Everyone’s Been Winging It Since Forever

(Part One)

Five years ago, while struggling to leave a particularly bad work environment, a mentor told me I was so young I couldn’t even imagine what might be possible. He was right.

But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t doubt myself every step of the way.

Last month, while preparing slides for an upcoming talk at a mapping conference, I started looking through the list of presenters. I was suddenly overcome with the urge to crawl in a hole: these people had, almost to a (wo)man, built the tools I was barely managing to use. I’ve been making maps for only a year or so, and have zero training or experience in cartography or geography. Since the chirping of my impostor syndrome grows loudest in proximity to those whose work I admire most, all I could think about was what I might possibly discuss in this room that wouldn’t be mind-numbingly simplistic? My tweet to that effect elicited some reassurance:

The past year has shown that I’m usually not alone in needing to hear these things. I’d been jonesing to design something with wings for a while, and an idea started to form. Professional procrastiworkers (PPWs) will understand that I obviously had to fire up Illustrator immediately, and soon I shared a concept sketch.

Some friends started asking where they might be able to find a printed version, and I’d been working on making some of these…things…available for ordering online. So it became (among other things) a sticker:

Yes, everyone.

Over the past month, I’ve noticed much more discussion at conferences and in the media about imposter syndrome. Some of it even aligns with my own experience of using it as a means for motivation. A year ago this week, I wrote about discovering civic hacking, open data and maps, and how that led to a career change and my decision to work in government.

Part of that process included some intensely personal admissions. I’d actually wanted to learn to code for at least five years prior, but my brain would simply refuse to process input whenever I’d attempt a tutorial. Immediately, I’d feel 15 again, sitting in Algebra II (for the second time), where my teacher told me I’d never be good enough at math to study astronomy (my declared profession since childhood). From that moment on, I would be a musician, eventually completing a master’s degree in conducting.

Many musicians also display an aptitude for mathematics, but not me. Until recently, I’d never told anyone (including my employer) that I failed not one but two high school math classes. I was the only “gifted” kid in summer school. Certain topics just feel as if I’m trying to shove my brain through a rubber wall — the harder I push, the more it stretches.

I’m finally writing about this hoping it might help someone else realize they’re attenuating their ambition, limited by their own belief. Accepting that not all of the failures were mine so long ago led to a realization:

I avoided even admitting I wanted to learn to code, because I didn’t think I could.


I am surrounded by people that believed I could learn to do this, but if you aren’t — tweet me, email me, or leave a comment.

Originally intended to be a “One Year Later” update, this is what came out instead. Stay tuned for part two, The Myth of the Self-Taught Developer, as soon as I finish prepping for an accidental art show in a few weeks.

A version of this story was originally published at laurenancona.com.