Impostor Syndrome: A symptom of happiness?

I recently saw a talk by Angelina Fabbro, detailing a wonderful set of tongue-in-cheek rules for how to spot someone who is not a true developer (i.e., not a twenty-four year old white male, someone who dares to care about fonts and colours, etc). It is on Github here for those who’d like to view the slides.

For those who don't know, impostor syndrome is a psychological state, wherein a person never thinks that they are good enough, and always feel as though they are posing as someone they're not. They consistently live in fear of being found out, and exposed for the impostor they are.

This talk struck a particularly ironic note for me, since it was something that I had been worrying about moments before, dressed in skinny jeans and a t-shirt with an ampersand unashamedly emblazoned on the front: henceforth I would easily be spotted as a 'designer,' and therefore an outsider, in this group of very intelligent people in which I most certainly didn’t belong.

As I started to think and read about this topic some more, I found that Angelina has also written for the Pastry Box Project. I would like to add to her thoughts on impostor syndrome with my own anxieties, tricking my own developer colleagues, and the newfound realisation that only as an impostor can I be truly happy.


Despite the brilliant satire of Angelina’s talk, I found myself worrying about why impostor syndrome (or impostor phenomenon) is so prevalent. After all, I’ve been in this profession for quite a few years, and yet my own personal impostor complex still persists; I’ve decided that this has at least a little bit to do with the fact that the profession of ‘programming’ as such is an incredibly broad one. ‘Web development’ itself is a term so all-encompassing that it’s bound to create problems about who fits into it and why. After all, to develop something by definition is 'to grow or cause to grow and become more mature, advanced, or elaborate.' How we do this is up to us, and that double-edged ambiguity sword is something I love about web development. It’s so all-encompassing that you couldn’t possibly do it on your own; to truly make something great, you have to ask for help and involve others, be it from the designer, the developer, the font nerd, the neurotic, the customer, the parent— everyone.

It’s strange to me that ‘design’ and ‘development’ have to be separate entities, as though they are completely different disciplines. The overwhelming desire to class myself personally as either one or the other during conferences or meetings, for the sake of simplicity, contributes to that impostor syndrome at its worst and most anxiety-inducing. However, I have come to realise and come to terms with the fact that while this is something I’ll always worry about, being an impostor is okay, and sometimes even desirable.

Recently, a colleague shared this post with me, an excellent exploration of how not knowing what you're doing can actually be a good thing. I was directed to this while I was hopelessly flailing in what I perceived to be the deep end of EmberJS (it wasn’t). Another colleague then shared this image, and that is what I find the most interesting about my own impostor syndrome; I am at my happiest when I am attempting to be someone else, or being challenged to talk about something that I think I know nothing about. This is because I am forced to learn about that something, to understand it well enough to hold a conversation, and from that conversation, my knowledge can only grow. And if I succeed in my ruse, then I’m all the prouder for it.

For example, I was recently chatting to a few of my colleagues about a problem ubiquitous in web development; the creation of a new feature in a product. As with many such problems in a web app, its user interface informs the development, and the development informs the interface. It’s not possible to linearly develop, then design, or vice versa. The creation of a feature is a result of communication and dialogue as much as it is about code and design, if not more so, and the two should work in tandem. Everyone should, to some extent, try to impersonate the other side for a while. For me, this understanding is the most satisfying part of the process: a chat in which everyone takes part and provides both problems and solutions, challenges and how to overcome them. I found myself participating in this conversation, not only with questions but with solutions as well— solutions to development problems, not design ones— and my masquerade was a resounding success.

However, it was only after this conversation took place that I realised that I had been successful, much more so than I had initially thought. I knew enough about Ember, Ruby, and how they interact with and generate the CSS and HTML that I write. I knew enough to propose interesting topics of conversation and hold that conversation, too. Even better, my colleagues had seen fit to employ that solution, and take my opinion on board. I had succeeded in the ultimate ruse, clearly— a designer taking part in a developer’s conversation, without being noticed. But what was most important was that I had enjoyed it, and learned something in the process.

This, to me, is the essence of web development. It is a series of people, each bringing their expertise and individual pieces to one larger puzzle that is far greater than the sum of its parts. A desire to splinter all of these disciplines is perhaps predictable, but unnecessary. No, I couldn’t build anything without someone to wrangle servers and build product features out of maths and magic. That said, there is just as much refinement, thought, and intricacy to arranging those features in a manner that makes sense to people unaware of the witchcraft behind it all. A nice little UX twist can have just as much unsung heroism as that piece of Ruby code. Each piece has its own place in the puzzle, but you have to see the big picture to know where your piece will go, and impostor syndrome lets me see the big picture.

I think that is the key to my version of impostor syndrome; it is a constant desire to be tested, and that insecurity is A Good Thing, in small doses. Each time I successfully navigate a development conversation is one more day that I’ve learned something new, and can continue to masquerade as a developer. I would venture to say that this challenge is the only way we can become truly great at what we do, and many people would benefit from attempting to pose as someone else. Even if you are unmasked, what you learn in the process is invaluable, and people might even believe you, or you might actually start believing yourself. It might not work for everyone, but this is the only way I am happy; with a good dose of insecurity and fear. It is what makes me better. The aforementioned development conversations present new challenges that I would never be able to think of, and it is a great feeling to rise to that challenge. No, I may not know what I’m doing, but I am enjoying it, in the same terrifying way that a skydive or a rugby game is enjoyed by those partaking. It’s terrifying and worthwhile, though it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

I am a designer, yes, but I do feel that I am a developer as well. No, I am not going to be the one who worries about security or staging servers, but I will be the one who creates an interface and occasionally adds a new feature in Ember, and develops the product in an entirely different way. I will have conversations with those who provide the skeleton for what it is I do, and inform their decisions, just as they will inform mine.

So maybe you are occasionally a developer, and like me, you’re too neurotic to realise it. Even if you have a giant ampersand on your t-shirt— if you solve problems with code, make apps and websites and products more elaborate, and spend a good deal of your time worrying if those solutions (and you by extension) are good enough, then you are a developer.

I’m not sure if Angelina or the others that have written about the syndrome would agree with me, but I would venture to say that perhaps a certain amount of impostor syndrome is a sign of happiness, and offers a certain amount of freedom. You aren’t constrained to one thing, but are free to dabble in others, and see if you can hack it. You continue to test yourself and constantly learn something new in the process.

There are moments, of course, when I have failed this test. It doesn’t feel good, but it is outweighed by the countless times where I have passed, and successfully fooled people into thinking that I am a true developer. Moving forward, I’ll try to take my own advice to heart. I will rejoice in my trickery; I am the Frank Abagnale of web development, and will happily carry on in my ruse, until I decide to pose as someone else.