Fear, reality and the imposter syndrome

imgres-2David Noel interviewed me at Soundcloud when I was in Berlin for an event that they put on called #Role Models.  I was excited to be asked.  The house was packed and about 70% of the people there were women.

After David and I spoke for awhile he opened it up to questions.  One woman asked me a question about fear.  How do you deal with fear?  Fear is a very powerful feeling.  It can come out of nowhere.  I can be connected to so many things.  Fear of heights, fear of amusement park rides, fear of failure, fear of commitment.  The list is endless.

It was a simple question and a great question.  I paused to think about it.  My first thought is what is she afraid of.  My answer was simple.  The only person that knows that you have fear is yourself.  You have to figure out that issue but when you go into the world do not show your fear.  Show strength.  It might take a lot to muster that up but that fear is your own making.  It is in your own head.  To not think that everyone else around you who is faking it until they make it doesn’t have fear you are kidding yourself.  Take that deep breath when you enter the room and when you leave it. When you go out and talk to the world keep that fear in check and overtime you realize that you had nothing to fear.  It was just your own baggage.

Fast forward to the next day I spoke at another event, this time women only, at the American Embassy in Berlin.  Someone brought up the imposter syndrome.  Something that many women have.  Imposter syndrome is described as something where people have feelings of inadequacy although the opposite is usually true.  There is this internal fear that they will be discovered that they actually know nothing and are not worthy of being in the job, the conversation or whatever it is.  It is a lot like fear.

I ended up having this very long conversation with my son about insecurities.  I told him that in many ways I have finally come into myself without feeling the imposter syndrome.  I have had that imposter syndrome for a very long time.  He refers to me as a rock so he couldn’t believe that I felt that way.  As he puts it, I am killing it right now.

I explained to him, just like I said to the woman at Soundcloud, what you see is not always what someone feels inside.  The key is figuring out that feeling from early on because the importance of feeling you belong at the table is just as important as sitting at it.  At the end of the day, fear is a real thing.  So is anxiety, depression and everything else that is indescribable but lives in your own head.  Much of it comes with your DNA.  Figuring out how to work past those feelings are not easy but you are the only person who is aware of them.  Nobody else.  Remember that.  Also, work on making your head healthy.

FDR said the most eloquent thing about fear.  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”   He was spot on.

Comments (Archived):

  1. bsoist

    Great insights and advice. Everyone has these doubts and fears. One of the keys to success is dealing with them.

  2. Brandon Burns

    I’m grappling with my fear of coding.As a designer who’s done pretty well professionally, my first rebuttal against the “everyone should code” argument was “what about the other jobs that need to get done, too?”That was a mask covering a fear of coding that I didn’t know I was wearing.Over the last several years, as I’ve taken on various entrepreneurial endeavors, I’ve designed everything myself and hired devs to build it. I’ve managed devs for years, and I know very good ones who’ll do things for me for cheap, so getting good dev work done is not a problem for me (as long as I had the cash).At least it *wasn’t* a problem. Last month, I took a misstep and it became a very, very big problem.Long story short, my finger was on the switch to turn things on and, right then at the 11th hour, everything fell out from under — with no cash, no investors, no partners, no safety net.I pretty much had one option left: Rebuild it myself. Code the whole thing myself.I barely have HTML and CSS skills. And while I had already used those meager skills to build a demo several months prior, the thought of building out the whole thing to a point where it’s workable was absolutely paralyzing.And that’s when I recognized the fear. I stood behind this argument of “not everyone needs to code” and used it, pretty much, as an excuse. A very powerful excuse that sounds right (to me) on the outside, but hid a genuine, debilitating fear of coding on the inside.So where did that fear of coding come from?I’ve pretty much always been good at the things I’ve set out to do. I did well academically, professionally, etc. And being the middle-class gay black kid growing up in a upper-class straight white environment, I never had time for fear. It was either “hop to it!” or dwell on the differences and get nowhere.But I’m terrible at coding. And I’m not used to being terrible at anything! And now my only option for launching a product that is near and dear to me, the one where all my marbles are, the one that’s the culmination of learnings after several previous failed attempts, the one that keeps garnering the feedback of “brilliant! that’ll change the world!” — my only option for getting that done rested on my ability to do something I’m terrible at.Talk about fear!But I did it anyway. With a fair amount of help from friends, I taught myself node.js and, in about a month’s time, have just about finished rebuilding the whole thing myself.I’ve always done well, but this is the first time I can actually say I’m truly proud of myself. It’s the first time I’ve done something that, going into it, I told myself “this is completely unfathomable.” And I did it anyway.I still hold that I’m right that not everyone needs to code, simply because there are other jobs required to make techy things. But when you get yourself into a situation similar to mine, that just becomes an excuse. It was not a time for fear.The private beta will be ready shortly, all coded by me. Hopefully the stress, drama and fear that consumed me this past month will have paid off. We’ll see!

    1. Gotham Gal


      1. Brandon Burns

        Thanks!*knock on wood*

    2. Yinka!

      Bravo indeed! In case of future green builds at short notice: Just wanted to suggest also looking at “in-between tools”, useful for when concept is already established and focus is fleshing or testing out specific functionalities before fully building. E.g. IFFT ( event-driven connections between products and apps), Kimono (apps, data analysis and visualizations, etc), Telescope app (user communities).

