Project Management

How consultants can deal with the Impostor syndrome

The Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon in which successful people fail to appreciate their own abilities. Chip Camden offers consultants advice on what to do if they experience the syndrome.

Last week, we engaged in some highly critical navel-gazing, as we brutally examined our level of expertise with the help of the Dreyfus model. The point of that exercise is to realistically assess where you are so you can improve; it isn't meant to "put you in your place" or discourage you from pursuing consulting. This week, I examine some of the dangers of thinking too poorly of your own abilities, as well as why that happens and how to address it.

Now you may be thinking that most of the consultants you know don't need any help in this area -- they think too highly of themselves already. Don't confuse a portrayal of self-confidence with actually possessing it. The loudest blowers of their own horns often do so because they sense that they need to convince people of their worth -- which can be a symptom of poor self-esteem rather than real confidence in their abilities. If you know you're good, why do you need to assert it?

I'd wager that most of the people who suffer from a low opinion of themselves are the ones whom you would least suspect -- those who are most successful. In 1978, two clinical psychologists named Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes created the term Impostor Syndrome to describe a phenomenon in which successful people fail to appreciate their own abilities, ascribing their achievements to luck or their knack of fooling people into thinking that they've got it together when they feel instead as if they had no control over their success.

I think that consultants may experience this phenomenon more than those in other professions. Our vocation provides little or no structured advancement or official recognition. Employees receive promotions, pay raises, and perhaps awards to indicate official recognition of their achievements. These set expectations within the company for the opinion that everyone should have about their abilities. We have to demand our own rate increases -- clients don't generally volunteer to do that. We often work on our own, so feedback and assessment don't occur naturally -- we have to seek it out. Furthermore, we often have to operate outside our field of direct knowledge. Sometimes we have to do a lot of research, or try things until we figure it out -- but we think that our clients expect us to know what we're doing.

Consultants tend to be perfectionists. And those of us who are autodidacts are especially susceptible; we don't have the specific degree or certifications to point to and say, "See -- I do know this stuff," even though our years of experience may have trained us far better than any coursework could have done.

All of this can lead to the feeling that we're "winging it" and hoping that nobody finds out that we haven't a clue. So, what's wrong with having that feeling, besides the knot in the pit of your stomach as if you were landing a B-52 loaded with bombs without any flight training? For one thing, it can make you feel even more overwhelmed than you are, increasing procrastination and possibly leading to burnout. If you start to give those voices credence, then you may start to try to cover up evidence of your incompetence: failing to admit your mistakes and shuttling the blame onto others. If you deny and suppress the feelings of inadequacy, then they can grow larger than life and compound all of these problems.

Tips for dealing with the Impostor syndrome

  • Face it head-on. Admit that you sometimes feel like a charlatan -- that you think the impression others have of you is false, and that you feel somewhat to blame for that misconception.
  • Realize that you aren't alone. This phenomenon affects many highly successful people. Guess what -- they aren't any better than you are. Humans have some sort of hero worship instinct that makes us deify the people that we respect. When people start doing that to you, it's natural that you should feel like it's misplaced. So think about all the people whom you think you could never be like, and remember that they're only human. They've made plenty of mistakes too, and probably don't feel like they deserve their celebrity any more than you deserve yours.
  • Accurately assess your own achievements. Sometimes I like to step back for a minute and pretend that I'm my own acquaintance. If I knew someone who had done all the things that I've done, good and bad, what would I think of them? I'd think they were a phenomenal learner and a creative thinker who makes their share of mistakes but always tries to learn from them, and who is often confused by human relationships. That isn't so bad, is it? If that's the picture others are getting, then nobody's getting fooled. If I'm still trying to hide parts of that, then I need to learn a little self-acceptance.
  • Embrace your failures. A failure is not the smoking gun that demonstrates once and for all that you're an impostor. As the old saying goes, "If you never failed, you never tried." Analyze each failure to learn what you could have done differently. Recognize yourself as part of the system that needs adjusting. But get off the moral high horse about never making mistakes -- that will never happen, nor is it desirable. Fear of failure can paralyze your efforts. As one of my early mentors once told me, "I'd rather you make ten wrong decisions than to take the same amount of time making one right decision."
  • Don't blow off praise. If it's genuine -- not just trying to get on your good side -- then accept it for what it says. You did something that someone else appreciates. Even if it wasn't all your doing, you had a hand in it. Accept their thanks with humility.
  • Use self-effacing humor. You can't possibly believe that you project a falsely superior image of yourself if you're always joking about your own foibles. Here's the paradox: people will think even more highly of you when you do. "He's not only a wizard, but a heck of a nice guy too." This also sets a tone for yourself, so you don't take yourself too seriously.
  • Get to work! The best antidote to thinking that you're a fake is to get things done. Prove that you're for real.

