Imposter syndrome

I’m A Fraud – The Signed Confessions of Michael Heron

My name is Dr. Michael James Heron. And I’m a fraud. Herein lies my confession, in the dying days of the Year of our Lord, 2018. I am a fraud.

Church in Cluj-Napoca

I spend a lot of time wrestling with that fact. I’m a fraud as far as this blog goes. I’m a fraud as far as my professional life is concerned. There’s no way that anyone should be listening to me in any way, shape or form and yet they do. I spend a fair amount of my time on edge, waiting for the moment that everyone finally finds out I’ve been faking everything all along. I’ve been really lucky for most of my life – I’ve stumbled into jobs and opportunities and somehow managed to get out clean before my accumulated missteps and mistakes caught up with me. It’s only a matter of time before my luck runs out and people see me for the charlatan I am.

I mean, look at this blog. Why does anyone pay attention to anything I write? I’m not a person with significant disabilities – I can only ever write from an abled perspective. Listen to that – an accessibility focused blog written by someone that hasn’t seriously experienced disability. It’s a joke. It’s pure luck if any of the ratings I assign to games are anywhere in the approximate ballpark of what they need to be. How on Earth would I know? Someday people are going to work that out. Bad accessibility advice intercut with ponderous, pseudo-intellectual prattling like this. With the occasional derivative game review thrown in. It’s a mess.

And then look at my career – I teach computing for a living and I honestly have no idea what computing even is any more. Sometimes my students enthuse about the gaming rigs they have at home and all I can do is nod and make ‘oo’ sounds every time they pause. It used to be so simple – the more megahertz a computer had, the faster it went. Bigger numbers meant better performance. Now it’s all hyper-threading and cores and Instructions Per Cycle and I have no idea how to compare and contrast. Students are asking me about software frameworks that I’ve never heard about, and occasionally how to put them to uses that sound utterly mystical and alien. I teach game design and game programming in a few modules and man – I don’t even own a current generation console. Except for a Switch I guess, but come on – that’s barely even gaming.

And don’t even get me started on my research. Academic research – what a joke. Writing papers that don’t mean anything for an audience that doesn’t matter. Spending months writing a complex piece of scholarly literature for fewer reads than the least popular books in your local library. Even if any of the work I did was worth doing, it wouldn’t be worth publishing. If it was worth publishing, someone else would have done it already. Board game accessibility?  Nothing more than underwater basket weaving. It must be, right? I am constantly looking at our declining income on Patreon and wondering if finally the jig is up.

I’m a fraud from trunk to skunk.

Does this confession sound familiar? A bit like your own running monologue inside your own head? Sure, maybe the specifics are different but does the general thrust of this resonate? It will for about 70% of you. This is what imposter syndrome sounds like and we don’t spend enough time talking about it. That lack of discourse is tearing people apart from the inside out. Our unwillingness to admit our own vulnerability is pathologising bluff and bluster. It leads to depression, stress and insomnia. It leads to a lack of self-confidence that often manifests as an unbending unwillingness to concede the same. It drives people to have unreasonable standards for themselves, and to beat themselves up when they don’t meet those standards. It’s making us all turtle up rather than reach out, and it’s getting worse. Don’t believe that you’re treading a well-traveled path here? Well, I refer you to this story from Neil Gaiman:

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

Increasingly over the past year I’ve been having this conversation with students. A few of them have opened up to me about their anxieties and worries and the perception they have of (most of) the lecturing staff that they are entrusting with their education. I’m making it my mission to lower the bar of expectations they have of other people, purely because it gives them permission to lower that bar for themselves.

‘I will never understand this’, one student said to me. ‘I spend an hour trying to get something working and then you come along and explain in seconds what was going wrong and I feel so stupid. It’s so easy for you because all of this is just natural’

I was floored at that, even though I shouldn’t be. This wasn’t because she was finding the material challenging. Programming is difficult to learn and anyone that says otherwise is a damn liar. Rather I was amazed that she was under the impression I was some font of inexhaustible knowledge. I’ve been programming since I was six years old and I still make the most ridiculous mistakes in the most spectacular quantities.

