I'm a phony. Are you?
pho·ny also pho·ney (fō'nē) adj. pho·ni·er, pho·ni·est
a. Not genuine or real; counterfeit: a phony credit card.
b. False; spurious: a phony name.
2. Not honest or truthful; deceptive: a phony excuse.
a. Insincere or hypocritical.
b. Giving a false impression of truth or authenticity; specious.
Along with my regular job at Microsoft I also mentor a number of developers and program managers. I spoke to a young man recently who is extremely thoughtful and talented and he confessed he was having a crisis of confidence. He was getting stuck on things he didn't think he should be getting stuck on, not moving projects forward, and it was starting to seep into his regular life.
"Deep down know I’m ok. Programming since 13, graduated top of CS degree, got into Microsoft – but [I feel like I'm] an imposter."
I told him, straight up, You Are Not Alone.
For example, I've got 30 domains and I've only done something awesome with 3 of them. Sometimes when I log into my DNS manager I just see 27 failures. I think to myself, there's 27 potential businesses, 27 potential cool open source projects just languishing. If you knew anything you'd have made those happen. What a phony.
I hit Zero Email a week ago, now I'm at 122 today in my Inbox and it's stressing me out. And I teach people how to manage their inboxes. What a phony.
When I was 21 I was untouchable. I thought I was a gift to the world and you couldn't tell me anything. The older I get the more I realize that I'm just never going to get it all, and I don't think as fast as I used to. What a phony.
I try to learn a new language each year and be a Polyglot Programmer but I can feel F# leaking out of my head as I type this and I still can't get my head around really poetic idiomatic Ruby. What a phony.
I used to speak Spanish really well and I still study Zulu with my wife but I spoke to a native Spanish speaker today and realize I'm lucky if I can order a burrito. I've all but forgotten my years of Amharic. My Arabic, Hindi and Chinese have atrophied into catch phrases at this point. What a phony. (Clarification: This one is not intended as a humblebrag. I was a linguist and languages were part of my identity and I'm losing that and it makes me sad.)
But here's the thing. We all feel like phonies sometimes. We are all phonies. That's how we grow. We get into situations that are just a little more than we can handle, or we get in a little over our heads. Then we can handle them, and we aren't phonies, and we move on to the next challenge.
The idea of the Imposter Syndrome is not a new one.
Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
The opposite of this is even more interesting, the Dunning-Kruger effect. You may have had a manager or two with this issue. ;)
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes.
It's a great read for a Wikipedia article, but here's the best line and the one you should remember.
...people with true ability tended to underestimate their relative competence.
I got an email from a podcast listener a few years ago. I remembered it when writing this post, found it in the archives and I'm including some of it here with emphasis mine.
I am a regular listener to your podcast and have great respect for you. With that in mind, I was quite shocked to hear you say on a recent podcast, "Everyone is lucky to have a job" and apply that you include yourself in this sentiment.
I have heard developers much lesser than your stature indicate a much more healthy (and accurate) attitude that they feel they are good enough that they can get a job whenever they want and so it's not worth letting their current job cause them stress. Do you seriously think that you would have a hard time getting a job or for that matter starting your own business? If you do, you have a self-image problem that you should seriously get help with.
But it's actually not you I'm really concerned about... it's your influence on your listeners. If they hear that you are worried about their job, they may be influenced to feel that surely they should be worried.
I really appreciated what this listener said and emailed him so. Perhaps my attitude is a Western Cultural thing, or a uniquely American one. I'd be interested in what you think, Dear Non-US Reader. I maintain that most of us feel this way sometimes. Perhaps we're unable to admit it. When I see programmers with blog titles like "I'm a freaking ninja" or "bad ass world's greatest programmer" I honestly wonder if they are delusional or psychotic. Maybe they just aren't very humble.
I stand by my original statement that I feel like a phony sometimes. Sometimes I joke, "Hey, it's a good day, my badge still works" or I answer "How are you?" with "I'm still working." I do that because it's true. I'm happy to have a job, while I could certainly work somewhere else. Do I need to work at Microsoft? Of course not. I could probably work anywhere if I put my mind to it, even the IT department at Little Debbie Snack Cakes. I use insecurity as a motivator to achieve and continue teaching.
I asked some friends if they felt this way and here's some of what they said.
- Totally! Not. I've worked hard to develop and hone my craft, I try to be innovative, and deliver results.
- Plenty of times! Most recently I started a new job where I've been doing a lot of work in a language I'm rusty in and all the "Woot I've been doing 10 years worth of X language" doesn't mean jack. Very eye opening, very humbling, very refreshing
- Quite often actually, especially on sites like stack overflow. It can be pretty intimidating and demotivating at times. Getting started in open source as well. I usually get over it and just tell myself that I just haven't encountered a particular topic before so I'm not an expert at it yet. I then dive in and learn all I can about it.
- I always feel like a phony just biding my time until I'm found out. It definitely motivates me to excel further, hoping to outrun that sensation that I'm going to be called out for something I can't do
- Phony? I don't. If anything, I wish I was doing more stuff on a grander scale. But I'm content with where I am now (entrepreneurship and teaching).
- I think you are only a phony when you reflect your past work and don't feel comfortable about your own efforts and achievements.
- Hell, no. I work my ass off. I own up to what I don't know, admit my mistakes, give credit freely to other when it's due and spend a lot of time always trying to learn more. I never feel like a phony.
- Quite often. I don't truly think I'm a phony, but certainly there are crises of confidence that happen... particularly when I get stuck on something and start thrashing.
There are some folks who totally have self-confidence. Of the comment sample above, there are three "I don't feel like a phony" comments. But check this out: two of those folks aren't in IT. Perhaps IT people are more likely to have low self-confidence?
