I am an impostor
You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I am an impostor. I have spent much of my personal and professional life trying to hide it from the world, and be good enough. It’s exhausting. And it’s time for me, and you, to let go of this feeling once and for all. Our open source communities are the perfect place to build a culture of inclusion where everyone’s gifts are welcome and impostor syndrome has no place. Believe me, YOU are good enough.
But first, let me tell you how it all started for me.
When I was young, I was a child prodigy. At the age of 6, I was reading at a college level. I was fully bilingual in Spanish thanks to my early education at a small Arizona elementary school, and my mostly-Hispanic friends. I was creative, fascinated with geology, and insatiably curious. I had a quick smile and tousled hair. I was precocious. I dug a giant hole and filled it with water so I could have my own swimming hole.
Then things changed.
Without going into painful detail, I will say that due to a variety of complicated reasons, I began suffering unthinkable abuse at the hands of a family member. As my mother and father raged and finally tore apart, I was dragged to Oregon to live in my grandmother’s dark basement in an affluent neighborhood. Broken, poor, and lost, I was no one. In my new school, I was given “tests” that found me learning disabled, and emotionally unstable. It was written down on paper as an immutable truth, and stored in a manilla folder with my name on it.
That folder followed me around my young years as we moved out of the basement and into a suburban home. Despite all the ways my creativity and gifts emerged, they were seen as proof that I was an over-talkative trouble maker. Never mind that in first grade, I had won a speech contest against kids all the way up to the 12th grade. No one knew about my ribbon. No one cared to ask me what happened.
I was sloppy, disorganized, and alienated from the other kids. My spelling fell apart. My writing became unreadable. My desk was such a mess of papers that in third grade, a teacher “jokingly” condemned it as a fire hazard with a big, colorful sign that got lots of laughs from the other kids. I was horrified with embarrassment.
I had plenty of time to reflect on my situation as I spent countless hours in detention. In my grade school, that was a supply closet with a single bulb, a small desk, and the intoxicating smell of pencil wood, ink, and paper. When I sharpen a pencil, the smell whisks me back to the lonely stillness.
There was more abuse in school. A lot more. I was beaten unconsciousness by a group of older kids and left in a heap in the middle of the sports field. And, it wasn’t just once. Neighbor kids would lay siege on me with rotten fruit or rocks, and threats of violence. One time, I was huddled, shivering with a brick in my hand under some bushes in fear for my life.
I befriended adults because I had nothing in common with anyone my age. I had a secret life, alone. With no siblings, no friends, and an absent single mother, my creativity flourished like a flower that escapes a crack in the pavement. It was the only thing I could trust. My inner world allowed me to just barely survive the outer one.
In my teen years, it got worse. Were it not for two extraordinary turns of events when I was 16, I would most certainly be dead right now. First, we moved to a new school district, and my meeting with the school counselor happened before any manila folders with my name arrived. I told him the truth that only I knew. I was an extraordinary student, and deserved to be in all of the advanced placement classes, as well as band.
If he saw my folder, it would be filled with average to failing grades, and disappointing reports from my band director. Somehow that folder never arrived, and I was free to start over.
The second thing that saved me was my mom buying an IBM XT computer with a modem, that I quickly took on as my own.
It was incredibly hard after the move to my new school. I was the worst saxophone student the band director had seen. He almost refused me entry into marching band. In my advanced classes, I struggled despite my aptitude and desire. No one knew I was an impostor. But I did. I began spending 5 hours or more a day playing my sax. I would go to Powells Books and read until closing time night after night. I still did miserably in math and chemistry. My social life was largely via computer bulletin board systems.
In the intervening years, I have had and lost relationships, jobs, bands, and a life punctuated by moments of elation and sadness, probably just like you. One of the constants has been the inescapable feeling of not being good enough, not knowing enough, or being lesser than everyone around me. And, it’s time for that to end.
I am not sharing all of this to seek pity. My story is mild in comparison to people I have known, as well as countless youth destroyed by the machinations of greed, avarice, and zealotry through the ages. I am providing it as context, since everyone has a backstory. And, when you meet someone, you have no way of knowing what that history is, nor where they are at in its many chapters.
I share my story because in my work supporting open source community, I see many people hiding in the shadows of their fear just as I did. They do not want to step into the light because they are afraid they don’t have what it takes, or are not good enough. In open source specifically, they may not feel qualified to have an opinion or valuable enough contribution. They may not even know how to write code. Other gifts like abstract thinking, creativity, and organizational skills don’t seem to have an obvious home in open source projects, which means contributing in purely technical ways can exacerbate the feeling of being an impostor. This is even more pronounced in marginalized populations, who already struggle with inclusion.
When our open source communities focus on technical meritocracy, we are inadvertently creating an environment that promotes exclusion. All of the amazing talents, ideas, and gifts people have to share must find a home, or we are limiting the potential of what we can collectively accomplish.
This is starting to change. The Kubernetes community, for example, has become known for its extraordinary attention to the importance of inclusion. And, its technical success has become inextricably linked to its community success. This sets the stage for a revolution of ideas and process where all open source communities can seek ways to expand inclusion.
Cross-discipline collaboration has tremendous power.
The positive effects of expanded communities are countless. Inclusion in open source is a way of cracking gender and minority disparity in technology companies. Healthy communities also provide a human support fabric. As someone who has struggled with being a social outlier, I can now say that my closest friends have come to me through my work in Kubernetes. That is extraordinary.
Another reason I decided to share my story is to let others know they are not alone in feeling like an impostor sometimes. If you have ever felt “not good enough” to do something, or for someone, try something for me.
Imagine you, as your best possible self. What are the qualities you exude? Are you brilliant? Creative? Passionate? Insightful? I recommend you make a long list of these. This is your compass. When you feel those ways, you know you are on the right path.
Now, imagine that best version of you trying to solve whatever problem you don’t feel good enough to take on. What happens when those two things come together? Have you been approaching a problem from an angle that is not aligned with your best self? What happens if you try a different, more aligned path? How can you apply your best-self sense of humor with a logic problem? How does your inspired self handle a difficult decision-making process?
As communities, we need to continue on the path of openness. Diversity is literally the line between surviving and thriving. And, part of us getting there is to allow people like me to stop carrying the dead weight of an impostor around. Being able to show up as you are, and be supported is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. Seek out the greatness in others and help them shine a light on it. When you see someone struggling, give them a hand or kind word. Be kind. Always.