How to obliterate imposter syndrome


David McKay

David McKay

Blog author David McKay

David McKay is the Chief Technology Officer @PolicyGenius in New York City. A Cambridge University graduate and startup veteran, David was an early employee with both Google and AdMob (acquired by Google). Follow David on Twitter @DavidMcKayV

Published July 3, 2017|7 min read

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As the CTO of a fast-growing startup, I get a ton of email. But this one caught my attention:"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview with PolicyGenius. I am so sorry to cancel at the last minute and to potentially waste the time you allotted to my interview. Normally I would never be this rude, but I'm struggling with imposter syndrome at this time and it's getting the better of me. Again, I apologize. Best wishes in finding a great candidate."

Why would someone intentionally pull out of a process when they had done rather well up to that point? I was fairly dumbfounded. I didn’t realize how pervasive imposter syndrome is in the tech community until I did a deep dive with my team and industry colleagues. It appears, at least from my brief sleuthing, this mentality is common among the new and experienced alike.While I certainly understand a healthy dose of questioning, sabotaging one's chances does not make sense to me. In that vein, I wanted to tackle this topic head on and hopefully help some folks obliterate their imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Sometimes people mention imposter syndrome by name and other times people are unclear of the official terminology. Imposter syndrome is the dreaded sense that you’re hopelessly unqualified and destined to be discovered as a fraud, regardless of how you actually perform in a role.I can relate to feeling overwhelmed. At 19 years old, in 1999, I was working with mostly late-20- and 30-something year-olds (half of whom had Ph.D.s) on building one of the largest machine clusters in the world—GFS or Google File System. I had root (admin) access on 1,000 machines and could easily have wiped out nearly every scrap of data we had. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, playing football, wrestling, hanging with friends and monkeying around with operating system internals in my spare time hardly qualified me to be a software engineer at Google. If anyone was an imposter, it was me.A year later, Google was at 30,000 machines, GFS and GWS (Google Web Server) were humming along, Google’s crawler had indexed a billion pages, and I was a part of all of it. Everyone’s an imposter at first, but trusting your instincts and knowing you’ve got or can quickly add skill sets is key to defeating this mindset.

Everyone experiences imposter syndrome.

Literally everyone on the planet has gone through imposter syndrome at some point in time—some people are just better at hiding it. The feeling isn’t exclusive to the workplace. Maybe you’ve never played soccer before, but can you kick the ball? Can you run? Then you can probably learn to play soccer. Not everyone will be an all star, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part. Realizing that you’re not alone — that everyone starts as an imposter — is the first step. Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis have both made their share of unpopular movies, and both started off as extras. The six Oscars between them, however, mean they probably learned a little something along the way and are fairly comfortable on any given movie set.

Questioning yourself is healthy. Doubt isn’t.

Questioning your thoughts, feelings and actions is part of everyday life. The moment we are completely secure in our understanding of something is probably the exact moment we should be questioning that position. Asking questions is the source of all human knowledge. Questioning is where we learn to grow. Doubt, on the other hand, is the ugly cousin of questioning. Doubt is where we no longer have faith in ourselves, our choices and our actions. Self-doubt isn’t healthy—questioning is. In my field of engineering, if you’ve written code (programmed), you’re welcome to question it all day long, but never doubt it. You wrote it, and that’s the first step. Like with a gym regimen or a diet, the first step is showing up and doing it.

Comparison to another person is typically a poor comparison.

I can’t throw a punch like Ali, so I shouldn’t try boxing. It sounds silly and obvious, but this statement hits home for a number of people. Here’s the truth, when he was starting out, Ali couldn’t punch like Ali either. Comparing yourself to another person is nearly always a bad comparison. Differences in qualities, perceptions, personality and physical traits, among other things, affect our lives deeply — oftentimes in ways that are imperceptible to us. Just because you can’t accomplish something as fast as someone else doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish it. Some people take only a few months to learn a new language; others take a lifetime. But at the end of the day they’re both speaking a foreign tongue, achievement unlocked.

A human built it, so you can build it, too.

One of the best interview answers I’ve ever heard was given by someone I still work with. I asked him how he would approach a problem he’d never encountered before. His answer was simple. "A human created and recognized that problem in the first place, right? And it’s not the first time in the world this has been solved? If a human can recognize it and solve it, so can another one." I was blown away. He was absolutely right. As humans we may do something slower or faster and require more or less help, but in my opinion there exists no problem we cannot solve given a long enough timeframe and sufficient discipline. Einstein was theorizing General Relativity as a patent clerk. It took time and discipline for his theories to mature.

See situations as experiments, not life-defining moments.

An interview can be an intimidating situation: new people, tests, weird questions and an unfamiliar environment. It’s a tough setting for a life-defining moment. So don’t let it be one. Interviews are two-way: You are there to be interviewed, but you should also interview your interviewers. An interview is about deciding if you want to work at company X, not just passing some arbitrary bar to work there. Doing brand new things can be difficult if you think they’ll change your whole life, so try to view them as experiments, not defining moments. If you bomb an interview or don’t do well in a particular situation, you’ll learn something. Perhaps you’ll discover a gap in your knowledge base, that you’re uncomfortable in a particular scenario or maybe your problem-solving skills could use a refresher. In any case, consider all your experiments successful as you can always learn something you didn’t know.

Win or learn, never fail.

The Cult of Failure is a big thing in tech: fail fast, fail often, embrace failure, etc. I would challenge you to never fail, only succeed or learn. Success is the easy part—it feels good so people chase it. Not doing something well or missing the bar completely isn’t a failure; it’s a learning experience. Once you embrace this mentality, learning experiences are nearly as desirable as success. Maybe you learned you need to brush up on skill X or that something is temporarily out of reach, but thing Y can help you achieve it. In my view, failure is never trying at all. Don’t give in; don’t give up. Give up on giving up."I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life," Michael Jordan once said. "And that is why I succeed."

What if?

What if? What if I took that job? What if I missed an amazing opportunity? What if I could have helped solve a massive world-changing problem? What if I was exactly what they were looking for? What if I missed an opportunity to succeed? What if I could have changed my life or someone else’s forever? The "what if" mentality is a slippery slope—it can never stop if adopted. What if is scary. Don’t put yourself in the situation where you have to ask what if—find out for yourself. Life is a series of choices, and one can get lost in the "what if" if you don’t take control and decide what makes sense for you. What if is something people who pass up opportunities wonder about years and even decades later. We’re all here a finite amount of time. Get busy doing.It’s not very PC, but Mindy Kaling has a great quote about imposter syndrome: "Why the fuck not me?" That should be your motto. I would invite you to challenge yourself daily—never mind the doubt. Imposter syndrome is a self-driven mindset — which means it’s also self-overcome.