The important thing is to recognize this: If you are reading this or any blog, writing a blog of your own, or working in IT, you are probably in the top 1% of the wealth in the world. It may not feel like it, but you are very fortunate and likely very skilled. There are a thousand reasons why you are where you are and your self-confidence and ability are just one factor. It's OK to feel like a phony sometimes. It's healthy if it's moves you forward.
I'll leave you with this wonderful comment from Dave Ward:
I think the more you know, the more you realize just how much you don't know. So paradoxically, the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more you might tend to fixate on the growing collection of unlearned peripheral concepts that you become conscious of along the way.
That can manifest itself as feelings of fraudulence when people are calling you a "guru" or "expert" while you're internally overwhelmed by the ever-expanding volumes of things you're learning that you don't know.
However, I think it's important to tamp those insecurities down and continue on with confidence enough to continue learning. After all, you've got the advantage of having this long list of things you know you don't know, whereas most people haven't even taken the time to uncover that treasure map yet. What's more, no one else has it all figured out either. We're all just fumbling around in the adjacent possible, grasping at whatever good ideas and understanding we can manage to wrap our heads around.
Tell me your stories in the comments.
And remember, "Fake it til' you make it."
Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.
I constantly battle with this and it leads me to massively undervalue myself until I do one thing.... compare.
Compare myself to my peers, friends, work mates. Not in a conceited, arrogant way but just to gain perspective on how far along my personal journey I am.
I love discussing ideas, concepts, and especially anything I know nothing about, constant learning should be embraced by all... knowing how much I don't know is, for me, an important part of constant learning.
Being able to formulate meaningful questions from very limited amounts of knowledge on a subject is a good demonstration of intelligence for me, how quickly does someone just "get" something, shows they can listen, learn, assimilate and are hungry to constantly improve, no matter what level they may be at the subject in hand.
I do find that techie people struggle to find where they "fit", what are their weaknesses and strengths and how could a team being built of those different strengths and weaknesses compliment each other and the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. This struggle directly relates to people understanding if they're phoney or not.
From my point of view you Americans look very confident and aware of your selfs, we Belgians tend to be a lot more timid. But it's a person thing and your personality is not entirely caused by your upbringing or where you come from, partly yes but not all of it.
And you never looked phony to me.
BTW: I guess you think you are phony because you care what other people think of you and how they perceive you. And we all do in a way.
I really appreciated what this listener said and emailed him so. Perhaps my attitude is a Western Cultural thing, or a uniquely American one. I'd be interested in what you think, Dear Non-US Reader. I maintain that most of us feel this way sometimes.
Why can't a person be confident that that person is good at what that person does, simply because that person has been doing that for a long period of time, making that person a specialist in the field of what the person does best?
All that "but I'm just a guy who codes, nothing special"... it's mature, it's nice, it's what people want to hear, because the alternative is in general considered arrogant, but let's face it: why? If a person is a very good programmer, that person is a damn good programmer, and IMHO that person is fully entitled to say so. If another person finds that 'arrogant' or can't stand that attitude, maybe it's because hearing another person say "I'm damn good in what I do" actually confronts them with their own situation: they might not be there (yet) at that spot where the specialists are.
That's perfectly fine though, it's just that IMHO in general people don't want to hear it, don't want to know it. What they don't realize, is that some people actually have spend a massive amount of their own time in their craft, when others went to the swimming pool, to parties etc, they were coding, digging through statement lists etc. All that investment in a small set of things for a long period of time pays off. They became very good at those things.
It's always a challenge to find the right balance between "I'm so incredibly smart/great/awesome" and "I suck, really, there's nothing I don't f*ck up within 2 minutes". People with a lot of confidence might lean more to the former, people with lack of confidence might lean towards the latter. In the end, does it matter? IMHO, only for the people who's lives suffer because they classify themselves in the wrong category.
Your article really illustrates that if you want to do everything for a long period of time, even with full dedication, you won't become the specialist you might think you are in everything. If you do just a few things and for a long period of time even with full dedication, you might excel in those few things, but you can be sure you're a total n00b in everything else.
For the record, I too find myself struggling with stuff which is simple to others. E.g. at the moment I'm fighting with ASP.NET, as I'm not a specialist in it or better: I simply suck at it: I'm still stuck in the 1990-ies way of doing HTML, as that's what I know. But to be honest, I don't see myself as a phony in that area, just not being skilled in that area, and therefore underachieving in that area.
I think the word 'phony' really applies when someone claims to be a specialist in field F and that turns out to be a lie.
Once, a friend of mine who was working for Microsoft Algeria told me something (in the context of hiring new [unexperienced] graduates) that could be a good analogy to this. he said that, sometimes you would have someone who's at level 0, thinking he'd known it all. He'll come to you, right after the training period, where he's learned a little bit (maybe gone from 0 to 1, maybe 2!), and he'll "renegociate" his contract, because "he has experience now", and "he's advanced a lot" (maybe he did, there isn't a factor number that get's you 1 or 2 when you multiply it to 0 :P ).
However, when the person you hire is a little more knowledgable (say at level 4), he'll be more humbled, and even when he gets to lever 5 or 6, he won't come rushing to you for a raise, because he "went deeper into the rabit hole" (quoting Ward), and has a feeling of what's ahead, and maybe even, thinking he's a foney ;).
so, yeah, if you feel you're phoney (like me), as long as it's keeping you moving forward, don't worry, because that means you're on a good track :)
Thanks for the article Scott, always good stuff
I live in Denmark, and have never worked or lived in USA. I am a self taught web developer with a university degree in philosophy, I've previously been self employed for 8 years and am currently working as a developer in a smallish Umbraco centric web solutions company in Denmark.