Have you ever experienced the Impostor syndrome? If so, how did you deal with it?

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

95 comments
itadmin
itadmin

Ten wrong decisions are at best worthless, often damaging and at worst catastrophic. One right decision has value. There is no way that ten bad decisions beat one right decision. We should leave platitudes an slogans to the politicians and concern us only with the truth. After all, in our field, if we get it right, it works, if we don't, it doesn't. Computers are unforgiving beasts. Another reason one may at times feel inadequate.

pbarkley
pbarkley

I couldn't relate to the Imposter Syndrome at all, so I asked myself why, and is this something that could be useful to others? It's not that I haven't ever screwed anything up before, because I certainly have. But when that happens I know why it went wrong, and I don't confuse problems that I personally caused--even if the client didn't blame me--with being an imposter. I look at how I can keep that same situation from happening again. The domain I'm talking about includes systems analysis and design, coding, IT assessments at the CIO level, and client management problems, so it's a broad area. It sounds like I screw up a lot, but we're talking about a handful of problems over more than 30 years--that's still a handful too many, of course! The first thing that has kept me from being an imposter is not accepting assignments that are outside my area of competency. I don't design or write or manage software to control satellites or weapons systems. I'm not an SAP expert, and I don't do assembler (any more), etc. I'm pretty sure if I took on an assignment like that I WOULD feel like an imposter, so my advice is don't do it, and that will take care of a lot of issues. And if you think you need to take an assignment because you need the money or other reasons, you need to find ways to compensate for your lack of experience--more below. The second thing is that I'm usually more critical of my own performance than the client, and if not, the client is clearly deranged and can be disregarded. :-) That's the same principle as George Carlin's observation that anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. But by constantly assessing my own performance, I don't have other people telling me I'm performing poorly, because I know how I'm performing. And if things are getting off track, I correct them EARLY, not ignore them. Ideally that happens before the client realizes anything is amiss. Early detection and correction is kind of a project manager thing that spills over into other areas. In the very early stage of my career, I was fortunate to be able to get some independent observations of my client interaction that helped me in that tricky area. For example, I asked someone who had been at the previous meeting why the client was so mad at me at this meeting. He said the client told me previously not to do X, and the solution I came up with included X. What? Really? I absolutely did not process that from the client--but when it was brought up I finally vaguely recalled him saying something like that. This was long before Jake on "Two and Half Men", but it's how he behaves (ignoring and forgetting), and I decided I didn't want to be in that position again. So I found ways to listen better and take better notes, because those were the skills I needed to work on. It never happened again. So for those soft skills, getting some independent assessment was invaluable. Otherwise, it's hard to know if you're performing well, or you're out to lunch and not paying attention. The third thing, mentioned above, is that if you know you're not performing at the level you should be, you need to specifically compensate for that, and by that I don't mean go into denial and a failure spiral. For example, I do very little coding now, but a project came up a few months ago that looked very interesting, and I didn't have anyone up to speed on that particular platform. It was a base that I knew something about, although not at a senior level. I was able to personally do the work, while viewing my own programming with the eye of a project manager. I decided that I was performing at the speed of a junior programmer, albeit one who was unusually bright and unlikely to make any serious database errors. :-) So, I simply increased the time to completion estimates as needed, and seriously discounted both the rate and the hours reported, until I had myself working at a bargain rate for that client. It's essential to be fair. I had to work a lot of 12 hour days and weekends at first to get on top of things, but that compensation kept me from feeling like an imposter--I was someone operating at a relatively low level but I wasn't trying to fool anyone. I even told the client that I thought the project would go better if I personally did it, and what the problems would be if I did. And yeah, I didn't even report several days where I was totally spinning my wheels because that time was beyond the pale--I felt that invoicing the client for 16 hours at zero dollars just made me look like a moron, which was in that case accurate. Not an imposter, though. I offer that as an extreme case of doing something that I could have been competent to do, but didn't have enough recent experience. By compensating and treating the client fairly, I didn't feel like an imposter. Of course it's normal to sometimes question whether you're operating at a reasonable level--that's healthy, and a good self-assessment will let you address any issues that you have. But the key is being accurate in your assessment, something that's hard to do. The bottom line is that unless you ARE an imposter, you should be able to take steps to make sure you don't operate at an imposter's level. Of course maybe I work at a fast food joint for minimum wage asking people if they want fries with that, and I just made up all that IT stuff above...

