Monday morning thoughts: impostor syndrome
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.
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.
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.
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.