I can really relate to the i-feel-phony feeling you're describing here. I usually ascribe this feeling to the fact that I am self taught, and have no real educational background in the work I'm actually doing. What really surprises me is the fact that everybody around me seem to have great respect for me and the work I do.
I don't know if it's this feeling that produces my insatiable thirst for learning new stuff, or if it's just another personality trait of mine. But I do know that I need to have a job where it is necessary to keep learning new things, if it wasn't I would get quickly get bored and start looking for something else to do.
Anyway I think this feeling is not a particular US related feeling but it might very well be a feeling only related to WEIRD people. (WEIRD ~ Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic)
I never went to college or any other kind of technical high school. I learned to program by myself and managed to get first job somehow.
When they asked me where did I go to school I managed to skip that answer somehow.
And during interview about technical stuff I nailed it because I really knew it good.
Guys who worked with me just assumed I must of have some high education like they did so they addressed in that fashion.
What happened next, I felt like real phony among those guys and it had nothing to do with my work, it was just the way I felt.
I spent nights and days learning, reading books, blogs, forums, coding, working just to make this feeling go away.
I learned stuff that's not even part of my job, project or anything related just to have a dissent answer if question comes up at some point.
What happens next is I become manager to rest of those guys as reflection of my knowledge and dedicated work.
They were so sure that everything they need to know was already given to them and learning new stuff is not so necessary.
It's been years and different companies since my first job and from my first gig up till now I only went up in structure (and payment) hierarchy, but
that feeling of phoniness and incompetence never went away.
Maybe it's that inside drive that still helps me to improve myself and move ball forward.
A fellow software developer at work told me he looks back every five years in retrospect and realizes how much he is amazed at how little his former self really knew, and this cycle repeats for him every five years.
I recently felt like a phony when I joined a new team at work. I noticed that one of my teammates in QA was modifying my check-ins, and it kind of felt insulting. Then I realized he has been on the project for ten years, he understands the code base better, and he does the same to everyone else. I’ll get over it.
I have noticed a few things of the software industry (since moving over from academic science), notably there are people that deserve heaps of praise (for humbly helping others learn the craft, like yourself Scott) and others that have (in my opinion) a pretentiousness about them (and probably add to peoples insecurities about their own abilities/knowledge). Thankfully, the former type, in my experience are much more prevalent, but still some humble pie (and ice cream of course) should be added to the menu.
Like you said Scott, it is unlikely that the phoniness that we sometimes experience is deserved. I like to take stock on the things I have achieved and be proud of them.
I also feel phony because I feel like I are leaving a lot of issues to a question of luck.
I can totally relate to this. Don't know why really. Perhaps it's the field? IT is so vast and complex; the minute you have learned how to do a fourier transform in code, write a cool ASP.NET custom control, or rotate a tiangle in DirectX you're humbled by the fact that your knwoledge are tiny compare to the huge freaking cake. The whole cakes is so enormous, full of cream and with pretty small candles on it; the odds are that whenever you engange in some discussion with a fellow developer his expertise is totally different from yours, which makes you feel like a know-it-not!
But nice to know that people at MS also feel like that sometimes :)
I often have self-doubts because it feels like there's so much I don't know. I guess this happens to all of us who work in development teams, read other developer's blogs or browse forums on the internet. But then again, when I look at what I do every day and what I have done in the past years I am glad to say that I seem to know enough to get by without feeling like a phony. You need to take a moment and put things in perspective at times to realize that you don't have to hide your abilities and your experience.
I guess when you do it right, feeling like a fake at times motivates you to push yourself a bit. When it demotivates you, this is surely a bad sign. I try to be very honest with what I know and what I don't assuming that the people I work with directly will know that just because I don't know something this doesn't mean I'm stupid or lazy but that this a natural thing when you do the work we do.
I try to remind myself that so far I have done well in my job and try to learn what I don't know, but I admit that sometimes confronted with other developers who seem to know way more than I do I feel a bit overwhelmed and don't even dare to join the conversation because I feel like I can't add anything of value. But it's actually nice to know that I'm not the only one. Phew.
On a slightly different note I know that aside from my knowledge and experience regarding my job I know that I have other talents that I can be proud of. On a day when I get a bit too much of the feeling that there's too much I do not know, it helps to go home and be reminded of the other things I can do that others can't.
At times, I do feel like a phony, failure, loser and other negative terms that one might think of calling me (or anyone else). Other times, I am an ego maniac thinking that I am the best software engineer in the world (aren’t I? ;-) ).
I remember being laid off on Nov 13, 2001. That night as my wife and I got ready for bed, I told her not to worry that I would have a job in 2 weeks. A year and half later, I finally got a job working at one of my previous companies (not the one that laid me off). The layoff and time it took to find a new job was quite the eye-opener as I thought I had skills (I did and do, but the skill set is always changing), that I was the developer everyone would want (my ego showing here), and that I was the best candidate (this really depended on the position and company). I think part of the delay was my ego and attitude toward companies.
The experience taught me a couple of things.
• Depend on God
• Be more humble
• Always be learning
Currently, I am finishing a developer certification, but it seems outdated already as there is a new one. The new certification will soon be outdated because there is a new technology and tools to learn. Unfortunately, my current contract / engagement does not allow me the ability to learn the new technology.
For me, the feeling is not so much about being a phony; the feeling is more about being out-dated. The software languages I learned in college are not being used (the basic concepts are though). The VB I taught myself in 1999 is last century. :-) Keeping up with MS tech (or even just .NET framework and C#) is a challenge.
All I can do is realize there is something to learn and that the only time I will stop learning is when I stop breathing. Otherwise, I need to keep moving forward and stagnant.
In this western society, you might as well call it "commercial". If I don't get paid for the decisions I make, I feel less like an imposter.
