I wanted to respond to Gina’s thoughtful post on impostor syndrome because she’s a good friend and because we had a chance to talk about the topic often during the years we were cofounders of a company together.
First, I want to acknowledge the real issues of self-esteem, anxiety, insecurity, or uncertainty that underpin the conversation about impostor syndrome. They’re real, significant obstacles to be overcome for many people, and it can be very helpful and useful to hear about them from prominent leaders, as Gina is for many in the tech world. Seeing these same doubts creeping into the mind of someone who’s successful can make everyone feel a bit more comfortable reckoning with these realities for ourselves.
But I want to articulate another perspective that feels closer to my own, and that reflects the different lived experience of many people I’ve talked to. Even though Asian American men are overrepresented in tech, we’re still underrepresented in most other areas of society. And when I realized how much we lacked in political power, in media representation, and in cultural impact, I made a personal decision that I’m going to assert, consistently and unapologetically, that I’m a talented person who makes valuable contributions.
Aside from the political motivations, this also connects to how I was raised. Both my family and my community reinforced to me that I am capable, and encouraged me to pursue opportunities as if that’s the case. This wasn’t without its flaws — there are certainly no shortage of men who respond to that feedback by becoming increasingly arrogant, and I’ve been one of them. And in our particular community, there’s a tremendous gap in offering the same sort of reassurance to women. But overall? It’s been both healthy and useful for me to have a strong sense of self-esteem.
Who’s allowed to be a “fraud”?
Where I get far more pointed in my critique of the argument Gina expresses is in its applicability to communities that neither she nor I belong to. I would never tell a black or latinx colleague or friend or mentee to describe themselves as a “fraud” in a professional context, and I would frankly be shocked if they did so. I know from my own experience that projecting confidence has very different meanings and very different implications depending on one’s particular social context.
This is especially true in tech, because one has to be so overwhelmingly, unimpeachably talented to even get a foot in the door in tech as a member of one of the underrepresented communities in tech. There’s almost no chance of not being extremely qualified. So in addition to reassuring folks that they’re qualified, it makes sense to encourage them to express that they are. It does an awful disservice to set an expectation of not just self-criticism, but active self-doubt from someone whom society is often trying to undermine anyway, because then almost any confidence at all can look like arrogance.
I’d started to respond along these lines, at first speaking just for myself, but I saw a number of friends and associates whose voices I respect articulating the same idea, and I realized this might resonate more broadly.
My point here isn’t about myself, or Gina, or the quotes from Marco or Kristy, but about how our narratives of self and confidence and public persona are addressed, and whom we include in “we” when making “we” statements.
I know fully well that there are people who bristle, or resent, when I describe myself or my skills in a positive way. Indeed, that’s part of why I do so. But perhaps in our well-intentioned efforts to reassure those who feel insecure should be careful not to undermine those who have done the hard work of defending and asserting that they are not, in fact, impostors.