Tag Archives: imposter syndrome

Three women in Dalek costumes attacking an inflatable Tardis

Re-post: On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on January 20, 2011.

The other night I went to a hacking meetup for the first time in months. It’s usually an informal Python learnfest, and as I’m refreshing my Python basics, I went with the assumption that I’d be the least technically skilled person there. Like, of course, right?

The hacking meetup that night was, as it turns out, an installfest, so I ended up generally poking around at the software being demonstrated, and conversing with strangers. One in particular caught my attention with a fairly ill-formed question: what meetups should he visit to learn how to make websites?

Over the next hour, as I answered his questions, it became clear that he just didn’t know much, compared to me, about software engineering, or about the wider world of technology or the web. He’s in the second year of a computer information systems bachelor’s degree, and knows his way around a little Java (of which I am wholly illiterate). He didn’t know about the LAMP stack, or about Drupal or Rails or Django (or why one might choose PHP versus Ruby versus Python versus Java versus pick-your-web-friendly-language). He didn’t know that these tools exist, or why one would use a framework or pre-existing CMS rather than coding “everything” oneself. He has never heard of bug trackers, or source control, or diff. He said he did not know what a wiki was (I scarcely believed this, and told him that Wikipedia is a wiki).

As a side note: I gathered that his entire career trajectory and curriculum comes not even from conventional wisdom, but from “I once heard someone say.” Examples: “Why are you doing CIS instead of CS?” “Someone told me that CS majors get outsourced.” Or, more boggling: “Someone told me Python is useless.”

From one perspective, this guy has more technical merit than I do. He has taken an algorithms class. He can probably do a job interview coding question better than I can (reverse the characters in this string, etc.). But I have a fair amount of wisdom he lacks, full stop.

Then there was the guy who was interviewing me to work at his startup. As we walked, he offhandedly mentioned his current project at his day job: a PHP web app needed to be able to turn user markup into HTML. “And you’ve already checked whether MediaWiki has something you can grab, right?” I asked. He stopped in his tracks. No, he had not thought of that.

I need to stop assuming that everyone else knows more about the tech than I do.

We’ve talked a fair amount here at Geek Feminism about impostor syndrome and sexism (my past post). I’m just going to start with a few postulates:

  • In sexist societies, women get especially socialized to think we’re not as intellectually capable as we are, and to act self-deprecating about our abilities
  • In technical spaces where women are the minority, sexists dismiss our successes and concentrate on our missteps

Regarding the latter, I recently reread Abi Sutherland’s “Permission to Suck”, which included a moment of a familiar self-flagellation:

…every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind.

It’s as though my goalposts came on casters to make them easier to move

But of course that is an error in judgment. Our sense of our own merit gets calibrated by feedback from the outside world, but sexism and impostor syndrome get in the way of that calibration. All the tentacles of this issue — the prejudice, the tokenization, the distorted self-perception, the discounting of one’s achievements and comparative lionization of others’ — bother me because they mess with proper judgment.

On an emotional level, I especially hate that anything is interfering with my data-collection and judgment. I am the kind of person who delayed drinking alcohol and took notes the first time she drank, to record any degradation in perceptions and prudence. I delayed getting a credit card till I’d supported myself for more than a year, partially to ensure that I had the correct attitude to judging purchases & debt. And here is this thing, clogging and fogging my mind, which I know is a lie, but which does not go away even when I speak its true name and snap three times.

Recursion Dinosaur

RECURSION DINOSAUR

And a poisonous effect of the socialization is that it turns women’s conversations about the problem into yet another self-deprecation exercise.

“I hate myself for hating myself so much”

“oh god you’re awesome, I have worse impostor syndrome than you”

“No way, your self-confidence is admirable”

“I’m meta-shit”

RECURSION DINOSAUR rawwwrrraaaawr

So I seek lessons and tactics on how to become a less irritating person to my friends, and a more useful and capable person going forward. Some assorted thoughts and ideas:

Five ways you can feel as competent as you really are

  1. Everything in Terri’s earlier advice, especially a shield of arrogance.

    I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

    If you are worried about being confidently wrong sometimes, note that a small increase in confident wrong assertions is a small price to pay for a big increase in capability, correct assertions, momentum, and achievement.