And we are all knowledgable up untill a certain point, after that we can try to make educated guesses.
I'm aware that not everyone can handle such feelings, but again, not everyone has the same passion for what they do. I believe this only happens to people that are really passionate about their jobs and want always to go deeper down the rabbit hole.
It is great to know I'm not the only one that feels this way.
BTW, I'm from Brazil, so yes, this feeling has nothing to do with you being in the US. ;)
This feeling was amplified like never before last year when I attended my first two conferences. One was a PHP conference in Chicago called php|tek and the other was a Microsoft conference at the Redmond campus, VS Live. I was learning quite a bit from the speakers and sessions, but also at lunch and in the hallways with fellow attendees. I realized just how many smart, talented people are out there, especially compared with the the people I normally meet in my home town.
At first, it was kind of disheartening, but the more I thought about it, I realized this was actually a good source of motivation. Having an opportunity to stay in touch with some of the speakers/attendees in the months after the conferences, I realized these are normal developers just like me, but who have focused enough on a topic to deeply master it and teach it to others. That helped me to refocus my efforts on the core technologies I work with every day. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel like a guru/ninja/rockstar/master/insert catch phrase here. But, I do feel more confident overall and it's easier to talk myself out of those occasional feelings mentioned above.
One related point that I learned from this experience is that it's much better to surround yourself with people that are smarter, more experienced and wiser than you than to surround yourself with people that aren't. The first group can certainly bruise your ego at times and make you realize what areas you are lacking in, but I'd much prefer that to a blissful ignorance that "I'm at the top of my game". I've given this advice to a few people considering a job move: If you really think you're the smartest developer at the company, you should probably move to a bigger/smarter company. Otherwise you'll stagnate.
Good to know that I am not alone.
On the other hand working mostly alone or with people who cannot really teach you anything is dangerous because sooner or later I get too bored and demotivated. I guess it needs a certain amount of confidence to ignore the feeling of "unworthiness" and just focus on learning and improving, but when you can do that it's great.
Thank you very much for this article.
Thanks for this one and I look forward to many more!
Of course, I still have a will to learn and a certain enthusiasm for my work. And I actually applied for a job at Microsoft last Friday. It's a position on the Bing team. Since I haven't mastered the more advanced concepts like natural language interpretation and machine learning, that isn't doing much for my confidence in getting the job. But the job sounds fascinating to me anyway, and if I'm brought in for an interview I only hope that my past experience and my enthusiasm will be enough.
Re: imposter syndrome - your coworkers abilities are probably a big influence. The average developer at MS is probably way better than at Little Debbie's, so you won't feel as competent. The work is probably close to or just beyond your current limits so you always feel a bit behind. But if you've been there for years and you're delivering quality output then have 4 or 5 beers every Friday evening to relax and reflect how good your life really is.
Another possibility is your management's priorities vs. your own. If deadlines are way more important than code quality, but you're really into code quality, no, you won't feel good when you look at what other people produce when they have time to write and test quality code. A fix for this is to write hobby or open source code in your own way after hours just to show yourself you can.
It's important to remember that the feelings that this anxiety engenders are often not the truth of your situation. Thinking that you are a failure because you haven't met the unreasonable goals you have set for yourself is obviously fallacious, but because you FEEL that way it becomes the truth of it. Only when you step back and do something that breaks this train of thought are you able to see the truth. In this case Scott, when you wrote down that you felt like a phony I bet it struck you as a bit ridiculous to write that, because even though you feel that way it is far from the actual truth.
The is a reason why there are so many self help books out there. Most of the systems for managing time or work that are out there are all about managing anxiety through planning. If you set the proper goals and organization in place any task or set of tasks can be managed despite feelings of anxiety. I'm sure every one of the people that read this who have those feelings of anxiety all the time remember doing something to organize themselves and push through anxious behavior to succeed.
I'll say it again because it bears repeating, in many cases where negative emotions take hold the key thing to recognize is that the feelings you are having are often not the truth of your situation.
In my opinion, this is THE MOST INTERESTING and INSPIRING blog post I have ever read from you . Seriously. I hope you and Rob will consider digging into this subject over at TDL. I have not yet started my day coding, but knowing that I am not alone in my phoney feelings makes me feel..... well, like I'm going to have great day.
Kind Regards Sir!
Dave Ward hit the nail on the head with his amazing insight:
"We're all just fumbling around in the adjacent possible, grasping at whatever good ideas and understanding we can manage to wrap our heads around."
For me, one of my biggest fears of speaking is due to fear of being exposed, not so much as a phony, but for my ignorance, as in, I don't know what I don't know & would hate to discover what that might be in front of a room full of people.
As for your reference to that (awesome!) Polyglot Programming Hanselmintues, Ivan Towlson served up a huge slice of humble pie in that episode. I would think he probably makes almost any programmer feel like a phony in comparison. Inspiring :)
Nowadays I live back in Mexico, & I'm convinced that there are so many more things I should know by now that I don't know yet. Feeling a phoney really pushes me forward, so I keep studying, working hard & keeping my eyes open for new opportunities. It is a shame I can't see some of the guys I used to work with, they were really inspirational.
Anyways, thanks for sharing!
Dave's rabbit hole comment really hits home. One related fear I always feel is that I'm going down the wrong rabbit hole. Doesn't really matter which technology I focus on, there's always the nagging fear that I'm picking one that will fizzle and leave me scrambling to learn something new and get a new job.
I have tried to analyze my fears over the years, and I think it comes down to the chicken and egg nature of development work. A company won't hire you unless you have experience with whizz-bang technology X, but you can't get experience with the technology until someone hires you. You can break through that barrier, but it requires enormous amounts of effort beyond your normal workload. The risk is that you apply all that extra work to a technology stack that doesn't pan out. You can't wait until the technology HAS become popular, because they are like flares. They go from zero, to full light to fading very quickly. When a technology is in full burn, it is time to be prepping for the NEXT one...
