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In this post I think about the impostor syndrome, how it relates to me, and one of the possible causes.

I’m in Las Vegas for the first SAP TechEd event of 2018 which starts in earnest tomorrow. Last night, I listened to an episode of my favourite radio series – the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I remember listening to the episodes as they were first broadcast on the radio in the 1970’s, and they’re still as fresh and enjoyable today as they were then.

 

The Total Perspective Vortex

The episode I listened to was Fit the Eighth where Zaphod Beeblebrox was fed into the Total Perspective Vortex, allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected, in that:

“When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.'”

— from Fit the Eighth

The idea was, according to the inventor of the Total Perspective Vortex, that the one thing you can not afford to have is a sense of perspective, a sense of how insignificant you are in the context of the entire universe.

I was thinking about this on my run this morning, and how the promise of an amazing week of learning at SAP TechEd reminded me of a great article I read recently.

 

I’m an impostor!

Before pointing you to that article, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I see myself in the universe, or rather more precisely, in the SAP ecosphere. Not because I want this post to be about me – far from it. I want to talk about it because perhaps others might feel like this too, and it’s often the case that merely knowing that other folks have the same challenges can help.

I often think that at some stage, people are going to find out that I actually have no idea what I’m doing. That I’m no good at my job, and that people will eventually realise that I shouldn’t be in the position that I’m in. I’m constantly thinking “how does he know that?”, “I wish I was as good as she is”, “I’m an idiot – I know nothing”, “someone is going to discover what I’m really like!”.

There’s a fear that I’ll be eventually found out as a fraud, that I’m masquerading as someone who knows what they’re doing, when in reality I don’t.

It turns out that this seems to be a common affliction, and is known as “impostor syndrome“.

 

The reinvention cycle

Certain industries seem to reinvent themselves on a regular basis. One notable example is the software industry, and the enterprise software space, with SAP at the helm, is a good example. It’s in the nature of software that ideas, approaches, techniques and concepts are constantly growing and changing. Yes, there are ideas that come round again and again, some that come in and out of fashion, but in a lot of ways, many software layers that we’re building and approaches that we’re discovering or inventing today are those that are built on layers and approaches that we only discovered yesterday.

This means that the learning cycle is constant, and events like SAP TechEd are regular intense triple espresso shots of learning condensed into a short (and sometimes overwhelming) space of time.

This brings me to the article that I was reminded of while thinking of this. It’s “Everyone has an imposter syndrome” by the VP of developer experience at Twitch, Amir Shevat. I’d heartily recommend you go and read it after this post, but there’s one thing that I’d like to extract from it and share with you here, and that is what the modern tech career can look like. Here’s an illustration from Amir’s article:

The “Modern Tech Career”, from “Everyone has an imposter syndrome

 

I can see how the nature of our industry in particular is reflected in these short cycles of learning and working. In the article you’ll see how this contrasts sharply with the more traditional “guild” style of career where one starts as an apprentice, working towards becoming a master, and then becoming obsolete, after dedicated and focused decades of work.

 

Trying to keep up

So when people ask me what I do, I often reply, somewhat flippantly, but truthfully, “I learn“. In the years since I started hacking around with SAP software back in the 1980’s, I’ve found myself having to constantly reinvent myself. In many ways that’s very enjoyable, but it comes with the challenge that I often feel inadequate and that someone is eventually going to realise that I am.

So perhaps my impostor syndrome is partially caused by the act of attempting to keep up, of striving to understand new concepts and relate them to existing ones, as I travel on my learning journey, which, owing to the nature of our industry, will probably only end when I retire.

 

Learning together

So I’ve “outed” myself, and in a funny way I don’t know what the effect that will have. There’s a part of me that’s worried that people will think “Aha! I suspected all along that he was an idiot, I was right!”. But mostly I hope that this might resonate with others, and for them to realise that it’s neither unusual nor a bad thing – just perhaps a side effect of (certainly not helped by) the nature of what we do.