  2. Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.
  3. If you feel compelled to go from success to success, you may not be risking enough. As these entrepreneurs do, try assuming that you will fail the first time you try something.
  4. Every endeavor that anyone has ever done is therefore in some sense No Big Deal, that is, doable. Some people make the hard look easy, but experience and effort make for far greater variation than does innate ability — or, at least, isn’t it more useful to assume so? Watch other people succeed, and watch other people fail. Mere life experience helped me out here, but so did Project Runway, where I saw good people trying and failing every single week. And so did seeing these guys, at the meetup, at the job interview, being dumber than me. I just had to keep my eyes open and it happened, because I am smarter than the average bear.
  5. Notice the things you know. A friend of mine recently mentioned to me that she worries that people perceive her as incompetent if she asks more than two questions about a hard problem via her company’s internal IRC channel. I asked her to compare how many questions she asks and answers on IRC each day. She hadn’t even been considering that ratio, because she’d unthinkingly assumed that what she knew must be basic, and blabbing about the stuff she already knows is easy and natural and unremarkable. But upon consideration, she’s a good peer in that informational ecology, seeding more than she leeches.

This is all corollary to my earlier injunction to make irrationality work for you. We are all monkeys, seizing on narratives and any status signals we can find. Don’t keep the default sexist irrational assumptions get in the way of your confidence-competence virtuous circle. Make your own recursion dinosaur of win.

On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

The other night I went to a hacking meetup for the first time in months. It’s usually an informal Python learnfest, and as I’m refreshing my Python basics, I went with the assumption that I’d be the least technically skilled person there. Like, of course, right?

The hacking meetup that night was, as it turns out, an installfest, so I ended up generally poking around at the software being demonstrated, and conversing with strangers. One in particular caught my attention with a fairly ill-formed question: what meetups should he visit to learn how to make websites?

Over the next hour, as I answered his questions, it became clear that he just didn’t know much, compared to me, about software engineering, or about the wider world of technology or the web. He’s in the second year of a computer information systems bachelor’s degree, and knows his way around a little Java (of which I am wholly illiterate). He didn’t know about the LAMP stack, or about Drupal or Rails or Django (or why one might choose PHP versus Ruby versus Python versus Java versus pick-your-web-friendly-language). He didn’t know that these tools exist, or why one would use a framework or pre-existing CMS rather than coding “everything” oneself. He has never heard of bug trackers, or source control, or diff. He said he did not know what a wiki was (I scarcely believed this, and told him that Wikipedia is a wiki).

As a side note: I gathered that his entire career trajectory and curriculum comes not even from conventional wisdom, but from “I once heard someone say.” Examples: “Why are you doing CIS instead of CS?” “Someone told me that CS majors get outsourced.” Or, more boggling: “Someone told me Python is useless.”

From one perspective, this guy has more technical merit than I do. He has taken an algorithms class. He can probably do a job interview coding question better than I can (reverse the characters in this string, etc.). But I have a fair amount of wisdom he lacks, full stop.

Then there was the guy who was interviewing me to work at his startup. As we walked, he offhandedly mentioned his current project at his day job: a PHP web app needed to be able to turn user markup into HTML. “And you’ve already checked whether MediaWiki has something you can grab, right?” I asked. He stopped in his tracks. No, he had not thought of that.

I need to stop assuming that everyone else knows more about the tech than I do.

We’ve talked a fair amount here at Geek Feminism about impostor syndrome and sexism (my past post). I’m just going to start with a few postulates:

  • In sexist societies, women get especially socialized to think we’re not as intellectually capable as we are, and to act self-deprecating about our abilities
  • In technical spaces where women are the minority, sexists dismiss our successes and concentrate on our missteps

Regarding the latter, I recently reread Abi Sutherland’s “Permission to Suck”, which included a moment of a familiar self-flagellation:

…every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind.

It’s as though my goalposts came on casters to make them easier to move

But of course that is an error in judgment. Our sense of our own merit gets calibrated by feedback from the outside world, but sexism and impostor syndrome get in the way of that calibration. All the tentacles of this issue — the prejudice, the tokenization, the distorted self-perception, the discounting of one’s achievements and comparative lionization of others’ — bother me because they mess with proper judgment.

On an emotional level, I especially hate that anything is interfering with my data-collection and judgment. I am the kind of person who delayed drinking alcohol and took notes the first time she drank, to record any degradation in perceptions and prudence. I delayed getting a credit card till I’d supported myself for more than a year, partially to ensure that I had the correct attitude to judging purchases & debt. And here is this thing, clogging and fogging my mind, which I know is a lie, but which does not go away even when I speak its true name and snap three times.