steve
steve

Wow, just what I needed too. Been procrastinating for a few weeks; time to get some work done :) Fantastic article, many thanks

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Of course I have Imposter Syndrome. In my case, it comes from only having moderate self-confidence; and working in a field where what you know becomes obsolete on a daily basis. I suspect that the longer you're in the field, the more you're likely to suffer from it. I don't think those who suffer from this ailment ever really cure it. But it can be controlled. I keep a master, tell-all resume' of everything I've done, results, and when I did it; and a list of all training completed and when. This lets me have a realistic view of what I know and am capable of; as well as a base of what I need to be retrained on for currency. Keep those letters of appreciation (as well as the ones critical of your performance). Drag them out whenever you're feeling an attack of inadequacy.

tmpfilemgt
tmpfilemgt

This came across my computer at the right moment. I needed this counseling and the last statement, Get To Work. I am not usually one to give myself negative messages, but every once in a while I do. Glad to know this what was creating procrastination that I have been worrying about. Thanks again. I am off to WORK!

don
don

I think they call this the "Pretender" syndrome in psychology. Excellent article and great basic advice.

nigabud
nigabud

I think I have imposter syndrome and didnt know until I read this article. Mine was seeded by always being told Im stupid. I now hold a degree working toward my masters and it doesnt feel like I am achieving anything. How do I get over it? I dont, I just work harder, not to prove Im smarter but simply because I have to do what I have to do. What are the adverse effects of this disorder

harris95662
harris95662

I love this article. It is nice to know that I am not alone.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The wrong decision is better than no decision. Make a mistake, learn from it, move on. If you're too worried about screwing up to make a move, that's a mistake in itself.

rader
rader

Took the test and wouldn't you know it, error 404, page not found... How's that for confidence building !!

kevaburg
kevaburg

Thanks for putting the effort into a great piece of writing! There is a lot of information to be taken in and associate with how I am, but the advice is more than sound and certainly worth the read for anyone with a concern about their own abilities!

bwatkins
bwatkins

I liked your "Junior Programmer" methodology. I have done something similar in the past, recording the wheel spinning hours on my timesheet to an internal project for self-training. It's an investment.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

You're doing your job, everybody is loving it, you get praise right and left, and you start to feel that, wait a minute... is this me? Am I worth what they claim I am, and if so, why don't I feel like I am? Have you ever had that feeling? I'm not sure, but I guess just prior to the .com bubble bursting there were some techs that had very sweaty egoes, business partners oiling them this way and that and all...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... is one of the harder problems for independents. The Impostor Syndrome is only one of its potential causes. It can also result from feeling overwhelmed, or from fear of running out of things to do (believe it or not).

bwatkins
bwatkins

I'd like to echo the suggestion to keep copies of letters of appreciation. Tiptoeing through my Compliments folder once in a while always gives me a boost. Another benefit of a keeping attaboy letters is that over time you might see patterns in what people comment upon. These are good indicators of your strengths - then you can look for projects that will include them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Reviewing where you've been and what you've done usually yields a surprising number of accomplishments about which you may have forgotten.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I think I have heard it referred to as the "Pretender syndrome" as well.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... it can make you procrastinate, but you don't seem to be suffering in that way. It could prevent you from achieving as much as you're capable of doing. BTW, it isn't classed as an official psychological disorder. It's a tendency of successful people, and one that can be overcome -- mostly by telling yourself the truth.