‘I have to look up this stuff constantly’, I said to her. She looked surprised. ‘There is no line of code that you have in your program that I haven’t looked up, sometimes as recently as the past week. One in particular I looked up two minutes before the lecture’.

I was surprised at her surprise, mainly because for ten or so years I’ve practised a kind of teaching I think of as ‘Visible Failure’. I don’t carefully prepare example programs ahead of time and then make them available in a learning environment. I don’t have immaculately designed code that I put up on the projector in stages as we discuss the material. I code things live and I let them see me make mistakes. Big mistakes, like completely screwing up a chunk of code. Small mistakes, like forgetting to save a file and then spending a minute working out why nothing is happening the way it is supposed to. I’ve done that to purposefully try to remove the sheen that comes from a public presentation of confidence. ‘Hey’, I’m trying to say. ‘Look, I make all the dumb mistakes you do. It’s fine!’

Another student in the conversation said ‘You say that, but every single time I’ve had a problem with my code you’ve been able to fix it’. It’s amazing what imposter syndrome does – it actually rewrites our memories so to more effectively map to our own sense of incompetence. Her recollection of those encounters was I swooped in and typed in a few keystrokes. Bam, the program was fixed. My memory was ‘Each time I sat down with you for ten minutes and worked it out together with you because I had no idea what your program was doing ’. The same incident, and we both managed to convince ourselves of our own incompetence. I however at least have the happy knowledge that my memory of the circumstances was correct because that too is part of my teaching philosophy. Don’t fix things, work things out with the student. Let them see it’s okay to be confused, but also show them it’s not okay to give up.

Ha, visible failure. What a great way to turn incompetence into a charade of intentionality, right?

Shut up, imposter syndrome.

Sun through the trees in Dundee

I see a lot of this kind of thing on Twitter too – from board game media and associated outlets that are full of people that are suffering from a sense they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. That their success, if manifest, is unearned. That their failures, if present, are inevitable. I’ve hinted at it in previous posts – we’re all having the same thoughts. It’s just not ‘good manners’ to bring it up. So much of social media is based around the edited highlight reel of our lives – the triumphs, and not the tribulations. The good, and not the bad. Most of us present a curated view of ourselves to the outside world because that’s the way you get engagement. Misery rarely goes viral. We want our public selves to be aspirational, and sometimes that aspiration is as much for ourselves.

There are all kinds of harmful patterns into which we fall. We compare ourselves to others, even though comparison is the ‘thief of joy’ as Teddy Roosevelt once memorably said. We look at them and say ‘I want what they’re having’ because what we see is them at their best. My students don’t see me frantically googling the answer to a question I myself posed in a lecture. They don’t know I have a whole bag of tricks I use to give myself a moment to think when I’ve forgotten what the hell I’m trying to accomplish with a piece of code or rhetorical tangent. They don’t see the imposter, most of the time, because I’m good at hiding it. Most of us are. We hide it to the exclusion of our own sense of well-being.

‘Pause’, is advice I give to people worried about public speaking. ‘The audience won’t notice and you’ll appreciate the breathing room’. I’ve even perfected the ‘wise pause’ which is when I stop speaking and gaze off into the distance as if trying to pull the perfectly precise word out of the aether. Often what I’m doing is just trying to work out the end of the sentence. Sometimes I begin speaking with no idea of where a thought is going to end up. I don’t listen to myself when I talk – thankfully, I’ve never been that bored.

‘You know when I bring up the lab exercise on the projector’, I said to my students, ‘and I say okay, so to make sure everyone knows where we are in the class so far here’s where you should be in the lab material.’

‘Yeah?’

‘That’s not for your benefit. That’s for mine. That’s because sometimes I forget what we’re even supposed to be doing, even when it was me that decided it.’

