Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Man, these guys are a lot smarter than me. I’ll just sit here and try to look pretty.

Here’s a little secret: Every one of us feels that way, almost all the time.

It’s called “Outsider Syndrome” or “Imposter Syndrome.” I never went to school for this. I can’t believe how much they know about this. I’ll never be that much of an expert. I can’t possibly offer advice to anyone, because everyone else knows so much more. 

This attitude is, unfortunately, utter bullshit (not “udder bullshit,” autocorrect, that’s gross). And if you’ve ever caught yourself thinking that, you need to recognize where it comes from, and how to knock it off, because it’s not only holding you back – it’s preventing you from being a resource to others who could use your help.

It’s School’s Fault

Look, we know what happens when you’re in a group, asked a question, and you get it wrong, right? The other kids laugh at you. We’re taught “to be wrong is shameful” from a very early age in most cultures, and it’s deeply damaging. Being wrong – making mistakes – is literally the way human brains learn the best. And yet we’re encouraged to not partake. Adults are particularly sensitive to being seen as wrong, because we have so much more at stake – jobs, careers, promotions, pay, you name it. (This is why pedagogy is different from andragogy). This sucks, because it means we won’t put ourselves out there when we should – even when we’re actually correct, just on the off-chance that we aren’t.

You need to recognize this in yourself, and then get over it. Actively prevent yourself from being afraid of being wrong – especially if you’re pretty sure you’re right. You don’t need to be arrogant – “Hey, such-and-such is true and everyone who says otherwise is a lying jerk” – but you can be confident. “I’m pretty sure this-and-that is the situation. Anyone else have any other theories?”

You Don’t Know Them

The other thing is that we make a lot of assumptions about what goes on in other people’s heads. When someone says something, and we disagree with it on a factual basis (“the server is slow because of the network,” when you know damn well it’s the disk), you question yourself because they sounded so confident. Don’t immediately assume you’re wrong, though.

I have the best story for this. When I first wrote the prototype for what became Learn PowerShell Toolmaking in a Month of Lunches, I asked a friend (two of them, in fact) to tech-edit the manuscript for me. “Run all the scripts,” I said. “Please. I’ll pay you.” You see, I don’t trust myself when it comes to editing, because I know what I meant, but I won’t always realize if what I meant is exactly what I wrote. Thus, editors. These friends ran all the code, gave me the thumbs-up, and I printed 100 copies of the book.

Which turned out to have a serious code error that propagated through seven chapters. Dammit. 

Turns out my tech editors saw the error, and didn’t say anything, because they figured they must have done something wrong. I was “Don Jones,” after all, and who were they? They weren’t inside my head, but they made assumptions about what was going on inside it. “We really thought you must have had a reason for it,” they said later. Man, I was annoyed. Don’t assume someone else is 100% correct if you think they’re wrong, even if they’re the expert. Let it become a teaching moment – “hey, I really thought x instead of y, which is what you’re saying. Can you set me straight, here?” You don’t need to be confrontational (we’re all too confrontational, all the time, when it comes to knowledge).

Lose the Syndrome

Own what you know. Be confident, not arrogant. Ask questions. Be wrong. But don’t be silent, and don’t think you don’t belong in the group.

6 thoughts on “You’ve Got the Syndrome, Don’t You?

  1. Bruce Olschewski says:

    Thank you Don. I have the syndrome. I commit to be more confident and willing to be wrong.

  2. Steve Crawford says:

    This is a grea! There is also this perfectionist attitude that management exibits as well, which I believe leads to this syndrome.

    Those of who could give a hoot less if we make a mistake or not, usually do well long term. As you pointed out, failure is an opportunity for learning, period.

    People need to realize that we all have a voice, thoughts, and manners in doing things, but the end result is generally the same.

    Hence my admiration for PowerShell.. versatile tools tend to be the most fun, which include a few humans as well.. Cheers to being an INTP!

  3. Rick Taylor says:

    You ARE Don Jones!! This article is just what I needed today. Thank you!

  4. Mark says:

    Thanks for the encouragement! This reminds me of a quote from Aaron Swartz, “Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing, either.”

    However, I’ve always subscribed to the old adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” Guess it’s time I start acting like a fool!

  5. Don.

    One of the reasons I held my career back for so long. I had locked myself in that little room. Fortunately instinct kicked in one day and said “Enough is enough, start trying…”

    I discovered there are a few possibilities that can happen when you start to step out of that “Self imposed circle”

    You were 100% right in the first place and you were going to fail
    You might actually succeed
    You could hit a halfway point and not really fail or succeed
    And unknown and cool 4th option (You succeed in a way you never imagined)

    So actually the odds are pretty good you will succeed in some way, even if it’s not in a way you imagined. For me it was public speaking (In High School, I would have rather gargled a glass full of spiders than speak in public….and yet today? I’ll choose the public speaking)

    Either way I discovered after breaking out of my box that if I try and fail a bit, it’s still further than where I was yesterday even if it’s not where I want to be tomorrow.

    Success sometimes comes in leaps and bounds and sometimes it’s those little steps. For me it’s been many baby steps combined with the odd leap.

    But if I never broke out of that box, I would still be back there somewhere saying that magic phrase so many IT People dread.

    “Would you like Fries with that?”
    Sean
    (And yes…. I *WAS* that person serving Fries for a long time and terrified to step out of the circle )

  6. Victor says:

    Nice Article Don. Just be yourself and never be afraid to be right , even if it implies stating something wrong as being right – communication with others will get you to the correct point. As you said : be confident.

    A friend of mine said once : “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument !”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: