Learning to conquer imposter syndrome

Kat Slump
Senior software engineer

“Am I good enough to work here?” 

This is what I kept asking myself as I sat at my desk, struggling to solve a problem. As a new Software Engineer at Humu, I worried that if I failed to figure out a solution, people would realize that I didn’t deserve my job. As my anxiety mounted, I felt more and more like an imposter. Everyone else on my team seemed to have come from a big, brand-name tech company, where they’d developed incredible programs or led huge teams of engineers. 

My path to Humu was a bit more unconventional. I studied Computer Science at the University of Nebraska, but didn’t take an engineering job after graduation. When I finally decided to go for it, more than a year later, I faced two challenges: I hadn’t written code in what felt like ages, and I lived in Nebraska where my peers weren’t busting their butts to work as engineers at high-tech startups, so I didn’t have any friends I could turn to for advice. I decided to take a risk and head west.

After moving to San Francisco, I joined Horizons, where I wrote code, learned what I consider to be the greatest frontend framework in the world (React), and went over data structures and algorithms all day, every day. At the end of the program, I reached out cold to Humu and was thrilled to get a call back. Doubt filled my brain before my first interview. Was I worthy? Was I what they were looking for? I focused on what I knew to be true: I am passionate and diligent, I look at products from the user’s perspective, and I seize every opportunity to learn.

But even after I got an offer and joined Humu, I couldn’t shake the fear that I was just a girl from Nebraska, who hadn’t gone to an Ivy League or worked at Google, and who couldn’t possibly know what she was doing. Over time, I grew comfortable enough with a few of my colleagues to share what I was feeling. That was when I discovered that one of them, People Scientist Jen Brown, had led research on  “imposter syndrome” at Google.

Imposter syndrome is when an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. Talking to Jen, I realized that I was far from the only person to experience these anxieties. Jen told me that roughly 70% of people feel the same way at some point in their careers. Even at Google, a place where I assumed everyone knew they were smart and competent, almost a third of people agreed with this statement: “I’m afraid people important to me will find out I’m not as capable as they think I am.” 

But what surprised me most was that Jen found absolutely no objective difference between “imposters” and “non-imposters.” When it came to promotion rates, ability to become a leader, and performance scores, people who secretly worried they were frauds did just as well as their more confident peers.

Hearing about Jen’s research helped me move past my doubts. Now, almost a year and a half later, I feel much more confident at work, but it wasn’t an immediate process. Here are four tips that helped me along the way

Remember it’s normal to have doubts

Knowing that lots of competent people question their abilities can help you feel less alone, and to realize your negative thoughts are not necessarily accurate assessments of reality. If you know of any colleagues who also experience imposter syndrome, consider starting an imposter support group, which research suggests can alleviate anxieties.

Make a smile file 

Getting in the habit of accepting and internalizing compliments is another great way to combat imposter syndrome. Start with a smile file: create a folder in your inbox or on your computer, and each time you receive a note or get feedback that makes you feel great—like the best version of yourself—or simply makes you smile, put it in the file. When you doubt yourself, re-read your saved notes.

Ask questions

This is especially important when you are just starting out. There is no way you will have a complete understanding of everything that’s thrown at you in the first few weeks or even months at a job. And there’s an added bonus in asking lots of questions: you’ll get to know your coworkers a lot better.

Look back

Pausing to take stock of your accomplishments—and the skills you’ve developed as a result—can be a powerful tool for recognizing how far you’ve come. Take a few minutes at the end of each project you work on to ask yourself: What did I learn? How would I approach it differently given what I know now? Commit to continuing to learn, and consider how impressive your future self will be! 

These four steps might seem simple, but they can go a long way in helping you overcome imposter syndrome—and in realizing the full extent of what you can achieve. 

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