The result is that you have to make shallow forays into lots of rabbit holes, then pick one for the deep dive. That way if you find snakes down there, you at least know how to find some other holes...
My advice would be to, um, find a wise old rabbit with a flare in each hand, saddle him up and ride him down the, uh, rabbit hole to Wonderland? Perhaps I have stretched the analogies too far. Or not far enough? Hmm.
from last 4 years i have been following you by reading your posts, tweets, and listening to your product casts and off course the hanselminutes, you changed my way of thinking, you are always an inspiration to push my self to the edge, today i solute you, and want say one thing only "Thank you Sir"
So being proud of your effort is as silly as being proud of having rich parents, or having been born in America, or getting a bike as a birthday present. (Or do you think the seed that falls on rock and never sprouts is just lazy and with some more effort it would do great?) We all come to life with a bag of advantages and disadvantages, talents and handicaps, and we all make the best of what we have.
With this perspective there is no pride and there is no shame, and there is no need to be someone else. There is only doing what looks best, and learning from the experience. There are a lot of people smarter than I am, and that is great because their work is delicious (have you seen Linq and Rx?). And yes, the ability to see greatness in others is a gift too, and so is the realization you are lucky to have job.
Enjoy and be grateful. Every moment.
Anyways. I think if one isn't pushing himself to learn more and achieve greater things then they won't feel phony sometimes. But if you are trying to learn more and go outside of your comfort zone than it is easy to feel overwhelmed and under equipped.
I've been self teaching myself programming (got a masters in electrical engineering but got bored with the field - don't care to go in the management direction) and I started with VBA and am now learning VB.NET. Man, sometimes I wish I would have done a CS degree instead by its been nice to have all the experiences I've had and programming offers the ability to continue learning and continue the feelings of inadequacy.
1 Not knowing that you don't know
2 Knowing that you don't know
3 Not knowing that you know
4 Knowing that you know
5 Goto 1
My c# experience, sharepoint, and crm projects havent gone to waste it was always useful but it feels i can realize now more. Moving forward means sometimes killing your darlings, throwing away 10 years of your favorite language.
It doest matter, it shows that you've got balls. I can easily pay me app with c#, but in opensource not so sure. But we'll see. Keep learning, trying, succeeding and failing.
like the zoom into the Mandelbrot picture; there is always more details to know.
This makes ppl who realize it humble some times even feeling like a phony.
It is as well caused (i think) by putting your own possibilities and knowledge into perspective of the always growing whole... so relatively seen the impression is that of your own knowledge shrinking ... in relation.
Things that helped me see my real phonyness:
- weed (haha)
- a book called Radical Honesty
- a man named Bill Hicks
What am I doing to feel less of a dumbass (not in any order)?
- questioning myself continuously
- got rid of most of my electronics/tv and stopped buying them.
- got rid of all my domains kept the only the ones that I am actually working on
- started using vi for all my editing
- following the rule: stfu & work
- trying to be genuinely interested in whatever task I am doing at the moment
- stop thinking so much about irrelevant stuff and stop planning too much into the future.
Thanks Scott, it is a good post.
Like @Denis mentioned Socrates was the first to announce he was a phoney. We are all merely following him.
I think the travelled ground is perceived with a lesser magnitude than that which is yet to be crossed, so as you learn the true scope of your topics of interest, your achievements to date 'feel' less significant.
As has been mentioned, it's only when you take a moment and inspect the milestones that comprise your achievments, and put them in perspective with relation to your peers, that you realise their true significance.
I have been programming for a long time, since I was very young, and I do it constantly because it is what I love. As a result I am good at it. There are of course a ton of things that I don't know, and I am always trying to learn more (which is one of the reasons why I come to this blog). No matter how much time I spend studying, there will be a lot of things that I NEVER know. That doesn't matter; what matters is what I DO know, and how I use that knowledge.
"Hell, no. I work my ass off. I own up to what I don't know, admit my mistakes, give credit freely to other when it's due and spend a lot of time always trying to learn more. I never feel like a phony."
I think that pretty much sums it up for me.
Probably one of the best blog posts of the year [insert suitable award here]...
First off, we tend to as people to measure ourselves rather harsher the older we get - is it because life's taught us so many lessons or just because that youthful "invincibility" wears off? who knows, but it's definitely a fact that we do.
Now, i used to have huge self-esteem issues...i was a failure...i couldn't provide a suitable standard of living for my family...i was selfish. One of the things I learned was not to measure myself by my failures, but by my successes and things slowly started to turn around. I can now provide a decent level living for my family....am i a phoney. To some extent yes...do i complete every project I start (or even start those i intend to start)? definitely not...Does it make me a phoney? I'd like to think I'm not, but deep down that doubt always lingers...should have...could have...would have.
Life has a tendency to throw you curve balls and how you react is what's important.
If at first we don't succeed, try again...
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; avoid him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a student; teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows i asleep; wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is a wise man; follow him.
There are also days when "delusional or psychotic" (perhaps both) apply - just ask any of the people who work for me, or that I mentor....
I think perspective here is interesting. Scott, I read the things in this post that make you feel like a phony and think "really?? 3 successful domains and multiple spoken and programming languages and YOU think you are a phony?". But I know there are people I work with who would feel the same way about me admitting I feel like a phony.
I think how you think of yourself and your competency level is in part determined by who you surround yourself with - both physically and virtually (in the case of developers). You work at Microsoft, which like all the great technology firms of today has a LOT of very smart people, and you yourself recognize this and point out the insane smartness of some of your peers.