      1. Brandon Burns

        Thanks!I’m using a lot of “in-between” stuff, plugins and whatnot. It’s really only serviceable in a private beta form, not really ready for the public — but it’s a step that’ll lead to the next one.

    3. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Cheers, Brandon! Even if you don’t want to be a career developer, you’ve just handed yourself the keys to the kingdom!Not too long ago, I went through a very similar situation. And now at the young age of 47 can call myself a developer, and can build whatever I want. I’ve learned so much more than just coding by building my own stuff.Looking ‘behind the curtain’ of coding puts a stake in the heart of impostor syndrome :-)Welcome to the club!

  3. Mario Cantin

    It all comes back to needing to have the courage to make the necessary changes needed to realize one’s vision, and having enough fire in the belly in the first place!This is an amazing essay, BTW; you are killing it indeed.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Thanks Mario

  4. Rohan

    I love this post, Joanne!I think of fear as a manifestation of our insecurities. And, being fearful is a great way to both understand.. and then accept them.

  5. pointsnfigures

    Depends on where the fear comes from too. If I fear going out this weekend because ISIS attacks are rumored-it’s one kind of fear. Different people view taking risk differently, and fear comes with taking risk. That’s the type of fear you need to conquer-and will find strength from conquering it.The ISIS fear is irrational. Nothing you can do about it. If you are living life and something random happens-it happens and you deal with it.

  6. Erin

    I like the diagram. Indeed, fear is the thing, the black hole in all of us. Buddha would say notice it and invite it in for tea.

    1. Gotham Gal

      i like that.

  7. Mariah Lichtenstern

    Always interesting to read about imposter syndrome. It seems to be a cultural phenomena resulting from the class dynamics in our culture. I’ve never felt like an imposter; perhaps because I believe that everyone has a perspective / POV that others can learn from if open-minded. I find being among those I look up to or admire exhilarating – an opportunity to expand my understanding and ability to have an impact. But I have felt self conscious – particularly in my youth – about how I am perceived in terms of class, culture, gender & ethnicity, especially when any of those external factors – or indicators of them – have been brought to my attention. No one likes to be judged (or pre-judged) – especially not on things beyond their control.As for fear, I used to have more of it, but realized that often times fear / nervousness is excitement in disguise. Still working on overcoming undesirable nerves, but thankful for the paradigm shift that has occurred.

  8. Suzanne Mercier

    Thanks for the post. I work with people to help them move beyond the imposter syndrome. It seems to crop up more (at least in the press) for people in IT, particularly coders. Somewhere along the line, the myth of the Real Programmer has developed and become the bane of many careers, I’m sure.The Real Programmer seems to me to be about expecting to be perfect in the beginning … or ever. That’s not humanly possible. We will always be able to improve on something, no matter how experienced and talented the person involved is. We just need to cut ourselves a break and realise two key things: everyone experiences the feeling of not being good enough which is the essence of the imposter syndrome and when we can see what we do, what we’re capable of and the qualities we being to our work and the value of that combination, we recognise that each of us has a unique contribution to make. No-one else can make the same contribution as we each can make. Then it really is about sucking it up and putting ourselves out there, fear and all. As Brandon Burns experienced, the exhileration of achievement in the face of fear is beyond measure.

  9. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Great post. Wish I’d caught it this morning!Fear and impostor syndrome lead to poor decision making (which ‘faking it ’til you make it’ can’t cure). I’ve lived that, the hard way. Impostor syndrome creates fear. Fear feeds impostor syndrome. And we’re off to the races.So, it’s super important to come to grips with I.S. I have few regrets, but making a couple of big decisions years ago based out of fear and I.S. are among them. Experience in the years since has taught me that I didn’t need or deserve that shit hanging around my neck.

  10. Sarah Jane

    Your statement of what you see is not always what someone feels inside brought to mind advice given to me from a friend years ago, “Stop comparing your insides to everyone else’s outsides.”My impostor syndrome loves to manifest itself through constant comparison of myself against my belief of how other’s feel and it’s never been a fruitful experience. For me, it is invaluable to keep trusted friends and confidants around me who will remind me to tell my mind to stop when I forget.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Figuring out how to stop comparing yourself now is a blessing.

  11. Laura Spiekerman

    Joanne, this is a great post that I feel like I should re-read every 6 weeks to keep myself in check. Thanks.

  12. Kenny Fraser

    Imposter syndrome – very true and applies to everyone. Turn it into a motivation. Get upo every morning determined to make sure today is not the day you get found out.

  13. Jessie Arora

    “the importance of feeling you belong at the table is just as important as sitting at it” This is such an important point. I agree with your son 🙂

    1. Gotham Gal


  14. JordanCooper_NYC

    nice post

    1. Gotham Gal


  15. Joscelyn

    This is good to read, and reminded me of this by @ethanaustin http://ethansaustin.com/201…. What most of us (me) need to work on is reminding ourselves that everyone’s vulnerable, have insecurities, although you fear it’s just you.I loved your line “the importance of feeling you belong at the table is just as important as sitting at it.”