Why Imposter Syndrome is Not a Bad Thing
How imposter syndrome can be a propeller for success in a fast-evolving world of tech
I have a secret.
Before I enrolled into Flatiron’s software engineering program, I was a certified ENL teacher working for the city’s public schools for four years. ENL stands for English as a New Language, and for the older generations, you might be more familiar with the term, ESL which stands for — English as a Second Language. Having majored in applied Linguistics, my expertise was teaching English to newcomer students with a diverse language background. But before I go any further, I must first tell you a little bit about my childhood.
When I came to America at the age of 9, I had zero English skills. And just after two weeks after landing at the JFK airport, my typical asian immigrant parents threw me into the lion’s den of a cruel pre-teen classroom and left me to fend for myself. I had to learn to “figure things out” through the old sink-or-swim method. I spent the majority of my first two years at school silently observing and copying the behaviors of kids around me. There was a lot of head-nodding; even when I didn’t understand what was going on, I would just nod my head and pretend that I knew what was going on. As a nine year old, I had already become an imposter.
I pretended because in my head that was the only way for me to survive. Showing any form of weakness in front of other fourth graders would mean that I would be subjecting myself to becoming the target of jokes. Even though I wasn’t picked first at kickball and sometimes had to bring expensive snacks to the lunch table to fit in with the cool kids, it was a way for me to survive in a world where I was easily judged by my English skills. I hated that my teachers would never call on me unless I raised my hand because they looked at me like “the foreign girl who probably doesn’t understand what’s happening”. While the intentions were nice, I disliked that they let me have a pass at everything. I felt dumb. I’d much rather be an imposter than a pity case.
It was a way for me to survive in a world where I was easily judged by my English skills
ESL Teacher Who Makes Grammar Mistakes
Fast forward 15 years, to some it may seem ironic, to some, a beautiful story of over-coming hardship, I became a teacher who taught English for a living. But I lived with a secret; the secret that despite I graduated with Summa cum laude and with high honors in my department, I never truly felt confident in my English language skills. I was living a lie. I was a real-life imposter, and soon enough, everyone would find out that I:
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- still make grammar mistakes all the time
- mispronounce certain words (“poisonous” is the most prominent one)
- ask my partner to proof-read things for me all the time
And yet here I find myself, after a complete 180 career transition, on an entirely new journey to learn a whole new language, computer languages to be exact.
Imposter Syndrome V.2
Since day one at my tech bootcamp, the instructors have warned us about the dangers of ‘imposter syndrome’. Having never heard of such phrase, I had no idea what that meant in the beginning. I also presumed it would never affect me because my world existed in only black or white; either I know something or I don’t. There was no need to pretend because it wouldn’t help me or anyone else.
I suddenly found myself a victim of this crippling ailment.
The concept of an imposter didn’t hit me until a few weeks had gone by in the program and we were slowly given the responsibility of “knowing what we were doing” or if not, be scrappy — go figure it out however we can. And the notion made sense; in real life, no one would be at my beck and call to make all of my problems go away or spoon-feed me the answers, certainly not my future boss.
What’s funny with these bootcamps is that they are extremely fast-paced and they cover a dense amount of complex materials every single day. That means even the smartest students will often find themselves out of time when trying to digest just a single topic and will be asked to move along.
I suddenly found myself a victim of this crippling ailment. I would know something for a moment but then would suddenly become completely helpless and lost when trying to do a similar task. How was I supposed to know if I understood something or not if the measurement of my learned knowledge was being thrown out the window every single day? I wanted to hide; I wanted to stay quiet during discussions and lectures because at any moment people would find out that my knowledge was only an inch deep. The dark voice in my head began affecting my mood and my outlook for continuing to learn and absorb. I no longer felt like I could tackle lab after lab because how could someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing accomplish anything?
But there was also a big part of me inside that yearned to continue learning, growing and sharing with others what I know. Not because I wanted to show off, but because I wanted to contribute. But when your own fear of being an imposter overwhelms your ability to learn, it disables you from doing many of these things. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon this LinkedIn post that I realized I needed to stop being so afraid.
and then I found this one:
and what I think developers and engineers who are still finding their footing in this new world should hear is that we all wear different masks throughout the course of the day. Some might start out their day wearing the mask of an imposter but by the end of the day, they’ve changed that mask to that of a teacher who helps out their fellow cohort or their co-worker. Some might wear it the other way around. The point is, as programmers, we all suffer with imposter syndrome one way or the other because of the ever-changing technology and the influx of knowledge that we deal with on a daily basis. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether you’ll let that define you and your ability as a programmer or see it as growing pain to become a well-equipped developer.
How you use your time and energy navigating through life’s challenges will define the kind of person you are. Reflecting back on my 9 year old self, I have no shame that I put on a mask when things got tough because it propelled me to keep pushing myself and helped me get to where I am. I am not a victim of the imposter syndrome, I am a living survivor of the imposter syndrome.
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