Maximizing your Impostor Syndrome

On letting the ‘disease’ define you

Upon discovering the concept of Impostor Syndrome, I truly felt like the expression was crystallizing an idea that had long been lurking below the threshold of my consciousness and begging for a concise monicker:

A persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite external evidence of their competence.

Yes. I know thee well.

But something was off about this concept, which took me much longer to unpack. The way this ‘syndrome’ is usually treated never sat well with me: it’s supposed to be a bad thing. It’s something that holds people back in their careers. Women in particular (though there is apparently scant evidence for any actual gender disparity on the matter). A disease. Something to cure.

And this is where I beg to differ.

In reflecting about many of my career choices over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m somewhat of an impostor syndrome maximizer. I absolutely love that very feeling of being in over my head, surrounded by better people, working on things I barely understand, feeling completely inadequate and thoroughly enjoying that mischievous feeling that I, in fact, am fooling everyone around me on a recurrent basis.

Credit: Elias Castillo on Unsplash

Now, of course, there are always those annoying people who are here to remind you that you, actually, know what you’re talking about. But it’s just as easy to ignore them. One could argue that a positive epiphenomenon of this particular syndrome is the ability it confers to remain safely immune to their praises.

I’ve also come to believe that embracing the ‘disease’ serves me well in other ways. It keeps me humble and receptive to input for one thing: if I knew what I were doing, I would not be here, which means that I have to be particularly alert to what this group of better-than-mes surrounding me is saying.

In that sense, it’s the perfect vaccine against the Dunning-Kruger effect: know that you’re out of place, accept it, but still act as if you were not. Who knows, you may be able to pull one over on them all for one more day…

It also keeps me moving. One of the main tasks expected of my colleagues who are Site Reliability Engineers, as described in the excellent SRE Book, is that they should strive to automate themselves out of their jobs every few months. This concept can be applied to any role, since it forces you to consider your current job, which you’re presumably getting better at over time, as something one should always try to get ahead of. I’ve heard this be referred to as the “Always be Leaving” principle by some of my colleagues, and it is a great way to think about any competence you currently have, and turn it into a new, possibly uncomfortable challenge: how do you remove yourself from that particular equation.

At one point in my career, I had to essentially automate myself out of my role in preparation for an extended leave, only to find, upon my return, that the ‘automation’ worked all too well. I came back from leave to find a happy team who had seemingly barely noted my absence, and it was time for me to look for another more challenging role. My inclination was to try and find the job that would maximize my impostor syndrome (It’s no accident that my first stop was to go talk to Jeff Dean.)

Now, it’s easy to measure the degree by which you feel like a fraud: just ask your gut, it’s usually got plenty to tell you on the subject. The real challenge is to optimize for that particular figure of merit without drowning in guilt. Sociopaths have it easy. For the rest of us, there is waking up every morning to that great ‘not fired yet’ feeling, and hope it’ll carry you through another day. Most importantly however, admitting to myself being a deliberate ‘impostor syndrome maximizer’ has helped me tremendously on this front: at least now I feel like I have a personal license to keep bamboozling my peers every day, while at the same time being entirely transparent with them about it.