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Voices of Gatsby: Fighting Back Against Imposter Syndrome

Jessica Wilkins
February 5th, 2021

Gatsby believes in cultivating inclusion and elevating the many members of our diverse community. Our new Voices of Gatsby series, publishing every other Friday, showcases and celebrates our users for who they are as they share stories from the tech life. True tales from the front lines, personal accounts of each of us came to be where we are today. Got a story to share? Visit the Voices of Gatsby info page to learn more and connect with us! Accepted submissions pay a $500 author’s fee, because we recognize the value of writing whether it’s words or code 💜.

empty ceramic mask

Late one night in my freshman year at the Eastman School of Music I sat down to write an email to my oboe professor, announcing I was leaving. 

I truly believed that I didn’t belong there.  I was exhausted after another week of what seemed to me the clear fact that everyone else at Eastman was so talented while I just didn’t seem to measure up, no matter how hard I tried. In tears, I logged into my gmail and typed a short message. In tears, I hit send.

I mainly remember being scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Would my professor be angry that I was quitting?  Would he let me drop out? Did I want him to? And then there were other burning questions like, What was my mom going to say? How was she going to take the news that I decided to quit school and come home?  

Early the next morning I received a response from my professor, Mr. Killmer, asking me to meet with him in his office.  A few hours later, I knocked on the office door and he welcomed me in.  He was in the middle of a teaching session with another oboe student, someone I knew. Trevor was a junior and  he was an amazing player…  One of the many talented musicians here I was sure I could never measure up to. 

Mr. Killmer stopped Trevor’s lesson and told me that I wasn’t going anywhere. He  said that I was chosen to be in the program for a reason, and that he would work with me to get better. Then he pointed at Trevor and said that, when Trevor was a freshman, he had also struggled — just like I was struggling. I looked over at Trevor and he had nodded his head in agreement.  I was completely shocked.  

Trevor was one of the strongest players in the studio. How could he have problems?  

It was at that moment that I realized I should stay in and keep trying. I am really glad I did. Things did get steadily better. I graduated from Eastman and received a full ride to do my master’s at the University of Michigan.   

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I had been feeling was imposter syndrome, and it nearly derailed my music education and future career! Thanks to the help of my professor, and one of my peers sharing their own experience about going through the exact same self doubt, I was able to get past a very bad moment. The experience showed me that imposter syndrome can happen to anyone, no matter how externally capable or accomplished they seem. Over time I also came to understand that it’s not just when you’re getting started. Imposter syndrome can happen at any point in your career, and it can arrive in many different damaging disguises. 

I can’t code so I should just quit

I think that, going in, a lot of people fear that they are going to fail at learning programming. So they rationalize to themselves that quitting is the best option.  

Why go through the pain and effort of trying so hard to learn a new skill if it wasn’t meant to be, anyway? That’s what I felt when I wanted to leave Eastman.  Why torture myself and keep trying when I am just going to fail anyway?  This kind of thinking is completely normal when you begin a brand new career path. But it isn’t helpful, and it’s not even accurate. What is true, though, is that if you don’t push back against these self-defeating thoughts and beliefs they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So that is when it’s time to flip the script

You might be struggling with learning how to code right now, but you might also have an amazing career ahead of you as a successful developer! How will you ever know, though, if you quit right now?

It takes a lot of mental strength to face down the struggle and keep going. There are plenty of moments where it might feel impossible, but you just have to push through. 

Here’s an example: When I first started doing algorithm challenges, I was really bad at them. I would write a bunch of code and nothing would work. But I realized I just needed a different approach to problem solving. I tried different things until I found a way of working that worked for me. Now, I actually enjoy doing coding challenges and feel like I am getting better every day.

Can I really make it?

I think this particular question hits home for a lot of self-taught developers. You work so hard, you take the classes, build the projects, and prep for interviews. But what if no one hires you? 

I felt exactly this fear when I was graduating from my masters program. I was finally leaving school and going into the real world…but I carried around this nagging thought. What if I can’t get work as a musician? I had spent years in training and it would be devastating if it didn’t work out! Fortunately, my worrying was unfounded: I was able to build a career as a freelance musician and teacher in Los  Angeles.  

Such doubts about breaking into a new industry are completely normal, no matter which one you’re trying to join. It’s a big transition to an unknown environment, and not easy for anybody — at any age. It doesn’t matter if you are 20, 30, 40, or 50+ years old.

Fortunately, if you’re looking to create a new career in tech, there are a lot of resources out there to navigate the transition. Surrounding yourself with a supportive community is the number one best way to sustain yourself.

For example, I am an active member and moderator on the freeCodeCamp forums. Everyone there is part of the same community of learners working their way through self-paced coding courses, and it’s amazing and wonderful how everyone just wants to help and support each other in progressing and persevering. If you have a question about one of your projects or coding challenges, chances are excellent that someone else has had the same exact question, and is happy to help! 

But the same thing is true no matter how or what or where you are learning: If you need help breaking into a new profession, don’t be afraid to reach out and  connect with others who are already there. You will soon realize that everyone has had these thoughts at one time or another, and still they succeeded. Knowing this will give you the motivation to keep moving forward and take that leap yourself.   

Can I do the job? Am I an imposter? 

Everyone deals with  imposter syndrome. Everyone.

It doesn’t matter if you are a complete beginner, a junior developer or senior developer with advanced skills. Everyone experiences those negative thoughts and doubts, wondering if their work is as good as what everyone else around them seems to accomplish.

These negative thoughts come in all forms. Self-criticisms like, This code looks awful. I am a really bad programmer.  Or performance anxiety like, They are going to fire me at work because I am not as good as the other developers. 

When those thoughts come into your head, you have to remember that you are not the only one who ever thinks them. You also have to remember that you are there for a reason. They wouldn’t have hired you and kept you this long if you weren’t doing something right. Your company obviously sees value and potential in you. Just like my professor saw value and potential in me. 

Perception versus reality 

There were plenty of times as a musician where I thought I sounded bad at a gig.  I would think to myself,  My pitch was horrible today. I am not going to be asked back.  Or, I messed up during the recording session so I am going to get replaced.

Those were my perceptions. But they were not my reality!

Just because a thought pops up over and over again doesn’t mean it’s accurate. The disconnect between perception and reality is another way that imposter syndrome sneaks in. In truth, I didn’t end up getting fired. In fact, I would often get called back for work with the same contractors over and over again. Over time I learned to trust that I was a valued contributor and that an occasional mistake was not going to end my career. 

The perception vs reality check works exactly the same way in programming!  

You might think you are not a good developer but the exact opposite might be true. You might very well have other developers looking at you, and wishing they had your skills. But if you are spending all your time focusing on your own perceived shortcomings, you aren’t able to lift your gaze to see what the situation around you actually is.

So when negative thoughts are intruding, do a reality check! Look around you for external data points that demonstrate how things really are. Maybe you just made an error or mistake, but that happens to everyone sometimes and does not condemn you as a person or a professional. Reach out to your community. Ask for support and affirmation — and don’t forget to offer it in return. You are far from the only one fighting against imposter syndrome. We are all in this together.

Happy coding! 

Whether you are just learning front end web development or are a seasoned professional, please join us at GatsbyConf ! Two days of speakers, workshops, and some really cool launches and announcements…plus Gamer vs. Gatsby. Watch live as World Record holder Kosmic tries to beat his Super Mario Bros speed run world record of 4:55 while Gatsby engineer Kyle Gill races to spin up a live ecommerce site! Thrills! Chills! Free and virtual, March 2-3, see you there!

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Jessica Wilkins is a musician and business owner working to dive into the world of tech.

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