I think surrounding yourself with these types of people makes you reevaluate the 'I'm one of the smartest guys in the room' benchmark that everyone has in their own head to bring you down a peg or two because you're in the company of geniuses. That's quite natural. I think most developers also 'meet' and interact with the best of their profession on sites like StackOverflow and often recognize genius in others there, so you probably don't have to work directly with others to appreciate this. The internet has made meeting and recognizing the talent of other programmers no longer dependent on your geographical location.
If you work with idiots all day you might think you're "the bomb" - but surrounding yourself with some of the smartest programmers on the planet in turn makes you smarter too, because you strive harder to be the best person you can possibly be. I know which group I'd rather be in !
I think for me the issue boils down to time and ambition. I can think of 101 improvements to the programs I write and how I would implement them. I can think of 101 technologies or languages I would like to learn. I can think of 101 personal projects I would like to implement. I only have time to do a very very small amount of these and not managing to do everything makes me feel a little phony.
Perhaps this is a closer opposite to the Dunning-Kruger effect because in some ways you have made the right decisions and prioritised well but always feel you can do better so have failed.
I really appreciate you blogging about this. I struggle with this regularly. Seeing someone at your level go through the same feelings is something I will hold onto. Next time I run into that difficult problem and start doubting my abilities, I'll think of this post.
I think you're spot on. I'm not sure if it's a western culture thing, or a working class culture thing, but I always felt as though I was only one discovery away from being 'found out'. At one point I decided that it wasn't necessarily up to me to assess my own capability in every situation. If my boss is happy with my work, if my peers think I'm worth talking too... maybe that's enough.
It doesn't completely stop the doubts though.
This post really helped me today -- the post and all the responses -- thank you. There certainly is comfort in numbers. I like the rabbit hole analogy. But wouldn't you know -- I'm already telling myself that it doesn't really apply to me. All of you are so smart that you simply know what you don't know. But me? I shouldn't even be here.
I find it really interesting that I feel like the biggest fraud and idiot on twitter with the group I follow, but on Facebook (where I'm friends with all of my real friends with "real" jobs), they think I am some kind of mad genius. The feelings are all in how you position yourself, too much of one thing (reading influencers) can lead you to feeling inadequate and stupid. On the flip side, too much time with people that don't know PHP from PCP and you feel like you can't even talk to these mere mortals. Point being, when you feel down about stuff or your confidence is running low, call up one of your accounting buddies and tell him/her what you did today... they will certainly be impressed.
Your post really did it for me though -- I am going to do this today.
There are many ways of achieving satisfaction from your work life, but the most important thing to get straight first is to keep a positive mindset. Yes, the code is bad and ugly and hard to understand and that's a challenge, for me, to point out to myself how not to design things and while at it - slowly refactor it.
thank you for a great article. you practically spoke my mind.
Right on, Mr. Hanselman!
1. A bright kid gets a PC and starts to program (in my case that was IBM PS/2 286 + QBasic).
3. Profit!!! (i.e. getting a good job in the IT industry)
What actually happens at step 2. is up to ten years of adults yelling at this kid that he must do his biology homework, and that he will never get anywhere in life if he doesn't stop playing with computers all the time. That can teach this poor kid to misjudge the relative importance of IT skills.
If you are reading this or any blog, writing a blog of your own, or working in IT, you are probably in the top 1% of the wealth in the world.
I'm making over 150% of national average where I live. According to http://www.globalrichlist.com/ I'm not even in 10% :(
now i can't control how other people judge me but i try to influence it by stressing the ability to learn and by picking jobs and projects where the employer or client understands that i'll spend some time learning before i am going to be productive. and i pick projects specifically because there is something i need to learn.
if i am in a situation where i make a claim that i know something, sometimes i feel like an impostor too, but most of the times i can avoid that by stating upfront that i don't know.
I just wanted to say thank you for your wonderful post! I am launching a new business this week and your words really touched me. Thank you!
To learn more I spend lots of time in local Users Groups and also LIDNUG.org - LinkedIn.com's DotNet Users Group.
The constant learning is great; it keeps one's mind fresh. But it is natural to feel there's SO much more you don't know.
I spent weeks getting my arms around WF4 WCF Services... finally the mental breakthrough occurred and then, for a long moment I got this total mental high feeling freed of bonds holding my feet in the muck of our great mother earth... I was levitating 1000 feet up having accomplished the near impossible... then the next day occurred.
We always hit blocks and spin our tires trying to figure out real difficult concepts. That's what makes us human, that we can rise above the feeling of not knowing, to accomplish very good stuff! It's natural and a real driver if we're constant learners to find solutions we feel bad we don't already know.
It's great to work with really smart people too, like occasional pair-programming, gaining cooperative co-knowledge. Typically like a wolf-pack attack - one person goes strong, then the other takes that to the next level, and so on. If you keep at it you will get these spikes of great feelings when you hit the success points. It takes you to a more even keel.
I've only read some of the comments and it seems that some folks have an issue with the word phony. I guess it does have a negative connotation to it but I think you're sentiment rings true. I have often felt the same way in my 13+ years in this field. Maybe it's the nature of our constantly changing field mixed with the constant flow of "expert-ism" coming from all the different feed sources we have available today. That definitely adds to the pressure a lot of us feel with this need to "keep up" with everything.
I think it's important that people here stuff like this though and it even makes more of an impact coming from folks like you.
People need to know, understand and be ok with the fact that there will always be someone better. It's not about winning. It's about growing. It's about becoming better everyday. And if you don't have that desire to grow, get out of the field before you become a bitter dinosaur saying get off my lawn.
In the end, as others have already stated, it's that balance between humility and confidence that will propel you in this field... instead of becoming suicidal or a raging a**hole.