If you’re at SAP TechEd this week, remember that the overwhelming combination of feelings – wonder, confusion, excitement, bewilderment – is part of the process and not unusual. And remember that there’s at least one other person who’s experiencing these feelings – me.

I enjoy SAP TechEd very much and while my default state is always “I’ve no idea what I’m doing”, the event, and the people at the event, help me to join the dots a little bit more.

Happy learning!

 

This post was brought to you by a warm pre SAP TechEd morning in Las Vegas and some coffee from the hotel that was only just “OK”.

 

Read more posts in this series here: Monday morning thoughts.

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18 Comments

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  1. Chris Paine

    Oh my goodness, how true! I often think, am I a fluffy HR person pretending to know how to do web development? Or am I a confused developer pretending to know about HR? Trying to keep up is a continuous struggle. Bizzarely, it is only through sharing learnings with others (presenting at conferences, etc.) that I manage to push myself to a level where other people think I know what I’m doing. (Myself, not 100% convinced.)

    Great post as always, it made me re-consider that importance of working with a team. Also made me think about how, when I didn’t have a very supportive team that thrived on sharing information, I relied heavily on SCN to provide that for me. Your “team” doesn’t have to be the one you work with at your company!

    Enjoy TechEd and all the learnings that come from it.

    Cheers!

     

     

     

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Hey Chris, thanks for the comment. You make a great point – often we learn better in teams, or at least the support we get from other people is a great foundation for learning, even if that is ultimately alone. Learning by speaking to other people and hearing their take, their perspective on things is another great approach, as is, of course (as you mention) learning by teaching / presenting.

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  2. Jakob Marius Kjær

    What a great blog and I can very much relate to your feelings. I am often overwhelmed in beginning of projects on how we can ever get to the end and also that people will find out that I’m just a few steps ahead of them. My tactic is to be honest and open about your abilities. Don’t oversell yourself and if you humble about your abilities, then you’ll get more confidence.

    My strong side is not my development skills, in fact I always tell people that I’m not a good developer, it excellent copier. But I think when you have a lot of “baggage” it’s easier for you to decipher the evolutionary next steps. However you can never dwell on your learnings and you need to constantly learn otherwise you will become obsolete.

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Cheers Jakob. Great advice, by the way – being honest about one’s abilities helps not only those you tell, but also helps you as an individual, as the brain power can focus on learning and doing, rather than coping with pressure that mounts due to incorrectly set expectations.

      I like the idea that the baggage does actually help – experience does count for a lot, and helps you make better judgements when your technical or detailed knowledge is missing.

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  3. Marius Obert

    Nice blog post DJ, it reminded me of our discussion about the Dunning-Kruger effect a couple of weeks ago.

    I did some research on both effects (which seem contrary at first) and found this interesting medium post. It basically claims that you hop back and forth between both ‘states’ depending on your environment (which makes sense to me).

    In this spirit: I hope you (and everyone attending TechEd) will a great time and learn a lot of new things there!

     

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Thanks Marius – I do indeed remember enjoying that conversation. I’ll definitely check out that post you link to – so much to learn, so little time! Thanks – we’ll enjoy TechEd, I’m sure. Lots of learning and sharing ahead!

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  4. Audrey Stevenson

    Great post, DJ. Jamie Cantrell  wrote about this topic from a diversity and inclusion perspective recently as well: https://blogs.sap.com/2018/09/13/identifying-and-overcoming-impostor-syndrome/. A quote from her blogpost that particularly struck me: “Those who suffer from impostor syndrome are often, ironically, natural high achievers. They are committed to proving their worth to the point of exhibiting destructive behaviors…”

    If anyone reading this is at SAP TechEd Las Vegas this week, come by the Developer Garage and you may have a chance to meet DJ in person.

