Collecting my attempts to improve at tech, art, and life

On Modesty And Imposter Syndrome

Tags: personal marginalia


Articulating and addressing a chain of thought that kept me up last night. It’s a rain dump instead of a crafted essay, because the point was to get it down rather than to get it pretty. It’s something I’ll need to read again.

It might not apply to you, but if some of it does I’m glad.

Don’t get in your own way

Imposter Syndrome is a thing, yes.

Anyone who pays attention and is honest with themselves knows there are things they do not know, and that other people know some of those things.

Some folks who see how much they don’t know assume it means they know nothing of value. Massive oversimplification, but work with me here.

This assumes you value knowledge or competence, of course. If you don’t, then we won’t have much to talk about.

Modesty is good, in moderation. Pretending you know more than you do is at best tasteless, and can be dangerous.

But don’t get in your own way.

I’ve been programming professionally for twenty years. I’ve been knitting for well over ten years. I’ve been sketching close to thirty years.

I’m better than most folks at each of these. Granted, I’m better partly because most folks don’t do any of those things. BUT STILL.

I put in time. I learned things. I know things other practitioners know, and things not every practitioner knows.

I learn new things all the time. I just learned how to look up the spelling of a word with GNU aspell:

$ echo practicioner | aspell -a
@(#) International Ispell Version 3.1.20 (but really Aspell 0.60.7-20110707)
& practicioner 6 0: practitioner, practicing, practice, practiced, practices, practice's

In every one of those domains I’m convinced I’m a raw beginner.

Because there are plenty of things I don’t know, and because sometimes I get brain lock.

Brain lock

I usually only get brain lock when knowing the thing is important to me.

I should know the thing. I should know something. I knew lots of things a second ago. But suddenly I don’t.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the question. I don’t know how to brain. All I know is to be furious at myself.

Is the brain lock just me getting into emotional overload because I didn’t immediately have an acceptable answer?

Is that one of those “gifted child grows up” kind of problems? Yeesh what a depressing thought.

Whatever it is, that brain lock gets in the way.

It gets in the way at work. It gets in the way in relationships. Oh goodness does it get in the way in relationships.

So I think I’m a beginner because I’m still mad at myself for not knowing everything immediately? Maybe.

Regardless of why I feel this way, I need to get over it.

Take a deep breath. Relax. You got this.

Stack building

Started focusing on the crisis moments there, when the original thought was about modesty and Imposter Syndrome.

But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? Taking a specific moment, generalizing it, and then judging yourself based on the generalization?

And then deciding what you are and are not capable of based on that judgment?

And then not doing the thing because you already decided you wouldn’t be good at it?

Hey look at me I built a stack of cognitive distortions!

Let’s pop the stack. How would I look at these if it was someone else?

Avoiding action out of fear is its own entire stack of issues. Let’s just set that one to the side for today.

A person’s capabilities change. They may do better or even worse than you expected, but there is always the possibility of improvement.

Judging someone based on a general pattern of behavior is generally good but limited. They could surprise you given a new context.

Taking a particular moment and imagining this is how the person will behave in every moment is almost always a bad idea.

Some folks I feel perfectly content building a stack like this, but not many.

Certainly nobody I ever felt close to. I know I’ve been fortunate in that regard.

I feel pretty close to myself.

A better stack

So. Yeah. Sometimes I get brain lock. That sucks, and it’s a thing I can work on.

Most of the time my brain is pretty good.

I know things, and I know how to learn more things.

If anything, my general pattern is wanting to learn more and do better.

You can always do better, but usually you’re further along than the last time you tried this.

If it doesn’t feel that way, you’re in the frustrating part of getting better. But you’re still getting better.

It’s a pattern I’ve applied successfully throughout my life. Programming, knitting, sketching, juggling, being a decent human being.

Heck yeah being a decent human being takes wanting to learn more and do better. I’m working on it right now.

There we go. I built a better cognitive stack. I’ll keep revisiting it of course.

Getting rid of the old one takes more than just seeing it.

It’s been with me my whole life, so tearing it down will be the work of a lifetime.

But look at how much I’ve done even with that stack in place!

I can still be realistically modest. I can also take pride in what I have accomplished, and what I’m continuing to accomplish.

Not entirely sure it’s still about modesty or Imposter Syndrome, but I’ll leave the title. And I’ll fight the urge to just stash this file away somewhere, because posting makes it more concrete. I have an easier time holding myself accountable with a post. After all, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen and worked on bits of my cognitive stack.

Now go knit or something.

Take a deep breath. Relax. You got this.

PS. Still not smoking. It’ll be five months on Saturday.

Added to vault 2024-01-15. Updated on 2024-05-02