Impostor syndrome – my personal story

I think that everyone has heard of the impostor syndrome. Heard, experienced or is struggling with it right now. Thanks to the folks from the company I’m working for, I was able to share my personal story with it, in a company newsletter. I think that it’s quite universal story, and therefore I’ve decided that it is worth publishing here too. Feel free to share and spread the word – the more people reads it, the better.


Hello! I am Michał Piotrowski, Java developer from Poland. I have been working in Nagarro since 2018. Hired as Senior Java Developer, I was recently promoted to a Principal Engineer position. In total, my professional career lasts almost 16 years. Why is that important? Because of the confession, I have to make.

The truth is – I have been an impostor (or felt like one) during this whole period. In this article, I plan to give my perspective on this phenomenon. I want to present my story, and make a point, that deliberate use of the impostor syndrome, can bring you joy and fulfillment – not only self-doubt.


What is impostor syndrome?

For the sake of clarity, we should go back to the basics. What is impostor syndrome? Always helpful Wikipedia will tell you, that it “is a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” Research shows, that almost 80% of people in IT admit to feeling like this in the past, or still feeling like that on the regular basis. A pretty high number, don’t you think? Not to discriminate – other disciplines filled with knowledge-workers are not unfamiliar with it too, but it seems that in the IT world, it is more vivid and alive. And I am sure that almost every one of you was – or still is – living in the shadow of the “impostor”.

Looking back at it, I think, that my syndrome began just right after I started working as a programmer. Truth be told – I am not a computer science or engineering graduate. I have a diploma in political sciences (please try not to laugh). However, imagine a young wanna-be developer, knowing almost next to nothing about professional programming, and still getting a job. It was exciting, and yet – terrifying. Every day seemed like a constant threat of becoming exposed to the lack of knowledge. So, what did I do? I hit the books, and I have hit them hard (FYI – it was the year 2008, and that was the way we were operating back then). Obviously, with that approach, my knowledge was steadily increasing, but my feeling of lacking did not disappear. It is a typical symptom of the syndrome – never enough – whatever you do, know, create, or accomplish. No matter how often you are promoted, how much money you make or how well-spoken of you are – there is always this feeling of inadequacy.

It would be a nice superhero-turned-again moment to say, that all it took was to talk to some guru or mentor, and that had changed my mindset forever. That I was miraculously healed. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The truth is, it took me several years to gather know-how from different sources, and compile it into an actionable method, that I am using every day to cope. I am going to present it below. The tips here may seem simple, but they are not that easy to implement. It is like with this big pizza you know, you should not be eating at 10 PM. You should not, but it just smells too good to pass on. Jokes aside, I am convinced, that they can give you some ground rules when it comes to handling the impostor syndrome.


Comparing yourself to others is just a tool. Use it wisely.

Imagine that you start playing the guitar. At first, finding even the simplest chord feels like an impossible task. At that specific moment, do you feel frustrated, because James Hetfield plays better? Nope, that would be just stupid. Then answer this – why you have no problem with doing so, when it comes to your work? Why, when you have little or no experience in a specific area, you assume that you are a fraud? You are not – you just begin your path. No matter if it is programming in general, a new library, a task to finish, or a programming language to learn. You are a journeyman, and you just embarked on a quest. Just stick to whatever you are doing, learn and practice now and then, and you will eventually get better. The mythical ‘others that already know’ were in the same place as you. What is more – comparison used as a tool can be very powerful. Instead of comparing with way more experienced colleagues and feeling sorry for yourself – just ask them for help, guidance and tips. 99% of the time you will get valuable feedback, that will make you better, kicking your syndrome out.


Play to your strengths. Being a wizard and a warrior is impossible (unless your name is Gandalf).

There is a popular personal traits psychological survey called “Clifton Strengths” (that is run by Gallup Institute). It lists what are your core strengths in life. Survey aside, the important concept that it promotes is your strengths. And the strengths are the ones that you should deal with, not concentrate on the weaknesses. If you work as a front-end developer, should you feel bad about not being able to revert a binary tree writing code on a whiteboard using pure assembly? Possibly not. Concentrate only on what you are doing, or plan to do in a foreseeable future. Stick to getting better with it, and only with it. It is not a sin to enjoy knowing more (yeah, assembly included), but feeling bad because you do not, is just futile. There will be always somebody that knows stuff that you do not, and there will be always things that you feel you should know. Slow down and give yourself a break.


