Healthy Self-Doubt

Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome.

At some point in my software engineering/leadership career, it became evident that I was expected to have Impostor Syndrome. Indeed, it became clear that all underrepresented people in tech were expected to have Impostor Syndrome. I noticed this mostly in groups of women where especially the younger women would talk about “my Impostor Syndrome” as one would talk about “my arteries” or something else we just expect people to have.

I have a problem with this, and I’ll explain why. But first, a bit of context. I’ve been a woman in tech since the Dotcom Boom of the late ’90s. Throughout my career, I have been the only woman a lot: in meetings, on a whole floor of the office, in a codebase, on conference calls, at team lunches, you name it. As a Manager, then Director, and then VP of Engineering, I stood out even more. I’m currently the CTO of a startup, and a very small percentage of these roles are held by women. Despite that, I don’t have Impostor Syndrome. I’m confident that I bring a lot of qualifications to my job.

What I do have is what I like to think of as healthy self-doubt. There are plenty of gaps in my knowledge, but I’m confident that I can ask the right questions, figure out the solutions to problems, and understand what I need to learn. I’m confident that I can have gaps in my skillset because I can build awesome teams and rely on others to meet common goals. Where I can’t hire, I can learn. I don’t need to know everything or be everything to be successful. Does that mean I’ve never failed? Heck no! I’ve failed a bunch! So have all the people around me, regardless of demographics.

Healthy self-doubt is an important tool. It pushes me forward and keeps me from complacency. There’s no “resting on your laurels” in software careers. Success requires continued growth, evolution, and learning. Healthy self-doubt helps me know where to focus my efforts, it helps me prioritize. It helps me figure out when I’m in over my head so I can acknowledge that and then do something about it.

Impostor Syndrome, on the other hand, is really rough. I can only imagine what it must be like to worry that you’ll be uncovered as a fraud at any moment. If this is you, please know that I’m not trying to invalidate that in any way.

However, I believe that much of what we classify as Impostor Syndrome is actually healthy self-doubt and I would love for us to distinguish between the two. The danger with calling everything Impostor Syndrome is that it reinforces otherness. The word “impostor” reinforces the message that you do not belong here.

My point is this: if we expect everybody who is a little bit different to think of themselves as an impostor, we’ve totally lost the plot on this whole inclusion thing. Let’s add the notion of healthy self-doubt to the conversation so that we can distinguish between that which propels us forward and that which holds us back.