That's it. Thanks for asking the question.
Many times I experienced great stress because I was asked to do things I've never done before and still I succeeded. I know I've written some awsome code and completed some significant projects. Still, today, I do feel like I should not be leading a team or architecting these new solutions. I also have doubts about achieving my career goals. Hell, I even feel like a phony writing on my own blog.
I thing I do have missed out on opportunities because I thought I would not be good enough. But hey, in the end I do make a nice living out of writing code and comming up with yet another software product. And as long as companies are willing to pay me a considerable amount of money to come in and do that every day, I'll just keep at it.
As usualy a great post and a good contribution to the community.
P.S.: To those posting that this is all irrational: Yes, it is. That's why it's a feeling.
A good programmer needs to have a really large number of skill sets also.. and so.. if you choose to focus on one area - let's say Database Administration - well .. you would be an even better programmer if you new how to do front end application programming, wouldn't you?
So it is all a personal thing and how you feel about reaching the top of your personal professional hill .. or you choose to go to the top of the entire professional hill.
The more you know, the more you realize just how much you don't know.
Years ago, I had a slight disagreement with someone I worked with about interviewing. My claim was that it was pointless to ask someone if they "knew X" since their answer wouldn't matter. Rather you had to ask them about aspects of X and/or what they had done with X, then decide for yourself. So I conducted an experiment. In a small (about 40 people) shop that was primarily Unix focused, I went around one day and asked everyone in the company to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 on the topic of "do you know Unix." Well, our receptionist rated herself a 10, reasoning that she logged in every day and read her mail. By contrast, our lead engineer, who was responsible for much of the kernel work, rated himself a 3 or 4, reasoning that at that point he was fairly familiar with the SVR3 kernel, had mad a few expeditions into the SVR4 kernel, but hadn't really looked at any of the BSD derived kernels. Their perception of what it meant to "know Unix" was light years apart.
Since them I've noticed the pattern again and again. There's an inverse relationship between competence and confidence.
I just got out of a 4 year job that drained me of my skills, while giving me the illusion that I was great. I seriously thought I could handle any problem, however I had never even heard of TDD, Agile, DDD, ATDD, MVC, MVVM, SOLID, etc. My main job duty was SQL (part of the reason for the skills-drain), however, when I did have to work on small programs, I tackled them very procedurally and made them work. Everybody gave me praise, so I did not strike out and look to better myself (thinking I could tackle anything anyway). It was not until I finally took a deep look and realized that I only really knew how to hack a program and write semi-decent SQL (this is one area I am very confident in, at least).
In fact, it wasn't really until a job interview of mine was nearly lost in the HR screen because of my atrophied software skills. Since then, I have been reading as much as I can as quickly as I can, while going to any user group available. I even listened to all (with a few skipped here and there) of the Hanselminutes from the beginning at 2x speed in about a month or two. However, the end result of this renewed vigor for learning...I am consumed with a feeling of almost despair. I now feel that I cannot code anything properly. Sure, I can still hack out code and make things work. But, I am trying to write cleaner code, yet having trouble breaking away from those procedural thoughts. I know enough now to spot the code smells, but I have a heck of a time trying to actually refactor it. I feel I get 80% of the way using the theories, patterns, and practices, but cannot lock it into a great design. I persevere and hope that drives me towards the appropriate answers and experience, though.
I guess it just seems that everybody I listen to seems to have all of these methods locked down, and I am just flailing in the wind. It is at least comforting to know that even some of these giants feel the same way to a degree. I do realize and agree with others that it is this feeling of inadequacy that drives us forward, helping to create success, though. It is a vicious cycle, but I think I would rather be in that cycle than the one I just left. Ignorance is not bliss if you ask me :)
That being said, I feel that anybody who appreciates this blog entry should also listen to the This Developer's Life episode on Education; the second half with Seth Juarez. His take on education and how it can humble a person really fit in line with this. Also, I definitely think that this would make for a great episode of This Developer's Life. I know I would find it an interesting topic, and it fits your current theme of one word titles!
As far as you are concerned though, I can tell you personally that through you I have picked up on some great GTD tips, programming tips, and how to take advantage of hotkeys for productivity tips (among other things). At the very least, I thank you for all of your time spent giving back to the community and want you to know that I appreciate it greatly!
As Dave Ward said "I think the more you know, the more you realize just how much you don't know." this is absolutely correct.
I think the thing that helps me deal with the "phoniness" of it all, besides a fair amount of prayer, is that I know that I don't know everything, but I know that I can adapt and learn what's important for me to accomplish my work. I won't claim to do a lot of extra-curricular activities related to learning new things(and maybe that makes me a heretic), but I do learn a lot by having tasks presented to me in things that I haven't worked on before. Being told that I need to do X with Y to accomplish Z, when I've never worked with Y, much less done anything like X in anything else, motivates me to learn Y and how to do X with it.
I will never know everything, and I won't bother trying to know everything, but I can know what's needed for my job to be accomplished, and ultimately that's what my employer pays me for.
One of the other posters commented:
"Why can't a person be confident that that person is good at what that person does, simply because that person has been doing that for a long period of time, making that person a specialist in the field of what the person does best?"
I think it's pretty simple and the reason why is that those of us driven by success definitely care what others think about our work. Also, we know there is always either someone better than us or someone who has their eye on us to become better.
As my mother used to say, "If you ever find yourself being the smartest person in the roof, you'd better get the hell out of that room and find some smarter people to hang out with."
Great reading and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
Michael O - Bellevue, WA
I think in a lot of cases we measure ourselves against others who may be doing the same thing. But you don't have their same experiences, nor do they have yours. If you are a consultant and coming in new to projects all the time then the domain expert who resides in the company will always look like a diety to you. But they usually are very specialized, and don't have the broader knowledge to solve the problem (or why would they have hired you?).
