40) that night, but went on to win the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year as well. Before long, Cannon-Brookes found himself at the World Entrepreneur of the Year event, sitting next to the 65-year-old winner from Portugal who had an incomparable 30,000 employees to Atlassian’s then 70. Now, here’s the groundbreaking moment. When Mike confessed that he felt undeserving of his position, the man looked at him and told him that not only did he feel the same way, but suspected everyone else in the room did too. Can you imagine a hall full of the best and most successful entrepreneurs from 40 different countries around the world, all feeling as if they shouldn’t be there? As if at any moment, someone would call them out for taking the seat of another person who actually deserved that position?

He goes on to say that even now, after exponentially raising the number of employees from 70 to over 5,700, Imposter Syndrome still continues to permeate throughout different aspects of his life. However, contrary to what many may say, Mike advises that instead of fruitlessly attempting to get rid of the feeling, we should find a way to live with it. In other words, it’s not a matter of trying to completely overcome this feeling, but more so about implementing strategies to shrink it down to a manageable size where it could even be used for your benefit.

Strategies to Live With Imposter Syndrome

1. Be Aware

When it comes to facing any problem, the first step is almost always, awareness. More explicitly, awareness is about understanding when exactly you feel that you’re out of your depth. Once you are aware of this, rather than letting those negative emotions spiral out of control, try to harness that fear and redirect it as motivation toward filling in those gaps of skill and knowledge. Maybe you just started a new internship, you feel like a fraud, and you don’t quite yet know exactly how your team works. Well, take a step back. Essentially every employee must have felt the same, because who starts a new job knowing exactly what to do in every situation? So ask questions, and be eager to learn.
Utilise the situation as an opportunity to propel yourself forward, rather than allowing it to push you backward. It’s only when you can’t feel the ground under your feet, that you’re forced to start swimming.

2. Celebrate Your Achievements

If you decided to go out for a run and actually did it, or if you did well on that assignment you worked hard on, or if you got an interview at a company you wanted to work at (even if you don’t even get the job!), celebrate those achievements - no matter how small. It’s so easy to get lost in all of your perceived shortcomings and failures, but once you get into the habit of knowing when to pat yourself on the back, that will naturally start to rewire your brain toward healthy positivity. Then, the next time you start to feel undeserving, hopefully you’ll remind yourself of all the checkpoints you’ve passed in your own, individual journey and be proud of what you have achieved.

3. Stop Comparing

Sure, pretty much every person has compared themselves to someone else before, and healthy competition births and drives creativity, innovation, and improvement. But too often, we end up comparing our bloopers, full of flaws and mistakes, with others’ highlight reels of achievements and successes.If you knew everyone else’s behind the scenes cut, you would see that everyone is just as wayward and anxious as you are, awkwardly stumbling from one end of life to the other all the same. So don’t let yourself fall into the deep chasm of self-comparison; instead, try to put things to perspective whenever you catch yourself feeling inadequate.

4. Know You're Not Alone

You’ve already read this far and seen two great individuals (yours truly, and Cannon-Brookes) and their respective stories with Imposter Syndrome. And I can guarantee you that there are so many more people out there who can relate to the same struggles as yours. They might be closer than you think, and so take a step forward by breaking the silence to discuss such issues.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised that a little vulnerability will reward you with an outlet of comfort and encouragement. You never know, once you express your thoughts to someone else, they might tell you how wrong you are and how deserving you are of your achievements.

Final Comments

Of course, I understand that all this is easier said than done - even after a near-full year in CSE, I stare at my screen after debugging for hours, in wonder of how exactly I’m still able to push forward amidst the Van Gogh’s and Da Vinci’s surrounding me. At the same time, it’s only been one year! By being inspired by the gallery of passion and drive around me in the form of my peers; by acknowledging my own shortcomings but also feeling a sense of pride over the things I’ve achieved along the way; by understanding that my story isn’t a lone one; I’m able to confidently paint my blank canvas with the unique colours of my experiences.

Maybe, without even realising it on your arduous journey, you’ll have painted your own blank canvas like a Picasso artwork. Abstract, different, confusing, but respectable and admirable nonetheless.

Bibliography and Sources