Confidence Through Feedback, or Why Imposter Syndrome is the Wrong Metaphor

Imposter syndrome is often presented as a personal failing.  A lack of confidence, our wrong-headed beliefs not matching the reality of how competent we are, or worst of a flaw of our gender.  Just tell yourself you are wrong!  Imagine everyone else is just like you!  Have confidence in all parts of yourself except that part that tells you not to have confidence!

Unsurprisingly, these interventions are not often effective.  At best, they change behavior, frequently while making people who already feel bad about themselves feel worse.  At worst, they lead people to stop trying to improve the environment they have found themselves in.

I would like to offer an alternative story: imposter syndrome is a rational response to insufficient feedback. 

49 responses
Great article! Thank you so much, will share it both with my Stealthworks team and the Students I teach and mentor in Edwin Marcial's Year Up Atlanta coding program where we take 18-24 HS/GED learners from economic despair to flourishing tech careers in one short year. We've just doubled and now we can serve ~320 students per year. I've created a new class of business, essentially a profit-driven X-Company and on of our experiments addresses the exact class of feedback you describe. Feel free to connect, if/when we can get it to the launch boards I'd love to see what you think. Right now it's just thought stuff. If you've not found it, I highly recommend checking out Josh Waitzkin's "The Art of Learning" it makes a similar point by calling out. People who believe competence is "entity based" vs. "experiential". I really believe you'll enjoy it A LOT. The state of women in tech is a hot-button issue with me--I'm a natural "defender" and there are just too many fronts in this one. This is from my LinkedIn blog, you may enjoy it: All my best, Jason
That's very interesting because you consider the team based solution approach to solving this problem. I had not considered that when I wrote about it and had to resort to self tricks self style.
Thanks for a very helpful article! I think one of the reasons we may still persist in such delusions, even given some feedback processes, is an antagonistic attitude either in hiring or in the workplace itself. Such an antagonism is naturally suspicious of any anomaly as evidence of deceit. We learn to "cover things up" as a result, which only feeds such delusions. The implicit contrast you describe is a helpful supporting team atmosphere, which brings out the best in people.
Thanks for this. This is a really great article!
You were always a good coder, but when I recognized your talent for taking a half-baked task definition and turning it into gold, you became a lot more than that to me. When our project ended, you were moved somewhere else where you were treated as a junior programmer. Your departure from the company was a natural consequence. I'm proud to see you looking back on your success and leaving good lessons for those who follow.
I've been a software developer for 20+ years. It wasn't until a few years ago that I ended up on a team that did pull request based code reviews. Prior to that I, for the most part, had an old-school attitude of hiding what I didn't know in fear that my failings would be found out. Just like you, my first PR review was terrifying. Over time, I learned to embrace what I didn't know and started to ask questions without fear. This has proven to be very empowering while, at the same time, putting others at ease (because they felt they needed to hide stuff too).
I can only read the first two paragraphs. The Read More button doesn't work for my anymore. Help!
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