Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

School is ramping up and it’s recruiting season, so you know what that means: Stress!

Oh yeah, my favorite. I came into this year feeling pretty damn good, like I was going to crush my classes and get a baller job and live happily ever after. Not to say that I can’t or won’t do either of those things, but this week has been a reality check: it’s going to be HARD.

The other night I got hit with this wave of feeling really, really inadequate. I was working on machine learning homework, taking about two hours to get two parts of one part of one question (a.i, a.ii kind of deal). I mean, it felt like I barely understood what was being asked of me. Stress.

Then I found out that some guys across the room were working on the same homework, so I went to talk to them, figuring that in a class this hard, it doesn’t hurt to make friends. They were working on number 9, and asked if they could try to explain to me what they had just done so they could understand it better. Well sure, I thought, I’m not going to stop you from explaining the answer!

The following math was so complicated. I really don’t understand why this class isn’t listed under the math department — it’s built on multivariate calculus, linear algebra, and probability theory, and as far as I can tell, is harder than any of those classes, none of which is easy. The guy explaining this problem to me was also enrolled in operating systems (infamously one of the hardest classes at the school) and ECON 401 (intermediate microeconomics, also infamously difficult) all at the same time.

He was really nice and helpful, and I was just excited to get homework help, so I didn’t feel too bad. But when you struggle so much with something and see someone just come in and do it with relative ease, while also juggling a bunch of other things seemingly more impressive than what you’ve got on your plate, it feels a little intimidating, to say the least.

I think I would’ve been a little more mentally put together while tackling this homework if I hadn’t been so stressed out with recruiting, too. I’d hardly touched homework in the previous six days of sending out online applications, standing in lines for hours at career fair, and running all over campus for networking events, all in hopes of getting closer to companies that ask for skillsets and experiences I don’t have. Bombing my first technical interview earlier in the week didn’t make me feel much better either. Stress.

This is the quintessential impostor syndrome: you look up, and see yourself surrounded by people who just seem better. You find yourself chasing opportunities that you don’t feel qualified for. Stress.

Do you ever feel like under your face, it’s also your face, but your outer face was the face you thought other people were supposed to see, but it’s not actually your face, so you take off your face

But after sleeping on it and taking a little time to relax, I’m realizing how unhealthy and unproductive this feeling is. I’ve fallen into this trap before. Foolishness is making the same mistake repeatedly, so, what should I be doing in a situation like this?

First, take a step back and breathe.

One of the big sources of stress that I identified was my overconfidence coming out of the summer. I had a lot of fun this summer and learned a lot. I felt great! But when you level up, you’re able to see and meet the people on the next next level. I’ve come to accept now that this game goes forever. And besides, you can’t be an expert in everything. If you put Elon Musk in a room with Kanye West, Elon feels like a musical idiot. Kanye probably has the confidence to say he can build a spaceship too, though (haha).

Brining it back: Just because I learned some things and am now seeing people who are even further ahead of the curve than I’d previously imagined doesn’t mean that I’m not doing well for myself. It doesn’t mean that I’m inadequate.

You have to realize that you grow at your own pace. It truly doesn’t matter that other people have more experience or talent than you — what are you going to do about them? Focus on yourself, instead.

Next, realize that you’re overwhelmed because you’re tackling more opportunities than you can handle. That is an incredibly privileged problem to have. Be grateful that you have meaningful work to grind out, because it’s going to pay off.

I believe the anxiety that comes with impostor syndrome ultimately stems from a competitive spirit. When you make progress, you don’t continue to compare yourself to what you were before. That, in a vacuum, is a good thing. But what you might do after (I’m guilty) is compare yourself to others who have gone even further. You get freaked out. If you let this go too far, this undoes you.

You need to keep perspective: There are always going to be people who started before you, learn faster, have more resources in their network, etc. Their success is not your failure. Yes, in a sense, you compete with them. But this is not as important as your competition with yourself. Your goal shouldn’t be to be better than others, but rather, to better yourself. You’ve heard it a thousand times: your best is enough. And I’m sure you’ve also realized that even if you don’t feel that way, you have nothing more than your best. It still feels scary, I get it. But the nature of the game is to continue to push the boundaries of what your best is. The people around you should be seen as inspirations and mentors. Stop treating them as antagonists, and stop antagonizing yourself.

Making this mindset change is a huge step in the right direction. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be stress-free, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be the best. But when you become the biggest fish in the pond, it’s time to find a bigger body of water! Seeking out challenges builds character — and after all, when you’re so overwhelmed by how much is on your plate, it’s because you’re a go-getter and you took these challenges knowing that they’re opportunities to grow. You push yourself because you aren’t afraid to work hard, and that is really noble.

Stop worrying about being “not good enough”. Keep your head up and put a smile on your face. Keep striving for more. You belong.