Imposter Syndrome (part 2)

9 days ago, I posted Imposter Syndrome (part 1) and then immediately listened to Heather Downing‘s excellent NDC talk on the topic.

This is the “reflections afterwards” post I’d expected to write (although slightly more delayed than I’d hoped for). I’m not going to try to recap Heather’s talk, because that wouldn’t do justice to it. Please watch the video instead. This is my set of reflections after Heather’s talk – some of it directly responding to what she said, and other parts simply my own meandering thought process.

Responding to praise

This one’s simple. I’ve often responded to praise in ways that effectively negate the opinion of the other person – saying that I’m really not as smart as they think I am, etc. I suspect there’s some cultural influence there; it’s a fairly British thing to do. But I hadn’t considered the flip side of this not conveying humility on my part, but wrongness on their part.

So I’m going to start to just say “thank you” as far as I can. I think there will still be times where it would be important to try to correct a potentially harmful impression – if someone explains that they’re trying to win technical arguments by quoting me, for example – but most of the time I’ll try to bite my tongue, and just say thanks… and maybe try to shift the conversation onto what they’re doing. (If someone says they’re inspired by me, that’s great – so what have they been inspired to do? Does this give me an opportunity to encourage them further?)

Success and luck

There are two very slightly different nuances to being “lucky” – at least in the way I think about it. The first is a sort of “undeserved positive effects” aspect. “I’m lucky to be married to such a wonderful person” or “I’m lucky to have a natural aptitude for computing” for example. Things you can’t really control much. The second is a sort of “the same sequence of events could have unfolded very differently” aspect. “I’m lucky to have ended up in a job I love without making a career plan” for example.

I fear I’m not transferring the ideas from brain to screen very clearly, but there are two important points:

Firstly, I don’t want anyone to try to emulate me in areas where I’ve been genuinely lucky. I have no doubt that in other situations (with a different set of colleagues, for example) some of my actions could have led to very different results. I’ve always spent quite a lot of time learning by experimentation and community writing – whether that’s on newsgroups, Stack Overflow or blog posts. Some of this has been done on company time, and every company I’ve worked for has (quietly) acknowledged that it’s been a broadly positive thing – so long as it’s not been too excess, of course. Other software engineers – particularly those in jobs where every hour has to be accounted for – could see a very different result to the same actions.

On the other hand, I should probably accept the point Heather made that attributing repeated success to luck is foolish. I don’t think I’m lucky to receive upvotes on Stack Overflow: I make a conscious effort to communicate clearly, and that’s something I’ve put a lot of effort into over several years. Some of the further results could be called lucky: if Stack Overflow hadn’t come on the scene, I’m sure I’d still be writing on newsgroups with a vastly smaller potential audience for answers. The more immediate effect of “If I put effort into writing clearly and researching my subject matter, that effort is appreciated by those who read it” isn’t a matter of luck though.

Writing off success as just luck risks undervaluing processes and practices that are genuinely helpful – as well as potentially giving the impression that we won’t appreciate the hard work and diligence of others. (On the other hand, check your privilege before ascribing all your success to your own graft and/or brilliance.)

Dunning-Kruger harms everyone

Finally, the Dunning-Kruger effect is probably worth fighting against in both aspects.

Those who are overestimating their skills are doing themselves a disservice by appearing arrogant or compounding their ignorance by “meta-ignorance” of the scope of the subject matter. Unless they’re trying to represent a larger entity (a consultancy for example) the impact seems fairly localized.

I’m coming round to the idea that those who are underestimating their skills – and doing so publicly – might be discouraging everyone else. If someone I look up to as an expert in a topic were to only rate themselves as “8 out of 10” in knowledge in that topic, that could make me feel worse about my own understanding of the topic. While I suspect it’s hard for anyone in a culture that values humility to rate their knowledge as “9.5 out of 10” for something, I think it’s important that the real experts do so. Yes, they can still be aware of the areas they struggle in – but there must be some way of expressing that while acknowledging their overall expertise.

Beyond simple discouragement, there’s another aspect of underestimating your own prowess that can prove unhelpful, and that’s in terms of explanations. I’ve always found most (not quite all) security experts hard to understand. They’re so deeply immersed in their own domain that they may not appreciate how many assumptions of shared terminology and understanding they need to remove before they can communicate effectively with “lay” people.

I only give the example of security as one where I personally struggle to learn from people who undoubtedly have knowledge I could benefit from. My fear is that I do the same unwittingly when it comes to areas I’m confident in. I tend to make more conscious effort when discussing date/time issues as I’m aware of the common misunderstandings. What about C# though? When I use language specification terminology in blog posts and Stack Overflow answers, what proportion of readers just get lost quickly? I’m not quite sure what to do about this, beyond becoming more conscious of it as a possibility.

Conclusion

This is by no means an end to my thoughts on Imposter Syndrome or related self-evaluation traits, although it may well be my last blog post on it. No impressive final thoughts, no clever tying up of all the strands… this is only a conclusion in the sense that it’s concluding the post. The end.

10 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome (part 2)”

  1. My billiards coach once said something that stuck. “If you practice and improve your skills you’ll find that ‘luck’ strikes more often”

    Like

  2. Thanks for these thoughts, Jon. As a fellow Brit I have the same issues with accepting praise or admiration, but this post has made me reconsider how I should respond to such.

    Like

  3. I think that you hit the nail on the head. Clear communication is extremely important – especially on sites like Stack Overflow. Whether someone is asking a question or answering. I think that it’s very important to write clearly and concisely – especially when answering questions, and fill out answers with explanations WHEN NECESSARY. I don’t doubt your abilities as a programmer in the slightest, but I thoroughly applaud your abilities as a communicator. Long may it continue!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s