lmnogoldfish
lmnogoldfish

New company in town markets to my long-term customer and does the razzle-dazzle marketing, while criticizing every teeny thing that isn't perfect in the client's systems (whether I had anything to do about it or not). Customer hires new company. It takes months and sometimes years before the customer realizes that things are worse and deteriorating. They call me back, tell me the story, and hire me to come in and clean up the mess. Meanwhile, I've been questioning myself, thinking about day-labor and drinking. This arc seems to repeat over and over. Oh Sage, I need an article about that.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I had a Messiah complex at age fifteen. Drawing followers was never a problem. Coming up with a memorable line for every situation -- not terribly hard. Being perfect -- now that's difficult. Drove me into retirement.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Like those "IQ-tests" that require your GSM number... so they can bill you for the "free" test over your carrier. At least, I see no valid reason for it to need my email.

binaryme
binaryme

This is an area where it gets tricky for me... A combination the Imposter Syndrome and the fact that I almost always feel like I am still learning. This means I tend to short change myself because I often feel like I learned something new and therefore shouldn't charge as much as an 'expert'. I frequently put at least some of my time down to "learning time". At what point do you accept that some trial & error and/or some learning is going to part of almost every job? Part of my problem being, I live in a remote area and there are no 'experts' for miles and miles (some would say I am the closest thing to an expert around here), so I have to take on some stuff just because I'm the closest thing to "the real deal" around here. I've been doing this stuff for twenty years but sometimes I still feel like an imposter. Thanks for the timely reminder! Getting back to work now....

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Most everyone in the .com bubble had no idea what they were doing -- they were making it up as they went along. Buzzwords served for knowledge; slide presentations served for products; stock options served for salary.

kevaburg
kevaburg

....keeping the letters that aren't so complimentary is a good idea. Simply dwelling on the things that have been done well may end up creating the illusion (albeit subconsciously) of infallibility. Keeping the negative letters (bearing in mind there should be a lot less of those!!!) lets us know we still have a lot to learn and that perfection is still a long way off. It is nonetheless a great idea and should be encouraged specifically among independants consultants.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'll have to work on it. The first part of the problem to solve, though, is not to believe it yourself. Drinking is fine if its convivial, drinking when questioning oneself is not usually a good combination.

tbmay
tbmay

Everyone in this business will deal with that. It's inevitable. This is easier said than done and I don't always do it myself, but if you're competent and trustworthy, don't take it personally. I've been fortunate in a couple of those instances when it became apparent only after a few months went by. The client entertained his fantasy that all his problems were because of his I.T. person and called me back with a much more cooperative spirit. I encourage them all to go to someone else if they're not comfortable with me.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

convince my clients not to listen to hype. Or teach them how to see through it! Now if only we could isolate that, and slip it in the water supply!

apotheon
apotheon

I recommend naming that script "hofstadter.rb".

apotheon
apotheon

#!/usr/bin/env ruby def estimate(guess) 2 * estimate(guess) end puts estimate(ARGV[0]) (edit: formatting)

pbarkley
pbarkley

Good point. One of the benefits as well as curses of this profession is the rapid change. Makes it fun, but I find it's very difficult to do two projects in a row the same way using the same tools. So I plan on a certain amount of learning time on almost every project, even if it's just extending what we already know, or making a piece of reusable code better. In the example of spinning my wheels for a couple days, I finally said OK, what would I do if I was sitting in a bunch of cubicles with an assortment of junior and senior developers who were all using this particular tool? I'd walk down the hall until I found someone to take a few minutes to look at what I was doing and set me straight. In that case I was fortunate to find a trainer who had a one week class, but who also did hands on work--I didn't want JUST an instructor or JUST a person who did the work but who didn't see the big picture and who couldn't explain why he or she did what they did. I also didn't want to waste a week in class since I already knew a lot about the platform, and just wanted some highly focused one on one time. I bought a block of time in advance at a discounted rate, and then we set up a Skype conference for free, and I was able to "share" my screen while talking to her. She was able to tell me what to type, which was a better learning experience than having her take over my screen and just do the work at 5 times the speed that I could comprehend. In two hours she had me totally out of the weeds, and in the process showed me a couple debugging tricks that I hadn't figured out for myself. I really recommend something like this when you're working by yourself, either because you're physically isolated, or because you're the only one in your group doing that kind of work. The rule of thumb that I use for estimating the completion of work is to take the estimation of the quantity of work--which we do from the number and complexity of screens, reports, processes, set up, etc. in a project, counting each piece separately--and then assume that the work is only going to get done at the rate of about 20 hours a week. That allows for interruptions caused by emergencies on other projects where the programmer is needed elsewhere, but it also allows for a certain amount of learning time that isn't chargeable to the client. That leakage is just a fact of life.