They were sceptical, but it’s true. It’s striking to realise how the transparent trickery that makes up your professional repertoire genuinely isn’t transparent to others. The techniques I use to hide the fact I’m a fraud are occasionally accomplishing it so well that people are actually convinced. In the act of protecting myself from vulnerability, I’m projecting a facade that is actively harming others. And so are most of us, because it’s hard to admit this.

‘Everyone else is doing much better than me’, is a common thing students worry about. From my privileged ‘birds eye’ view of proceedings, I know otherwise. Students often think ‘My peers understand everything better. They don’t spend as much time as I do being confused’. That’s a manifestation of a belief in what I sometimes call the Imposter Deathstar – a misguided Venn diagram guaranteed to make anyone feel bad about themselves.

Imposter death star - Venn Diagram showing that we believe we know only a portion of what everyone else knows, but they know everything we know

The thing is – it’s easy to let the Deathstar aim its beam at you when the lecturer finally stops talking and everyone starts bashing away at their keyboards. You sit there, mystified, while everyone else just leaps at the problem. What you don’t see is that the person to your right is messaging a friend on Facebook asking ‘Did you understand any of that????’ and the one on your left has started typing largely at random in the hope that eventually it coheres into comprehension. The real Venn diagram of life is more encouraging:

A more accurate venn diagram showing only a small intersection in shared knowledge

Or in the language of Black Books:

Students, creators, artists, professionals… people in general. We all need to start giving ourselves a break once in a while. More than this, we need to be visible about it.

You’re giving people too much credit for their accomplishments, and yourself not enough for your own. Your successes are half chance, and so are everyone else’s. Part of what imposter syndrome does is make you believe that you are where you are because of external forces, not your own efforts. And yes, you are – but no more than anyone else is. We make our own fate, in circumstances not of our own choosing.

The first step of breaking out of a harmful recrimination cycle like this is to understand that the cycle exists. The next step is to confirm that it’s not just you – have those conversations with the people around you and feel out how common this actually is. This was a hard post to write, because merely admitting the existence of imposter syndrome puts me in a vulnerable position. My own internal monologue is harmful, and giving it a fixed expression gives it a power that can be used against me. I’m doing it anyway because I’m in a relatively privileged position that the real risks are only to my pride. Let’s be honest – that can probably do with a bit of a pounding anyway. I’ll take it, in the hope the admissions do some good. It’s harder for some people, much riskier for others. The worst that can happen to me is that people agree with my imposter’s syndrome’s assessment of myself and my work, and I can live with that.

After all, I already do – and I trust my view on my work far more than I trust yours.

A while ago I was speaking to a friend of mine about her job hunt, and she was saying that she was looking but every job was asking for qualifications she didn’t have. She felt trapped, unable to get the kind of jobs her talent and academic expertise should have earned.

‘Apply anyway’, I said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever applied for a job where I met all the requirements’

She gave me a sideways look. I asked another passing lecturer. ‘Have you ever applied for a job where you had all the qualifications they listed as essential?’

‘F**k no’, he said, and wandered away.

And isn’t that the key lesson, in a nutshell?

We’re all frauds. Some of us though are in a position where we can take the initiative and admit it, and we should at every chance we get. We all need to admit it more often so that we can make it easier to break the harmful cycles of artifice for others. Every one of us that admits it is going to make it easier for the next person, and the more people that do the better it will be for everyone.

Don’t worry too much about self-confidence. Focus instead on self-compassion. Give yourself the freedom to be honest with how you feel, but also the freedom that comes with understanding how we feel doesn’t make us unique. Give yourself the credit that what you have accomplished is no more driven by chance and external factors than anyone else. Understand that yes, you are a fraud. That doesn’t make you unusual. We’re all only pretending to know what’s going on, some of us are just honest about it. Give yourself a break.

My name is Dr. Michael James Heron, and I’m a fraud. How about you?

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