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Hey Audrey – thanks! I had missed Jamie’s post – and what a great one it is too. Like the one Marius pointed to in an earlier comment, this one too is going on my reading list. And yes, if you’re at SAP TechEd this week, drop by for a chat, and of course to try out the mission tutorials! 🙂

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  5. Ian Daniel

    Hi DJ,

     

    Thanks for sharing this, as others have said, if you of all people suffer from this, then there is no hope for the rest of us. I have for many years aspired to your level of mastery, however if even then I will still feel like in one slip up away from being rumbled, then what hope is there?

     

    I’d be curious to know if in any of your reading and learning around this you or others have come across ways to tackle the feeling that is at best unhelpful and at worst a barrier to putting yourself out there and trying what you are more than capable of.

     

    Thanks again for this and the rest of the series, I read them avidly each Monday.

     

    Ian

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Hey Ian, thanks very much for the comment! I’m not sure I have come across any techniques; I guess I just go “heads down” or “head on” into the unknown, regardless. In a way, it’s the only thing I can do. I do remember a time when I was on a longish project doing less technical work, and I could feel myself going “stale”. I liked that feeling less than feeling like an impostor, so I changed gear and got going again. One thing is for sure though, adding a sharing aspect to learning does help generally – whether that’s in large events like SAP TechEd or smaller ones like SAP Inside Tracks, or even at more local and regular meetups.

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  6. Emanuele Ricci

    This is feeling that pervaded me since high school. The feeling to not be prepared or to knot know enough compared to other friends or colleges. It’s not like feeling humble, it’s something different.

    But I think that if you see it in the right prospective is something good. This feeling allowed me to always be prepared to learn and skill myself in all the areas that I was not feeling comfortable enough with. It allowed me to be here where I’m and where I will be in the future because I’ll know that I will focus, learn and improve 1000% more the others to reach that point to say “I earned to be here and do what I’m doing”

    I love to know that I’ve something to learn each day to improve myself

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts, Emanuele. I think you’re spot on about it not feeling like being humble, it is certainly different to that. To the way you see this as an opportunity – I say bravo. That’s definitely a glass half full approach and it’s helped me too.

      Something to learn each day – now there’s a thought to bear in mind. Very true.

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  7. Nigel James

    Totally this. First… where are you listening to h2g2? It isnt on the  bbc app anymore 🙁

    Secondly… IS. OMG. Yes. Yes. Yes. I think everyone gets it and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

     

    N

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  8. Ali Ansari

    I thought I was the only one.

    An honest to God post. It’s a topic most of us (me) tend to hide, not talk about it or try our very best to conceal it. You just showed that it’s alright to open up about it. It’s only human to have such voices in our heads while doing what we do.

    Peace, strength and learning to all. Thank you for the post DJ.

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  9. Douglas Cezar Kuchler

    Hi DJ,

     

    I think you did a great and really good service for the Community by writing this. It is really courageous and sincere to open up on how you feel about being always learning. For many people, it is something hard to do because they are afraid of being seen as unprepared.

     

    I want to say that I also deeply identify with these feelings. I’ve begun programming when I was 15 and now, almost 25 years later, I always keep challenging myself to learn something new everytime I start to be comfortable. The price to pay is to be in a permanent learning mode, always feeling that there is more work to be done. And we know it will never end or, at best, will only when and if we decide to retire. The absolutely amazing upside of it is that feeling of “hey, I am capable of learning anything I put my energy and time into”.

     

    This is a point-of-view worth sharing. Thank you for that!

    Best regards,

     

    Douglas

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    1. DJ Adams Post author

      Hey Douglas, thanks for this great comment.

      permanent_learning_mode: on

      Absolutely. And I like the idea that in fact it’s a definite positive – knowing that you’re capable of learning things is a good feeling. Indeed, “learning” is a skill to be learned (and mastered) itself!

      I followed Coursera’s Learning How To Learn course a while back, I can recommend it.

      All the best.

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