bergenfx
bergenfx

three words on a cocktail napkin with a nifty little diagram (doodle) replaced the 100 page business plan. The worst part was there was so much noise at the time, that potential startups with a pristine signal could not get noticed. Even beauty parlor franchises were now considered startups. Worst of all, I recall an MIT undergrad had developed a technology that would revolutionize some aspect of medical diagnosis (can't remember details). He couldn't get funding because he couldn't explain it in 90 seconds, while "Sell Petfood Online" would get more investors than you could shake a bubble at.

apotheon
apotheon

Too bad, AnsuGisalas. Santeewelding's attempts at subtlety have pretty well armored me against your much subtler approach.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

But to highlight what I mean, I'll admit I have trouble resisting massive advertising campaigns like the SUV-drive of 2006... I didn't fold but I was staggered for a while, even wondering if that is then what one has to buy now. Ways to inocculate against that kind of assault are welcome. And that's an intent I can respect. The seeker/doubter BTW has been one of the most effective subversion techniques... since plato's aristotle at least. It's more than just Columbo, it's an appeal to a persons positive face; asking the other to participate in solving a problem - thus suspending their defenses by making them think they're being let through the seeker's defenses. And it never works unless it's believable, honest-like. The very best ones probably believe it to be true themselves. Ultimately I think it's a question of politeness. Some people respond well to a command to "stop being dumb!", others don't. Some require a more polite, less face-threatening approach. And it's not really being dishonest, it's just tailoring the teaching to allow the student to feel like they found the point all by themselves. It's an appealing way to learn, and effective too. A person is more likely to remember their own shining moments than a dry account in a book.

santeewelding
santeewelding

You deceive and manipulate beginning with word one. We are all "dirty". Motivation, now -- that's another thing, and it's a bundle of things, none of which I question when it comes to Michael or to you, Chad. Michael is just better at keeping his to himself. In print, anyway.

apotheon
apotheon

I have the skills for deception, but not the motivation. If deception is really the only way to get through to people who don't already agree, I'll focus on those who are more inclined to agree so that they need nothing but reason to improve their understanding. Let the chips fall where they may. I guess I'd rather be an example than a manipulator. Anyway . . . I know that a straightforward, honest approach can work. It worked on me. The trigger that got me on the path to my current position on the matter of copyright was a conversation with someone I had never met before, which questioned the ethical basis for copyright law. Interestingly enough, the person who asked the question was literally asking out of uncertainty -- which, I believe, is exactly what Michael Kassner is doing a lot of the time. He's a seeker, from what I've seen, and not a manipulator. Having recently spoken to him in person (again) is part of the reason I believe that to be the case.

apotheon
apotheon

You could try being straightforward with people from time to time -- such as with me, right now. If you can't be clear about what you think you're suggesting, though, maybe you should do my job instead. Do you want my job? See if you can talk the editors into giving it to you. Let's see if your "back door" approach makes any hay.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Direct, indirect, misdirect in time. Guide, shunt, misguide in turn. It's the information warfare shuffle... or is it a waltz? Tango? Foxtrot? These things I forget. If you will believe it :D

santeewelding
santeewelding

Of layers of indirection. Ugh. Three, "ofs".

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

is too dangerous to throw around the internet, I feel. Ponder, that's as far as I'll go. And I have a pristine disk image, I'll notice intrusion ;) And then I go look again, see how it was done.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Is adamant about his occupation of the "flyover zone". Sure, I tell him. Don't you believe what he says for so much as a second.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

In dealing with prejudices and cultural conditioning, any kind of push will be met with a violent counterreaction. Hair of the dog, I guess. Manipulation to condition against manipulation. Hoodwink. I think Michael Kassner has a pretty good hold on the "not raising the hackles while slipping the leash", he succeeds in coming across as quite innocuous. And since all bloggers try to affect their readers' stance, it must be skillfully done. Not sure if it's a learnable skill though, or an acquired one. It's important though, the not raising the hackles, to avoid the fate of Tyr.

apotheon
apotheon

I've been trying to distill some essence of that in the IT Security column for years. Given the kinds of responses I often get, I feel like I'm failing to get through to anyone other than those who already know enough to see through the illusions -- like I'm preaching to the choir, and just making enemies of everybody else because I'm "forcing" them to work extra-hard to maintain their biases.

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