The Imposter Syndrome

Mastering the art of pretending

Julie Zhuo
Jan 27, 2015 · 7 min read

I kicked ass at Mario games, made my first website in seventh grade, and got a 5 on my computer science AP test.

I thought I was set. I thought I’d feel as right as rain, waltzing into the computer science major my freshman year.

I was wrong.

It took less than half a quarter for the difference to make itself known, blooming like spilled ink into my consciousness. My first computer science class wasn’t easy, but apparently it should have been. I’d hear them talking loudly on the steps of our lecture hall after class. How long’d it take you to finish the assignment? It was always a boy who asked.

Four hours, would be the reply. It was always a boy who replied. It took me two, another would chime in, and it would have taken me less except for a stupid stray bracket that took me forever to debug. The conversation would then morph into a rant about the indignation of obscure error messages followed by an argument about how to make compilers smarter.

I’d walk past, wishing I had headphones jammed into my ears.

This happens enough times — you in the middle of the pack, the front runners pulling farther and farther ahead — that the spilled ink starts to leave a permanent stain.

Twenty hours. That was how long the assignment took me.

I’m not great at this, you think. Do I really belong here?

I first heard the term imposter syndrome from a guest speaker for my Women in Computer Science group during my junior year. She was a professor who studied this kind of thing to better understand the differences between genders.

I remember how she stood in front of a packed lecture hall, citing study after study that were both stunning in their revelation while feeling so naturally true. Yes! I mentally fist-pumped after every point, Yes! this describes exactly how I feel. I want to be completely sure I can do something before I sign up to do it. Negotiations and confrontations are hard for me because I care so much about being likeable. I believe I am where I am because of luck—for instance, winning that science fair project even though I know in my heart of hearts my work was kind of bullshit.

I have been pretending ever since.

The speaker said that many women feel this way. More so than men. Perhaps, she ventured, there were those among us who felt this way?

We all raised our hands.

Her manner was easy and amiable, like she was chatting with a friend over a glass of wine instead of in front of a crowd of unfamiliar faces. We were captivated by her. I tried to imagine myself like that, talking with such poise in front of such a crowd. I couldn’t.

Even now, I feel like an imposter sometimes, she said.

I didn’t believe her for a second.

I spent the first few years of my professional life trying to master the art of pretending.

School was hard, but at least there was a structure to it. You did your assignments. You took your tests. You’d get your grades, and the grades would tell you how well you were doing.

Working at a startup was another matter entirely. I felt the raw energy as soon as I stepped into the room on my first day. Nobody looked up from what they were doing. A mad intensity thrummed through the office. Around messy clusters of desks, engineers spun products with the clickety-clack of firing keys, their silhouettes brimming with confidence.

I knew so little then, but I knew this: I wanted to become a part of that energy. And so I began to pretend. I started to mold myself into a puzzle piece that would plug into the environment. I tried, oh, how I tried—how ridiculously, desperately, pathetically I tried.

How I’d nod and laugh along as the engineers made fun of other engineers’ code, all the while feeling my stomach twist because I knew with an unwavering certainty that if I weren’t present, that same group would be making fun of my code.

How I’d roll into work at noon and stay at the office until 7am so I could claim to be a part of the night crew.

How I’d argue something I didn’t feel that strongly about, like Macs versus PCs, just so I’d have something to vehemently defend like the others.

How I’d watch sports I didn’t have a clue about, and swig vodka my body had no tolerance for, and not get offended when offensive things were said, all because I wanted to belong.

How I watched like a hawk and listened like a bat to what was going on around me—which sites were worth following, which typefaces were cool, which frameworks were the bomb—so that I could inhale and parrot back some of the casual confidence of my peers.

I could never have admitted any of this then, not even to myself. I would have shriveled up into a ball of mortification and died on the spot if my friends and colleagues knew. You don the disguise long enough, and you can’t even recognize that you are acting. That you are behaving inauthentically, from a place of fear and insecurity. That you can’t figure out how to reconcile the real you with the pretend you.

Because nothing is more important than not being found out as a fraud.

The benefit of time is that it helps one see the past more objectively. If I could go back and tell myself what to do to combat those imposter feelings, it would be with these three tactics:

  1. Look at events with a best-case instead of worst-case interpretation. Or just ask. There are hundreds of things happening every day that a mind can interpret. For example, maybe you were left off of a meeting. The imposter’s reaction is to read the worst into that little detail—oh, they must not think I have anything valuable to contribute. To counter those negative thoughts, assume best intentions. They were trying to save me time by not burdening me with a meeting that’s only marginally relevant to me. Or, if you clearly should be at that meeting: they didn’t realize I should be at that meeting or it was just a simple oversight that they forgot to type my name in the ‘to’ field. If you accept, as research suggests, that the imposter syndrome tends to be irrational, then the best-case interpretation is more likely to be true than the worst-case interpretation. Don’t believe me? Then stop interpreting altogether. Square your shoulders and just ask. (Hey, I’m getting the sense that maybe you don’t think I’m being a valuable contributor to Q because of X, Y and Z. I’d love to get your honest feedback if that’s true.) Do it via writing if it’s easier for you. Asking is hard, but so is weathering a thousand little paper-cuts of interpretation.

Experience makes anything look easy, but insecurities never fully disappear. This is true for everyone, especially true for women, and truer still for women in male-dominated fields.

These days, you might find me talking in front of a crowd of unfamiliar faces. I still kick ass at Mario games. Even now, I feel like an imposter sometimes.

Here’s the thing though: it gets easier. You start trusting yourself. You’re an imposter less and less, and you’re yourself more and more.

You may not believe me, but I’ll try and convince you all the same.

You belong here.

And you are going to be great.

Interested in asking a question or following along for more advice? Sign up for my weekly letter.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building…

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Julie Zhuo

Written by

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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