Impostor Syndrome Is Not Just a Confidence Problem

The dangers of becoming a buzz word


Impostor syndrome has been getting a lot of attention—the main stream press has picked it up, people are sharing their experiences in blog posts and at conferences, and my article “Overcoming Impostor Syndrome” still gets thousands of reads each month even after a year of being published (a lifetime in Internet years!).

A few days ago, the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, interviewed me about impostor syndrome in response to a post by Avery Pennarun, “The Curse of Smart People,” which extolled the virtues of impostor syndrome. Pennarun wrote “one of the biggest social problems currently reported at work is lack of confidence, also known as Impostor Syndrome,” going on to argue “Impostor Syndrome is valuable,” because it’s a check against the complacency he sees in the ultra-smart employees of a Certain Large Company.

The National Post article ended up being about another topic-du-jour: Failing Forward. Perhaps to be expected, they did not use anything I gave them that didn’t already fit with their chosen narrative — putting a positive spin on impostor syndrome.

The popularity that has made impostor syndrome a buzz word has also contributed to diluting its meaning. Impostor syndrome has become a stand-in for mere lack of confidence, and I find this problematic.

Impostor Syndrome vs Self-Doubt

Impostor syndrome is not simply an inherent lack of confidence. It’s a psychological phenomenon that arises from an incorrect assessment of ones’ abilities compared to peers. For example, when you think you’re a 3 at programming, and you’re actually a 7. Pennarun praises impostor syndrome because it makes smart people feel unsettled, and makes them question their assumptions. “[M]aybe if we don’t feel like we know what we’re doing, it’s because we don’t.” This is simply not impostor syndrome. If you actually don’t know what you’re doing, and you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, I call that an accurate assessment!

I agree with Pennarun in spirit—rather than reassuring ourselves in how smart we are, it is better to cultivate some self-doubt. Insofar as impostor syndrome being a source of self-doubt, I find it useful in the ways Pennarun described. Having spent the last seven years in the trenches of early-stage startups, my self-doubt has been constant. It drives me to work harder, look for different solutions, and second-guess nearly everything I do. There’s no room to be complacent, because I can’t rely on having a successful company name attached to mine.

However, there’s no need to afflict yourself with full-blown impostor syndrome, when all you want is a healthy dose of self-doubt.

The Hidden Downsides of Impostor Syndrome

More awareness about impostor syndrome is a good thing—when you can actually identify it. I learned about the concept of impostor syndrome a half dozen years before I investigated it in myself. If you can identify as an impostor, then you’ve already won the most important battle. You’re already in a place that makes you uncomfortable, and you can take concrete steps to seek support, build up confidence and reach higher.

The more subtle and sinister effects of impostor syndrome is before you realize it, yet you’ve already confined yourself inside an invisible box whose edges are defined by impostor syndrome, rather than your abilities. The longer you stay inside that box, the longer you feel what’s outside is not what you’re meant to do, and you never reach for it.

I have mentored girls who are smart, tech-savvy, and brimming with confidence, yet confine themselves to career choices in fields that notably do not include engineering or tech; the mere idea that these could be viable career paths has simply never crossed their mind.

Impostor syndrome is not only an invisible hand that holds people back from attaining the things their abilities warrant, but it is also a blindfold that prevents people from even seeing what those things could be. That is very different from having self-doubt about ones real limitations.

The problem with framing impostor syndrome as a confidence problem.

It’s Not More Confidence We Need

Our current work culture disproportionately rewards overconfidence. The Atlantic article “The Confidence Gap” argues the primary reason women aren’t reaching the top of the corporate ladder, despite now earning more college and graduate degrees than men and making up half the workforce, is lack of confidence. Women are urged to be more confident to catch up to men who naturally “tilt toward overconfidence.”

But why are we holding up “natural overconfidence”—which is just a nice way of saying arrogance without self-awareness—as the standard? Especially when even the article itself acknowledges that a woman who exhibits the same behavior as a man is often perceived negatively by both men and women. Women exuding overconfidence may find themselves worse off.

Framing impostor syndrome as a confidence problem places the burden of “fixing” it wholly on the person suffering from it, in the same vein that Lean In places the burden of dealing with sexism in the workplace on women. Reducing impostor syndrome down to a lack of confidence makes it a personal deficiency without need to address the harmful environments that foster its occurrence.

In tech, women and under-represented minorities are much more likely to feel like an impostor, because as a visible and small minority, we already feel out of place, wondering if we got in by some fluke. We do not have the benefit of constantly having other people affirm our technical ability, whether explicit or implicit. Women in tech are much more likely to be “tested” to see if they’re a “real” programmer. Men in tech who don’t code are presumed to be coders, and women in tech who do code are presumed to be “marketing chicks.” I highly suggest reading “Silent Technical Privilege” for a personal account of the other side. Here, impostor syndrome is borne out of constantly facing a distorted reality, one in which your abilities are constantly questioned while those around you bluster in self-confidence sheltered by ignorance.

Tech in general appears to be rife with impostors. I received no shortage of notes from men telling me “Men have impostor syndrome too!” Calm down. No one said men don’t. Perhaps impostor syndrome is common in any area where there is a high concentration of people who are supposed to be really smart, as it is also common in academia.

Ironically, the most competent people in a given area are more likely to under-estimate their ability compared to others, whereas those most lacking tend to vastly overestimate, in a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” —Bertrand Russell

Instead of blindly urging for more confidence, we can instead acknowledge the downsides of overconfidence, which can often lead a team, product, or even company astray. We can educate ourselves about the hidden biases that lead us to venerate confidence over competence. We can actively work towards removing bias, by removing gender information from assessments for example, and being more aware in our interactions (see: HackerSchool’s Social Rules). We can make room for people to voice, acknowledge, and heed doubt. But we can do this without calling it impostor syndrome, praising it, and ignoring its harm.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Alicia Liu’s story.