Imposter syndrome? You might just be bad at programming

12 December 2021 Comments

Imposter syndrome is the tendency for people to significantly underrate their own ability and to feel like an imposter within their field. It can make people feel anxious that they’re eventually going to be exposed. Over the past few years, this term’s seen a surge in popularity within software development. If you express that you’re struggling at your programming job, there’s a good chance that you’ll be met with comforting replies like “you just have imposter syndrome.” There’s an alternative explanation: you might actually be bad.

I’m not denying that imposter syndrome exists or saying that it’s not the right “diagnosis” for some people — it is — but there’s also a non-insignificant number of people who are just not very good. Almost every skill exists along a normal distribution. 50% of people are below average by definition.

Currently, it seems like the default stance taken by most people, at least online, is to presume imposter syndrome. You’d probably be correct just as often by presuming incompetence. Now, I’m not saying that we should presume incompetence. We shouldn’t presume either. Telling people to dismiss their self-doubts as paranoia may reassure them in the short-term, but sometimes tough love is the approach that’s in their long-term best interest. We should at least entertain the idea that their assessment may be accurate.

Some good people underestimate their ability; some bad people overestimate their ability (you’re now fully trained in all the subtle nuances of Dunning-Kruger). Just because you think you’re bad at writing code doesn’t mean you have imposter syndrome. There’s a non-zero chance that you’re just right. At least some proportion of the people who’ve been convinced that they have imposter syndrome, or have convinced themselves, are actually just underperforming at their jobs.

It’s important to note that, just because someone might genuinely be correct about their lack of ability, that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be useless, nor does it preclude them becoming an expert. Achieving competency is a process for everybody; nobody is born an expert. You can use that negative emotion as fuel to improve. Inadequacy is a great motivator; why do you think the skinny kid from school is so often the one who becomes a gym freak?

Anyone with career ambition beyond what they’re currently doing should be routinely assessing their own ability fairly and using that to inform how they can improve. It’s worth knowing that imposter syndrome exists, because knowing about the subconscious biases you might be influenced by can hopefully guide you towards being more objective.

Look at the feedback you’re getting from your colleagues, both formal and informal. Avoid comparing yourself too harshly to others; look at where you’ve come from and where you are now. Visualise what ‘good’ would look like for you, and develop a plan to make sure you’re working towards it.

The danger of overly ascribing these feelings to imposter syndrome is that it can foster complacency. You’re teaching people to suppress any negative feelings about their ability and learn to just accept themselves as they are. Self-acceptance is a great philosophy when talking about things you can’t change (e.g. physical appearance), but if you have the power to improve then reassuring platitudes like that just encourage mediocrity.