Every Part of You Is Papier-mâché

Earlier this month, I was elected to my church’s Board of Trustees….

…A week later, I was invited to a new critique group….

…Recently, I was given incredible leeway in refactoring a major project at work….

People keep giving me opportunities. And that feeling that it’s all undeserved? Still it remains.

There’s a term for imposter syndrome among programmers: “Real Programmer Syndrome.” Some of what motivates talented people in my field, web development, is a feeling of ignorance or incompetence. We’re constantly seeking novelty, looking for the “next thing,” because if we don’t we’ll be replaced with someone who does. Never mind that the worst programmers are those who think they already know everything.

I had a bad case of “Real Programmer Syndrome” when I left my job in 2015. I had been locked into some outdated technology, so finding a new position turned out to be harder than I anticipated. I had fallen behind on keeping up with the more recent, shinier tech. Well, I eventually found a position where my antiquated skills would be useful.

And then I learned new skills to replace the old ones.

I have a theory.

Those who are classified as “gifted” encounter imposter syndrome beyond their primary skillset. We’re well-read, acquainted with a variety of subjects, sometimes to the point of dilettantism. We know exactly how much we don’t know about everything. There are no “unknown unknowns,” as some douchebag once put it.

There’s that feeling that every part of you is hollow, that you’re entirely papier-mâché. No part of you belongs anywhere, no part of you deserves whatever success you find, and any failure, real or perceived, is fully justified.

It bleeds into my personal life as well. What, that awesome, successful writer follows you on Twitter? Don’t tweet anything off, or they’ll be gone. No, there’s no way that person’s into you — you forgot what a con artist you are. People wouldn’t talk to you if they knew exactly how stupid you really are.

It will happen no matter what you try.

Maybe I’m wrong. I wonder if the profoundly gifted — Mozart, etc. — are too far at the end of the bell curve to be susceptible to imposter syndrome. But for the merely “very smart,” and I’d put myself in that category, we have to learn coping strategies.

It can’t be cured with education, because the more you learn, the worse it gets. Management requires self-care, increased emotional intelligence, and mentorship.

And speaking of mentors, here’s a post by Neil Gaiman, one of those latter-day Mozarts, on his feelings about imposter syndrome. It involves a figure you’d never consider to be a victim.

Man, if going to the moon can’t shake it, then no amount of success ever will.