Recursion Dinosaur

RECURSION DINOSAUR

And a poisonous effect of the socialization is that it turns women’s conversations about the problem into yet another self-deprecation exercise.

“I hate myself for hating myself so much”

“oh god you’re awesome, I have worse impostor syndrome than you”

“No way, your self-confidence is admirable”

“I’m meta-shit”

RECURSION DINOSAUR rawwwrrraaaawr

So I seek lessons and tactics on how to become a less irritating person to my friends, and a more useful and capable person going forward. Some assorted thoughts and ideas:

Five ways you can feel as competent as you really are

  1. Everything in Terri’s earlier advice, especially a shield of arrogance.

    I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

    If you are worried about being confidently wrong sometimes, note that a small increase in confident wrong assertions is a small price to pay for a big increase in capability, correct assertions, momentum, and achievement.

  2. Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.
  3. If you feel compelled to go from success to success, you may not be risking enough. As these entrepreneurs do, try assuming that you will fail the first time you try something.
  4. Every endeavor that anyone has ever done is therefore in some sense No Big Deal, that is, doable. Some people make the hard look easy, but experience and effort make for far greater variation than does innate ability — or, at least, isn’t it more useful to assume so? Watch other people succeed, and watch other people fail. Mere life experience helped me out here, but so did Project Runway, where I saw good people trying and failing every single week. And so did seeing these guys, at the meetup, at the job interview, being dumber than me. I just had to keep my eyes open and it happened, because I am smarter than the average bear.
  5. Notice the things you know. A friend of mine recently mentioned to me that she worries that people perceive her as incompetent if she asks more than two questions about a hard problem via her company’s internal IRC channel. I asked her to compare how many questions she asks and answers on IRC each day. She hadn’t even been considering that ratio, because she’d unthinkingly assumed that what she knew must be basic, and blabbing about the stuff she already knows is easy and natural and unremarkable. But upon consideration, she’s a good peer in that informational ecology, seeding more than she leeches.

This is all corollary to my earlier injunction to make irrationality work for you. We are all monkeys, seizing on narratives and any status signals we can find. Don’t keep the default sexist irrational assumptions get in the way of your confidence-competence virtuous circle. Make your own recursion dinosaur of win.

Re-post: Self-confidence tricks

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Apr 14, 2010.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

How do you keep up your inner reserves of self-confidence?

It seems like a certain amount of “irrational” self-confidence is necessary for success in geeky fields. STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

It seems like guys are less likely to have this problem. They don’t attribute the failures to their own lack of ability so much — they attribute the failures to the difficulty of the problem, the equipment they’re using, the information they were given. (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

Anyway, my questions are: Have you experienced this? What do you do about it?

While I’m actually a bit of a poster child for high self confidence (you sort of have to be in my field), I’ve been teaching tutorials at the university for 5 years so I talk to a lot of students who aren’t feeling so hot about their own abilities: the first year of an undergraduate program is especially hard for a lot of folk.

So here’s some of the things I tell my students about how to survive in an environment that takes a lot of self confidence. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Remember that you’re not alone

Lots and lots of very smart people have trouble with self-confidence. In fact, there are so many people who have this problem, that they have a couple of terms regarding the phenomenon:

  • Imposter syndrome refers to the fact that many people feel like they’re not good enough to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re impostors who don’t belong and eventually someone will notice and kick them out of the field.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a very strange cognitive bias: People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their abilities, and those who are highly competent will under-rate theirs.

So remember that your insecurity may actually be a sign of intellectual maturity: you’ve learned enough to understand what you don’t know. And remember that some of those people who say they’re awesome may not be. Especially in first year computer science, where I teach, there’s a lot of blow-hard teenaged boys, and I remind people of that regularly.

Cultivate your shield of arrogance

I joke about it a lot, but I’m not entirely kidding when I suggest that the best way to get through certain things is to have a thick shield of arrogance. I’m not the only one who says this. The perl folk tell us that The Three Virtues of a Programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. Think of it as a tongue-in-cheek recommendation: I don’t really think you should all become arrogant jerks, but it’s really handy if you can grin, wink, and say “of course I can do that, because I’m awesome” and then follow through.

The amount of arrogance shielding you need is a bit of a personal decision. You don’t want it so thick that you can’t take constructive criticism, but you want it thick enough that pointless insults roll off you. I publish academic papers in computer security, a field known for harsh practitioners, so I need enough arrogance to look at a terrible review and say, “Does this person even know what they’re talking about?” before I think, “OMG, they hated my work.” But then I need enough humility to admit that their mistaken impression might be fixable if I explained something more clearly.

