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Getting Past Impostor Syndrome

 12. October 2018

i wanna muse about roughly 17 things. but i’m gonna try to relate them to a single message. the additional challenge, some of u may be in a place where this message will sound like an attack. please please believe it is not meant to be that.

the message: you gotta get past this impostor syndrome bullshit. it is a nasty trick that you and geek culture are pulling, together, on yourself. far from being “honest” and “healthy”, it is limiting your capability and hurting your chances at becoming a great geek teammate.

the story goes like this: “being a geek means knowing all answers and not making mistakes. i am not that, so i am not a geek. but i have a geek job. so i am a fake. i get to feel simultaneously bad about being weak and bad about being dishonest. so what i will do is feel bad.”

and when you tell yourself this story, let me tell you what you are doing: you are buying in to a bogus just-so story that geek culture tells itself to explain away why it can not do the impossible things that the larger culture wants it to do. all three, the larger culture, the geek culture, and you, are agreeing to this narrative. and it is, honest to god, not remotely fair or balanced or decent or sensible or accurate or useful or valuable. it’s a lie and trick, on several levels. you gotta reach past it.

in no particular order, here are some of the gross falsehoods embedded in that story of your impostor-ness.

1) that geekery is about already knowing answers. bogus nonsense on at least two levels: a) they don’t pay me to solve problems i’ve already solved. b) my ability to solve them is not remotely a matter of rote assembly or simple manipulation of concrete elements.

a casual example. i’m working on an app with about 8,000 lines of code-i-wrote. it’s not rocket science: abstractly it fetches a whole bunch of data from upstream sources, massages it, and shows it to the user interactively on a desktop. the transitive dependency tree for this app has well over a hundred libraries. a hundred libraries of code-i-didn’t-write.

it is just foolish to think that my memory can hold all that. it would take years to master the ins & outs.

and look, we’re not even ready to ship yet.

writing software is an act of translation, not assembly. one translates from amorphous vague non-deteriministic non-axiomatic human language to its exact opposite: precise deterministic axiomatic computer language. and what about the “already solved” part? well. that’s trivial, innit. i’m pricey. geeks are pricey. they absolutely would not being paying us if we only solved problems we’ve already solved. they pay us for solutions. if they have them laying around, they’ll use them, not us.

2) geekery is about not making mistakes. heh. whaddaya, kiddin’ around? just yesterday, a whole bunch of people u and i both think of as master geeks sat around right here on twitter talking about how often they do dumb things – often even the same dumb things over and over. think about your task monitor on your computer for a second. that monitor shows about a dozen meters to catch the performance of your computer. what happens when any one of those meters is pegged at 100%? wellllllll, life turns to shit, basically. all sorts of things go wrong.

human minds aren’t computers, i dislike that metaphor intensely, but here it is a useful illustration. my work calls for me at times to load my brain heavily. when any of my subsystems peg at 100%, guess what happens.

how often do i load myself down that heavily to do my job? a lot. a whole lot. there’s just too much to keep track of. (even for me, a specialist in techniques for limiting mental bandwidth.) so what happens? well, i make mistakes. lots and lots of mistakes. all the time, kids.

3) (of the trade rather than the individual) if we were competent we could satisfy our customers. oh my: it is to laugh. the demand for our services isn’t just beyond your reach or our reach, it’s beyond any industry any where in the history of civilization. and it shows.

a doubling rate of new geeks of about five years. something like 70% of all projects are documented to be behind schedule and over budget. and if you look closely, most of the rest are lying. i am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but there it is. nobody could meet this demand. nobody. and an assembly in which over half of us have less than 5 years in the game? definitely nobody with those characteristics.

so. three gigantic misrepresentations at play, and all three are fundamental to this impostor story.

where do they come from?

they come from exactly that third item’s implications: our leadership is scarcely more experienced and competent than we are. the highest bidders set the agenda, not the strongest or most important project-sources. schools suggest and promote “knowing”, and create a process based around fact-stuffing, which is not in fact what working geeks really do. but they train us to value ourselves on that basis. the larger culture just shakes its head, the classically disappointed parent. and they keep overpaying us, which to be honest, also contributes to the story.

that same demand problem forces us to skip the kind of rich and broad acculturation that normal situations permit: where the old hands can actually not just fact-stuff but richly prepare and thicken the wisdom of the noobs, not just the knowledge.

so. it’s perfectly understandable why you think you’re an impostor.

given that chain of falsehoods, with little time or access to people who actually know better, given the pressure and, yes, the money. just a tiny touch of self-doubt crystallizes the super-saturated solution.

one drop, and boom: instant impostor.

what are the consequences of all this impostor-syndrome? well they’re horrible, for individuals, for orgs, for the trade. just horrible.

individuals feel bad about themselves. they avoid risk. they exhaust themselves. they shut up and they shut down. often enough, they leave and never come back.

orgs run a revolving door of noobs, expensive, unreliable, unversed in their company’s domain. they make decisions based on powerpoint and the covers of airline magazines. they substitute standards and rules for judgment. they hurt their own people.

the trade erects faux-culture, dominated by a thin layer of white-male stereotypes. it has too few people who speak up and out, too few women and POC. it bets over and over on silly deadlines, gives projects to the highest bidder not the best, & is fundamentally a cost-center.

so? don’t buy in. if you’re an individual, and you like to geek – to be highly creative and highly technical at the same time – you are a geek.

1) assimilate what most of your hardcore masters are telling you: it is not about knowing answers. it is not about not making mistakes. the demands made of you are excessive and unfair. take deep breaths. 2) find mentors, especially mentor-mentors, who can help you not just learn more facts, but learn how to thicken our combined cultural wisdom. join together. 3) speak up and out, about everything. look, the fact is, if doing so gets you in trouble at this org, it won’t get you in trouble at all orgs. “thanks, demand, for at least one good thing.”

we can remake this trade. but only if we do it together, and only if we don’t give up and say, well, that’s just the way it is.

the first step: stop telling yourself you’re not a “real” geek if you are. “real” geeks are highly technical, highly creative, and highly desirous of being both. that’s all. that’s all being a real geek is.

(apologies for such a long rambling inarticulate thread, but all of this has been building and building in me for a while, and i just had to get it out of my head.)