Why this post?
If you read my first post on this blog, you probably noticed that one of my New Year’s resolutions is to fight my perfectionism.
Well, it’s not quite like that. I’m not going to quit doing my best. I’m going to minimize side effects of being a perfectionist.
In this post I’ll do a little “coming out” and admit to something that happens in my professional life from time to time (and statistically it happens to over 70% of people in the world). Yes, it’s going to be about learning and experience. And about confidence at some point.
No, it was not my intention to write a psychological or “HR-like” post.
My learning curve
Recently I was catching up on reading my favorite blogs and websites. Tomek Onyszko’s blog is one of them, so I read about his learnings, and slightly accidentally stepped back in time to his post about the path to the founder at Predica. Then we had a little chat about these posts and Tomek shared another resource he created two years ago – a recording with a rather provocative title “Why do you have to find a new job?” in which he shared the story of building his skills and switching jobs/positions. I remembered I watched this video in 2019. At that time I wasn’t thinking much about it as the message seemed clear to me – learning and gaining new skills in IT can have a positive impact on your career and are typically required, along with professional experience, if you want to stay ahead of trends and drive the next steps in your career. I fully agreed then and agree now.
But lately I started to think about my professional development and the milestones in my career. I started to draw my own learning curve – how I got to where I am now when it comes to skills and experience. It looked like below.
There are several things to note:
- The graph shows how I felt the learning process over time, and NOT necessarily how it was in reality.
- There was not a single moment to stop – I’ve been learning and gaining new skills for my whole professional life. I believe this is pretty normal not only for IT people, but I don’t think there are many more other industries than IT where knowledge becomes obsolete so quickly…
- At the beginning of my career the development of skills was more rapid.
- After I entered the world of Enterprise architecture and jobs at senior level my learning curve slowed down a bit.
- Typically each new milestone caused some acceleration of gaining skills (new position, excitement of learning new things).
- After I reached the senior level each new milestone (taking up new areas of learning) required a step back (the bigger change, the bigger step back required) – notice the orange oval markings. A step back was typically that I changed my focus or habits, stopped using some skills to “make room” for new ones (I basically had to unlearn something and learn something new instead). But most of all, my confidence and the subjective value of possessed skills often dropped quite drastically.
The side effects of being experienced
I started to think more about those moments marked on the graph with the orange ovals. I remembered that I had some difficult moments during these periods. Back then I did not realize that there was something wrong with the way I was thinking and acting. But now I know.
What is the IS about? According to multiple sources it’s a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his/her skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud” (for men the impostor phenomenon is often driven by the fear of being unsuccessful, or not good enough).
According to researches and studies of Dr. Valerie Young there are five types of this syndrome into which IS-sufferers tended to fit:
- The perfectionist. The sufferers set impossibly high standards for themselves and beat themselves up when they don’t reach them.
- The superwoman/man. The sufferers feel they should be able to excel at every role they take in their lives.
- The natural genius. The sufferers tell themselves that everything must be handled with ease, otherwise it’s not “natural talent”.
- The soloist. The sufferers believe work must be accomplished alone and refuse to take credit if they received any kind of assistance.
- The expert. The sufferers expect to know everything and feel ashamed when they don’t.
HINT: If you want to see if you are affected by the syndrome, check the infographic at the end of this post.
So here I go with my little “coming out” – historically I suffered from at least three different types of IS:
- The perfectionist is my number one for sure. I just love when things I (and others I work with) do are of excellent quality and often underestimate how good things I’ve already created are. This pursuit of excellence can kill productivity, cause frustration, and affect the entire team in the project.
- The superman manifested itself in such a way that I’ve been always striving to be the best at everything I do. The best at work, the best in sports, the best as a husband and a father… Sounds like a pretty nightmare, huh? It was my quest to be the best that made me compare myself to other people a lot in the past (a mix of the superman and the expert?). No need to mention how much pressure and stress this kind of thinking generates.
- The expert syndrome has affected me a long time ago and rather in a less bothersome form. Rarely I have felt bad not having all the answers (I learned the “I don’t know” answer early in my career). Instead, I felt too comfortable having the answers and handing them over to the questioner on a tray, which often resulted in the questioner not benefiting from as much as he/she could benefit from getting a hint instead of an answer.
Being aware that I might have a problem was the first step. Then I had to take appropriate countermeasures.
How I fight my impostor syndrome
In my opinion, there is no such thing as IS immunity. The best thing you can do is to realize that at some points of your professional development you can suffer from this syndrome and work out some steps to probability you’ll be affected or to minimize the impact of IS on you and your career once you’re hit by the syndrome.
I’m not an expert on the IS topic, but there are some well-known practices to follow for each type of the syndrome. Again, I encourage you to look at the infographic at the end of the post.
Regardless of the recommendations of real experts, there are several things I’ve been doing since the moment I realized IS is present in my life. Let me share them listed by the IS type.
The perfectionist (in progress)
- I started to embrace the “done is better than perfect” maxim in my life.
- I set deliverables and deadlines for all tasks to think about finishing them rather than endlessly tweaking.
- I try to use the Pareto principle for each goal and deliverable – I look for the 20% that does 80% of the job.
- I ask for feedback more frequently to make sure I can see my work through the eyes of other people.
- From time to time I document and review my achievements (the goals I met, the deliverables I completed). If you are looking for some inspiration on how to review your career and remember some key situations, you can try to answer sample questions from Amazon’s interviews.
The superman (in progress)
- I constantly fight my fears of failure. I still assess possible results of each initiative in which I’m involved. But in my assessments I focus on potential learnings and positive outcomes rather than risks.
- I’m constantly looking for mentors, especially those who have overcome (or I suspect they must have) the IS challenge. I take from them inspirations, hints and lessons learned.
- I set goals on a regular basis – both long (yearly, monthly) and short term (daily, weekly).
- I regularly analyze the progress of my development (trying to make my goals SMART).
- I value the situations when others criticize my ideas or behaviors, but not me. I take this kind of criticism as an opportunity to grow.
The expert (done)
This is probably the only type of IS that I was aware of very early on and started working it out properly. Back in the days when I was working exclusively with SQL Server, I realized that I cannot be an expert on every single topic related to even this one platform. From that time:
- I compare myself only to myself. And nobody else.
- I focus on having a broad general knowledge and specializing only in selected scenarios and cases.
- I focus on learning new stuff instead of the fact of not knowing something. I then share my knowledge, after I learn new things. It motivates not only me, but also the people with whom I share my knowledge.
- Whenever a deep dive knowledge is required I perform some additional research or ask for help my peers or the community. I write down key learnings.
- When I build my network I try to find out things people are good at or are passionate about. Then, when we build mutual trust, there is a good chance we can help each other (or even delegate tasks if possible).
Any other impostors in the room?
That’s all about me. Now it’s time for you. Take a deep breath and look back, look at your professional career. Who knows if you also happened to be under the influence of the impostor syndrome. If so, let me know if and how you dealt with it.
Oh, and if you are a manager, see the types of IS and take a look around if you don’t have any of them among your team members. Perhaps they need a helping hand, because they themselves cannot manage their perfectionism or their role as an expert. And keep in mind, the impostor syndrome has nothing to do with burnout, but can do the same or even worse damage…
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this story.
The impostor syndrome infographic
Are you suffering from impostor syndrome? , courtesy of Resume.io