Also, note how I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

Find your cheerleading squad

Some days, things are going to get you down, and it’s really helpful to have someone who can cheer you up. People who believe in you and what you’re doing can help you through a lot of rough patches, including crises of self confidence in geeky fields. Constructive criticism can be great, but you also need the odd pep talk and some people who are willing to be really positive. And just like cheerleaders are often very talented athletes, you’re going to need some very talented people on your cheerleading team: people who can fairly judge your abilities and whose opinions you’ll actually believe when they say that you’re awesome. They don’t have to know everything about your geeky field, but they have to know enough about you to make some good judgments.

You may already have your cheerleaders among your existing friends, but one additional problem for geeky women is that they’re often surrounded by companions who think you’re hot and who have… other motives behind the compliments. This means cheerleading can quickly become icky. Not cool.

If this is a concern for you, consider looking for some extra cheerleading help from other communities. Women’s groups, especially, tend consider being supportive part of their charter (and often have rules against hitting on their members!) Some examples: Systers for women in technology, Linuxchix for women in linux and open source development… if you don’t know where to find such a community, ask on Geek Feminism and we’ll try to help you out, or maybe hook you up with other people who want to start such a community. Even if you don’t think you need access to such a community, you may be surprised by how much fun it is to have more people to interact with. And don’t think of it as a write-only relationship: hearing other people’s stories and getting to cheer them on is actually quite fun and rewarding.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Research has shown that women don’t promote themselves as much as they should. (If you want to learn about this, I highly recommend you read Women Don’t Ask!) This leaves us (and other shy folk) at a disadvantage because people around us may not realize and recognize how awesome we are. Even if you’re too shy to tell anyone but your cheerleading squad, give it a shot. And remember that some communities even explicitly encourage this, so you aren’t necessarily going to be out of place: Linuxchix, for example, encourages people to do “horn tootin’” posts where they celebrate neat things they’ve accomplished: a new job, a working system, a neat solution, achieving inbox zero, or even the first day your daughter sleeps through the night. Don’t feel you should only celebrate “big” milestones: if you do something that matters to you at all, allow yourself some time to brag.

You’ve got to remember to balance here: bad things happen, but if your cheerleading squad only hears from you when things are rough, it’s going to be harder for them to bring up examples later. So make sure they hear the good as well as the bad. I don’t know about you, but I find when I sit down and think about it there’s usually more good than bad.

Talking and writing about your accomplishments not only makes them more widely known, but also gives you practice expressing yourself… so not only are you advertising your awesomeness, you’re actually becoming more awesome in the process. How’s that for an extra ego-boost?

Don’t forget to be awesome

Just before I went in to do my proposal defence last week, my little sister sent me a text message that told me I had permission to be awesome. And when I asked her for advice on writing this post, she said I should give you all permission to be awesome too. It’s really hard to be down about yourself or your accomplishments when you’re too busy being awesome: that is, actually learning and doing the things that you want to do. It’s a bit circular: But if you can let go of self-confidence issues long enough to do cool stuff, then doing cool stuff will help you let go of self-confidence issues because you’ll have more examples of your awesomeness right there.

So go forth and be awesome!

Linkspam vs. The World

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Self-confidence tricks

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

How do you keep up your inner reserves of self-confidence?

It seems like a certain amount of “irrational” self-confidence is necessary for success in geeky fields. STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

It seems like guys are less likely to have this problem. They don’t attribute the failures to their own lack of ability so much — they attribute the failures to the difficulty of the problem, the equipment they’re using, the information they were given. (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

Anyway, my questions are: Have you experienced this? What do you do about it?

While I’m actually a bit of a poster child for high self confidence (you sort of have to be in my field), I’ve been teaching tutorials at the university for 5 years so I talk to a lot of students who aren’t feeling so hot about their own abilities: the first year of an undergraduate program is especially hard for a lot of folk.

So here’s some of the things I tell my students about how to survive in an environment that takes a lot of self confidence. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Remember that you’re not alone

Lots and lots of very smart people have trouble with self-confidence. In fact, there are so many people who have this problem, that they have a couple of terms regarding the phenomenon:

  • Imposter syndrome refers to the fact that many people feel like they’re not good enough to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re impostors who don’t belong and eventually someone will notice and kick them out of the field.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a very strange cognitive bias: People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their abilities, and those who are highly competent will under-rate theirs.