There are lots of different types of experts. Some can code, some can't. Doesn't mean one is more awesome than another, they are just different. Respect each persons contribution, and don't forget to count your own unique contributions as well!
Not a software development phony
Thanks for getting me thinking!
Do you think something about our field (pace of change, competition, etc) exacerbate this feeling? If I was an accountant I wonder if I would struggle with self doubt as much.
Its a fine line between having the phonyness provide motivation to continue to learn and challenge yourself and having it paralyze and overwhelm you. It effects me in both ways, unlikely in equal measure. I tend to believe overall the syndrome is negative.
I enjoy reading your blog and it's really good to see that you're just a human being, too.
I am a good programmer and I have solid grasp of technologies (web and otherwise, thought mostly web). There is no employee at my work even close to my level of aptitude. Couple that with discipline and it gets silly.
This is not a brag, humble or otherwise. It's the truth. I'm not great, they suck.
I have no doubt I could get another job in a few weeks. I am not an avatar of great coding. I'm just someone with 12 years of experience who is good at their job. Wherever I would be hired would be stoked to have me. If they wouldn't it would be because of a weird culture or weird management.
If you have experience writing and delivering real software projects you have what you need.
At work I'm the guru and man... sometimes I feel like "any day now they will find out that I didn't cover all bases", it's almost paranoia. But then when my job stresses me I think "I know I know a lot, so I can go anywhere I want."
So I think we all know what we are worth, but sometimes the wrong side of the brain is talking and we are happy to listen.
Thanks for this post!
Thank you for this discussion. It was oddly therapeutic.
Nothing is so inspirational as hearing that other professionals experience this as well. I excel at my job. People compliment me all the time. And I feel--well, like I'm standing in front of a gulf of things I don't know--because I am.
When people emerge out of that ego bubble of their twenties, when they think they are gods gift to code, it's hard to swallow when they start to realize how much you have left to learn--and not only that, but the true fact that you simply /can't/ be an expert in everything.
This is a difficult fact to learn when in IT, people want to hire confident experts, and in that regard, a large ego (even if built from a position of ignorance) can be an asset.
In the end, jobs are landed through overconfidence, but careers are made through modesty.
Thanks for sharing this. It helps me to maintain perspective to hear that you languish over the loss of your language fluency although I love to tell people, "This awesome guy Scott Hanselman? He knows 4 languages. Wait, that's 8 languages". I think sometimes I even go higher! Your honestly and humility in your writing, podcasts, tweets and IRL interactions have certainly influenced my life journey in a positive way. Keep it up!
We all sometimes don't feel like the smartest at something or the best one to do the storytelling but when we do share and someone responds to us talking from the heart, it confirms that we are in our best form when our desires and passion match our actions.
I still remember the first time I said, to myself, "I am not a phony" and it was a great moment to realize I knew quite a bit about technology. That was a turning point in 2004 and I went on to get my MCSA the following year.
I really enjoyed this post and appreciated the courage it took to write it. Every single one of us wrestles with insecurity from time to time, but I think it's fair to say developers struggle with it more than the average Joe (with the obligatory disclaimer that there are always exceptions). I'd like to chime in with two additional thoughts if I may:
1) Developers should probably reserve a bit of the blame for their own insecurities. We're often eager to pounce on others based on superficial standards. I've been through MS loops both as a vendor and FTE, and on at least two occasions I came out knowing the interviewer had no earthly idea what I was capable of. Preconceived notions and grand assumptions have a way of coming back to bite us. If we're hasty in our assessment of others, we shouldn't be surprised when that manifests itself as insecurity in our OWN abilities.
2) We control the extent to which we fall prey to the "phony" syndrome. For years I poured so much energy into trying to convince people I belonged at Microsoft, that I could hang with the big boys. But I've come to realize this: if respect from my peers ever hinges on my familiarity with v3 versus v4 of Technology X, I've got to question how valuable that "respect" truly is.
I'm enjoying my time at MS now more than ever, mostly because I'm perfectly content in divulging my strengths and weaknesses (I have plenty of both). I guess you could say I'm a recovering phony. One thing's for sure, I get my butt kicked every day by some of the smartest people on the planet. It simultaneously humbles and motivates me, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
That can manifest itself as feelings of fraudulence when people are calling you a "guru" or "expert" while you're internally overwhelmed by the ever-expanding volumes of things you're learning that you don't know.
This really speaks to me. I quite often feel overwhelmed by what I don't know to the point I find it hard to focus on something and attack it.
I went from being a 'developer' to an 'architect' a couple of years ago and still feel like I'm in over my head most days.
Still at least it keeps things interesting and I haven't been shown the door yet, so I guess I'm doing ok! ;)
Also our human finiteness, with knowledge we "should" learn keeps growing exponentially in a rapid fashion.
I don't think i consider myself a phony, but do often feel disappointed and insufficient, though in this industry i look at many and see a lot of "hacks" who call themselves professionals that i think are truly phony ;)
I have nothing to do with IT, I worked in an educational setting. I dreaded going into work every morning for fear of being 'found out' by the kids or my colleagues. I stuck at it for some time but eventually the weight of this sense of being phoney became overwhelming. I quit.
What strikes me as interesting in your piece and in the comments is how most, if not all, contributors talk of being driven on to achieve in the face of this 'phoney' sensation. "I work my ass off" / "it humbles me and motivates me" etc. In my case I worked hard but the imposter sensation grew until it paralysed me and in desperation I turned away rather than towards it.
If you're looking for a trait that binds your IT community I would suggest it is not the incidence of 'phony' feeling but the form of response to it.
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