On Self-Doubt

“Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true. It is experienced internally as chronic self-doubt, and feelings of intellectual fraudulence.”

— Taken from Caltech Counseling Center

It’s easy to latch on to a concept to answer the question, “What’s wrong with me?” I asked that question about a year into my last job. I knew the ins and outs of laser cutting metal rods. I knew the basics in making jigs and fixtures for manufacturing custom parts. I knew how to break down problems using the scientific method. But my work project was ten weeks late, and I was feeling quite defeated that I wasn’t the right person to do this job, which was a slippery slope in thinking I wasn’t cut out to be in this line of work. I didn’t know it at the time, but I thought what was wrong with me was I had imposter syndrome.

To add insult to injury, it was revealed in my performance review that my boss had given me low marks on competence. Their feedback was unhelpful in giving actionable steps in how to perform better, and I was left with low self-esteem. I thought I didn’t have what it takes to be an engineer, that I was a fraud, and at some point I was going to be fired. It was at that point where I started to really slip up, not making any progress on the project I was working on. My boss, sensing my discomfort, pulled me in a meeting with the CEO and a co-worker and told me to pair up on this project, because two heads are better than one.

But the plan backfired. Three more weeks past by, and neither my co-worker nor I could figure out how to complete the project. Initially on the project, I didn’t ask for much help, so we decided it might be best to get the CTO to help us. But his practice of teaching us in a yoga-like manner did not help either of us in creating a viable solution. We had many false breakthroughs, eventually resulting in my resignation. It would take the company the next year and different engineers to complete the project.

Reflecting back on it, I realized that it wasn’t just my mental performance that was bleak, but also the fact that it really was an incredibly difficult project. This experience wasn’t an attack on my competence, nor is it a tale of imposter syndrome. It is an example of believing self-doubt was a bad attribute to have. This week, I read Alicia Liu’s post on “Imposter Syndrome Is Not Just A Confidence Problem”, which I took away that I need a healthy dose of self-doubt. I’m unable to know everything, so not knowing something is a gut feeling that I should pursue other avenues of exploration rather than just seek within. This could be asking for help, doing research on what other’s have done in the past, or talking to a rubber duck to re-access the problem. And it turns out, experts and masters of their own field can have moments or large lapses of time of self-doubt. That’s when you’re supposed to put on the kettle and think.