So remember that your insecurity may actually be a sign of intellectual maturity: you’ve learned enough to understand what you don’t know. And remember that some of those people who say they’re awesome may not be. Especially in first year computer science, where I teach, there’s a lot of blow-hard teenaged boys, and I remind people of that regularly.

Cultivate your shield of arrogance

I joke about it a lot, but I’m not entirely kidding when I suggest that the best way to get through certain things is to have a thick shield of arrogance. I’m not the only one who says this. The perl folk tell us that The Three Virtues of a Programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. Think of it as a tongue-in-cheek recommendation: I don’t really think you should all become arrogant jerks, but it’s really handy if you can grin, wink, and say “of course I can do that, because I’m awesome” and then follow through.

The amount of arrogance shielding you need is a bit of a personal decision. You don’t want it so thick that you can’t take constructive criticism, but you want it thick enough that pointless insults roll off you. I publish academic papers in computer security, a field known for harsh practitioners, so I need enough arrogance to look at a terrible review and say, “Does this person even know what they’re talking about?” before I think, “OMG, they hated my work.” But then I need enough humility to admit that their mistaken impression might be fixable if I explained something more clearly.

Also, note how I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

Find your cheerleading squad

Some days, things are going to get you down, and it’s really helpful to have someone who can cheer you up. People who believe in you and what you’re doing can help you through a lot of rough patches, including crises of self confidence in geeky fields. Constructive criticism can be great, but you also need the odd pep talk and some people who are willing to be really positive. And just like cheerleaders are often very talented athletes, you’re going to need some very talented people on your cheerleading team: people who can fairly judge your abilities and whose opinions you’ll actually believe when they say that you’re awesome. They don’t have to know everything about your geeky field, but they have to know enough about you to make some good judgments.

You may already have your cheerleaders among your existing friends, but one additional problem for geeky women is that they’re often surrounded by companions who think you’re hot and who have… other motives behind the compliments. This means cheerleading can quickly become icky. Not cool.

If this is a concern for you, consider looking for some extra cheerleading help from other communities. Women’s groups, especially, tend consider being supportive part of their charter (and often have rules against hitting on their members!) Some examples: Systers for women in technology, Linuxchix for women in linux and open source development… if you don’t know where to find such a community, ask on Geek Feminism and we’ll try to help you out, or maybe hook you up with other people who want to start such a community. Even if you don’t think you need access to such a community, you may be surprised by how much fun it is to have more people to interact with. And don’t think of it as a write-only relationship: hearing other people’s stories and getting to cheer them on is actually quite fun and rewarding.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Research has shown that women don’t promote themselves as much as they should. (If you want to learn about this, I highly recommend you read Women Don’t Ask!) This leaves us (and other shy folk) at a disadvantage because people around us may not realize and recognize how awesome we are. Even if you’re too shy to tell anyone but your cheerleading squad, give it a shot. And remember that some communities even explicitly encourage this, so you aren’t necessarily going to be out of place: Linuxchix, for example, encourages people to do “horn tootin’” posts where they celebrate neat things they’ve accomplished: a new job, a working system, a neat solution, achieving inbox zero, or even the first day your daughter sleeps through the night. Don’t feel you should only celebrate “big” milestones: if you do something that matters to you at all, allow yourself some time to brag.

You’ve got to remember to balance here: bad things happen, but if your cheerleading squad only hears from you when things are rough, it’s going to be harder for them to bring up examples later. So make sure they hear the good as well as the bad. I don’t know about you, but I find when I sit down and think about it there’s usually more good than bad.

Talking and writing about your accomplishments not only makes them more widely known, but also gives you practice expressing yourself… so not only are you advertising your awesomeness, you’re actually becoming more awesome in the process. How’s that for an extra ego-boost?

Don’t forget to be awesome

Just before I went in to do my proposal defence last week, my little sister sent me a text message that told me I had permission to be awesome. And when I asked her for advice on writing this post, she said I should give you all permission to be awesome too. It’s really hard to be down about yourself or your accomplishments when you’re too busy being awesome: that is, actually learning and doing the things that you want to do. It’s a bit circular: But if you can let go of self-confidence issues long enough to do cool stuff, then doing cool stuff will help you let go of self-confidence issues because you’ll have more examples of your awesomeness right there.

So go forth and be awesome!