Turning Fear Into A Strength
Imposter Syndrome Part 1
For more about my journey finding confidence, check out Part 2 here.
It was the first day of my freshman year at Stanford University, and I was excited to take computer science for the first time. I got to class early and while meeting my classmates, I asked one of them,
“How long have you been programming?”
He casually replied,
“Oh, only 5 years or so.”
I was shocked, and immediately intimidated. I had zero computer science experience — how was I going to take this class alongside him?
I’ve always struggled with self-confidence, and over the next few weeks, I felt these fears coming true. Whenever the instructor asked a question, it seemed like everyone knew the answer except me. I was getting A’s on the assignments, but I told myself it was only because I was working harder than everyone else — going to office hours, studying for days for the midterm — and not because I really knew what I was doing.
When it was time to register for the next quarter’s computer science classes, I was conflicted. I had genuinely enjoyed the programming assignments, and the ability to build and create. Yet, I was putting in so much work, and it felt like proof that I just wasn’t good enough to study more computer science.
Reframing My Fears
Finally, I went to my professor’s office hours and told him about my fears. He introduced me to the concept of
imposter syndrome — when someone doubts their abilities or thinks of themselves as a fraud, despite the external signals that they’re doing well.
I was a classic case: I had assignments and midterms telling me that I was doing well, but I just didn’t believe it. (By the way, it turns out imposter syndrome is really, really common. It happens among students, it happens among professionals, and it happens among executives.)
He then presented the situation differently: Because I was working so hard, I was actually learning faster than many others, and that’s why I was doing well. It didn’t matter where other people in the class had started — with 2 years of experience, 5, or 10. Any starting differences would even out soon. The most important thing I could do, if I enjoyed computer science, was to keep learning and building my computer science skills.
I took a leap of faith and took my next computer science class. Then I took another, and then another. Today, I’m a Product Engineer, recently turned Tech Lead Manager, at Quora, and I’m excited about the power that technology has to improve the world at a large scale.
The most valuable perspective that I’ve gained is to embrace my ability to learn. I’ve since done many more things that I had no background in — dabbling in product management, starting Girls Teaching Girls To Code, teaching AP Computer Science in a high school classroom. Every time, I initially wonder whether I can do it — and then I remember that I’ve learned how to learn. I’ve started at zero before, and I can do it again.
I haven’t shaken my imposter syndrome entirely. Just last week, I ran a day of several unproductive meetings, and wondered whether I really deserved the “manager” part of my title. But, I don’t see imposter syndrome as something I need to overcome anymore. Instead, I recognize that it’s part of who I am, and I just need to recognize and adjust for it.
In some sense, imposter syndrome is my own secret sauce: it’s pushed me to work harder than I thought I could work, and it’s shown me that I can learn anything I put my mind to.
Today, I’m still not sure if I deserve the confidence that other people place in me. But I know how to work hard, and I know how to learn — and that’s all I need to tackle anything that comes my way.