Impostor Syndrome - and how to turn down the volume on it

Everyone gets impostor syndrome. I get impostor syndrome. Even Neil Gaiman gets impostor syndrome. Even Neil Armstrong gets impostor syndrome - seriously. Check it out.

Image result for neil armstrong on moon

. o O ( I'm not really sure what I'm doing here. Shit... they even trust Buzz with the camera more than me. I'm probably going to get fired when I get back to Earth for being incompetent. I don't know why they picked me for this anyway )

Especially me. Most days of the week (working in software, and especially working at Microsoft, which in some corners has a culture of aggressive debate), I'm surrounded by incredibly driven, passionate, smart intellectuals who love to argue.

This can take a huge toll on you. Because it turns the dial on impostor syndrome up to 11. It's very rare that someone can have deep specialist knowledge on everything - and you'll always run across people who know more than you. You can have a bad day. You can meet someone better than you at some things and feel like they're better than you at everything.

You can do things to help with it though. To turn that dial back down to a 3 or a 4 instead of 11. Here's the things I've found that worked for me:

Teach others what you know

Teaching cements in your mind what you do and don't know, and makes your knowledge more robust. And teaching others reminds you that you know a lot, while helping others. It turns down the amplifier on impostor syndrome.

I am smarter when I'm teaching others. I'm also learning more, and that knowledge sticks, especially if I'm teaching something that's partly new to me.

Do short time-frame creative things

Make things. Create things. Do new things.

Make small toys - not real things that require forty or a hundred or a thousand peoples' involvement. Make sure you can make guaranteed, tangible progress every single hour you're working on it. Again, this turns down the amplifier. Not everything you do needs to stretch you.

Remind yourself that you have skill, by doing things that are easier for you - and that you can finish quickly. But do finish them.

I've stopped writing screenplays and TV show episodes for a while. (They take a lot of time, they're an investment to get feedback on, most people like watching TV/movies, but don't like reading them to offer feedback... they're weeks to months of work, and when you're done, you don't even have a truly finished product - and you have to tear them apart to rewrite. Blogging feels too much like posting on facebook at the moment - and about as fulfilling. None of these actually ring that bell or deliver that hit of dopamine the way that a small, easy, immediate win does - the feedback loop is too long).

So instead, in my spare time, I'm making music.

My metric for success is - if I can listen to it without getting too bored the first couple of times, if I can feel an emotional twang anywhere in the tune, and if I learn at least one new thing from it by the time I'm done, it's a success. Even if it's just transcribing Baa Baa Black Sheep, it's a win.

What it's doing is strengthening is my ability to focus, concentrate, push through, rewrite, and finish projects. It's lowering my feeling of being an impostor. Sure, there's all those other side benefits that I get from learning music theory, ear training, learning to hearing rhythms accurately and so on - great, cool things to learn, and fun! Learning is always fun! ... but they're only a small mechanical means to an end.

Be kind, considered, free and easy with your help and mentorship

If friends are working on creative stuff, or are learning something new, encourage them. If it's something you have experience with, remind them about when you were learning the same thing, and how it was a struggle, and how you got through it - and that there's worth in what they're doing right now.

Celebrate the small wins! Especially the small wins - because the small wins provide the fuel to keep plodding through to the large ones.

Along similar lines, if someone looks like they're not having a great time, aren't having fun, aren't engaged, are shy or withdrawn? Gently ask them, and try to drag them along for the ride. We're all in this together.


Play as often as you can. Non-directed. Just for curiosity. Just for the sake of it. Play like a child. And when you discover something new, celebrate it.

You'll never get rid of impostor syndrome entirely. But you can dial it down a bit and make it manageable.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

facebook comments