Imposter syndrome is the topic du jour for blogs and podcasts, so I’m almost reluctant to write about it. However, I want to share something I realized about myself that breaks from the conversation at large about this popular subject.
Imposter syndrome can be defined as the persistent feeling that we don’t deserve our accomplishments and are, in effect, frauds waiting to be discovered. In the networking community this is prevalent inasmuch as the blogs, podcasts, and private conversations I’ve had would suggest.
In the tech field, imposter syndrome often manifests itself with feeling you’re not at the technical level of those around you and therefore don’t deserve to be in your position. This might be within the hierarchy at work, in a customer meeting, or in the various tech communities we belong to.
My own dealings with imposter syndrome started that way. Early in my networking career I found myself lost in meetings or without something meaningful to contribute at events, yet for some odd reason my colleagues still wanted me there.
The feeling of being discovered a fraud was almost palpable.
However, I’ve realized that the reasons I experience imposter syndrome today are different. You see, I finally feel very comfortable in technical conversations about complex routing designs, data center networking, and various emerging technologies.
It’s not that I’ve reached the pinnacle of technical proficiency – far from it. But for whatever reason, not being the best engineer in a hundred mile radius just doesn’t bother me anymore.
So why do I still deal with imposter syndrome from time-to-time? There are two aspects about my career that gnaw at me once in a while.
First, I’m a career changer.
I know it might sound ridiculous that this would contribute to feelings of being a fraud, but hear me out.
I don’t have a degree in computer science, and I wasn’t even remotely interested in computers (let alone networking) as a child or young adult. I was a traditional classroom teacher (high school English) for several years before I realized I was bored and had little hope to increase my income significantly.
I chose to get into IT as an adult for very practical reasons, and as I started to climb the ladder of engineering positions, I felt behind everyone close to my age. For example, I was 28 or 29 when I started my first helpdesk job, the age many of my friends in the community were well-underway in building their careers and getting high level certifications.
To be fair, this has motivated me tremendously, but it has also left me feeling constantly behind – a feeling that persists today. Sometimes I have a sense of being a second-tier engineer because I changed careers as a young adult and still have to catch up. In a sense, I don’t feel like a “real” engineer.
Illogical? You bet. Ridiculous? I agree. Nevertheless, the thought pops into my non-Vulcan brain enough that I felt compelled to write about it.
Second, I don’t have a CCIE.
There’s a part of me that believes that I’m a second-tier engineer because I have only a CCNP and no CCIE numbers after my name. This begs the question of what in the world “first” and “second” tier engineers are, but that only supports the notion that my thinking is pretty illogical.
Though I don’t have a CCIE, I work at a reasonably high level in my dayjob and interact with CCIEs in the networking community all the time. In that sense, my daily activities are a constant reminder that there are two classes of network engineers: those with a CCIE, and those without.
Is that really true? No, I don’t intellectually believe that. But do I still think that anyway once in a while? Yep.
I’ve built a great career, earn a decent living, and get to participate in a very public way in the networking community. I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in spite of not having a CCIE.
So do I believe I need a CCIE to be successful? Nope. But do I still feel that weird sense of being second-rate for not having one? Yes, sometimes I do.
My own thinking contradicts itself more than I care to admit.
I’ve always equated imposter syndrome to feelings of technical deficiency, so it was a revelation to me when I realized the latest pangs I was experiencing were related to something else. Maybe that’s the first step in dealing with it.
I don’t have a neat and tidy conclusion for you, or for myself for that matter, other than to say that imposter syndrome is pretty illogical. However, it doesn’t make it any less impactful on us.
I have yet to completely give myself over to pure Spock-like logical thinking, and until I do, I expect imposter syndrome will persist to one extent or another and manifest itself differently as I change as a person.
We are much more complex than a clever tweet or a mathematical formula suggests. Inside all of us are jumbles of thoughts, emotions, and contradictions swirling around like so much paint.
In the words of Walt Whitman,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)