Nobody likes know-it-all-people. So, what is the point in trying to be one?

Feeling like a fraud is not pleasant, and the typical strategy to cope is to learn as much as possible, in order to avoid ‘fraud exposure’. However, society in general does not like people, who think that they know all. That also applies to people that do know a lot about a specific area. Sitting in the ivory tower, giving drops of their knowledge to the rest that live below. The truth is that when learning is applied not wisely, it can lead to you being seen as a self-important jerk, that just knows everything better than anyone. Don’t do that, it just does not work. Showing that you are human, and may not know how to do something, does not make you weak or less capable. It makes you who you are – the real human being – and in general, a way more likable person.


Hiding is not an option. 

The tips I am presenting can be divided into two categories – related to how we feel, and what we do. This one is about doing. The typical reaction of an “imposter” to the upcoming task is to hide and avoid it. It makes sense from the rational perspective – I am a fraud, so if I do not have to do some new or complicated task, nobody will find out. To make you better at that specific moment, it is a perfect solution. Unfortunately, it does not work that well in a long term. Limiting yourself to a very narrow domain and sticking with it no matter what does not solve any problem. My suggestion here is to volunteer and tackle the task at hand. Do not run, face whatever is coming to you. Usually, it is just fear, that makes things look twice as bad as they are. You can start small and take it from there.


Be modest and honest.

That is the last tip, and I think it is the most important and hard, at the same time. Be honest about what you know or can do (especially with yourself). Be modest when it comes to showing it. From the psychological perspective being 100% honest is very hard, as it pokes our self-esteem and ego. Modesty takes away the opportunity to show off and score points. However, in exchange, it frees a lot of energy, that we usually spend building a persona, that we show to the world. Just give it a try and see what happens.

I am using these tips every day, to keep my impostor syndrome in check. As I have mentioned – they may seem simple, but it is not that easy to put them into practice. Do they always work? Am I impostor syndrome free? No. And no. I don’t think it is even possible to eradicate the syndrome completely, once and for all. However, all things considered, so far it played out nice for me. Since I have started implementing above tips in practice, my life became easier. What is more – I was still being promoted and praised by my colleagues. I started this blog and kept adding some well-starred content on GitHub. Not out of fear of being exposed as a fraud, but for the sheer joy of learning, creating, and sharing. I have learned that saying: “I do not know” does not necessarily mean being fired. That asking others for help or guidance is not the end of the world. It is a mighty gift – you allow others to have the opportunity to share and contribute to the improvement of a colleague. As you can see – the impostor syndrome that is taken under control can boost your productivity and make your life easier. Try to become friends with your impostor and use his power for your own benefit.


How did it work for me?

Just to give you an actual example of how it worked in practice for me. Nagarro is the place, where I had an actual opportunity to work in a larger team on the regular basis. Before joining, I spent over three years working as a single consultant, and therefore impostor did not show that much. Upon joining my current project, where there are over 50 people – it kicked back hard. What helped me with fighting it back, was an actual performance review process, that is a part of every employer’s life. Reading really kind and nice things that my colleagues had written about me, really helped. I’m mentioning it in my tips – believe that you’re doing something right.

The other thing is the opportunity to start small when it comes to trying new things. Obviously, that depends on the project. However, from my experience so far – Nagarro sees that kind of coming forward as a trait that should be encouraged and cherished. Want to make some changes? Just give it a try. Want to step out of your comfort zone (by being vulnerable to things you may not know)? Prepare a presentation/workshop for your teammates. I did that, so I am sure that you can too.

I can only wish that my story will help some of you in your everyday struggle with the impostor syndrome, the same way it helped me. For those, who do not have a problem with it, I hope it was still an interesting read. Maybe now, you take a moment to think, if there is somebody in your team, that may have a problem with it. Increasing awareness of the syndrome is also quite important. The more we talk about it, the better. To finish with a positive accent – remember the statistics I have quoted at the beginning. Circa 80% of people in IT admit, that they suffer (or suffered) from impostor syndrome. To say it short – you and I – are not alone.

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