Starting the conversation on imposter syndrome

Written by: Jackie Chen

Thank you to Kelvin Zhang, Samuel Yang, Jenny Chen, Rachel Xu, Zafin Hassan, and Winny Yang for their help with this blog! I could not have done it without you all!

The crippling anxiety that everyone in the room is going to find out how much you’ve been faking it. The unease of not believing you deserve the opportunities that have come your way. The creeping fear that you’re falling further and further behind your peers. If you have felt any of these, then you, my friend, have experienced impostor syndrome. It can manifest itself in countless different forms, but most importantly, impostor syndrome does not discriminate. Regardless of age, experience, gender, or background, the feelings of inadequacy and insecurity can plague anyone. It is a universal experience for people in tech, yet somehow it sees very little representation in our day-to-day conversations. Sure, it’s easy to acknowledge its existence, but it’s much harder to be vulnerable and share our experiences facing imposter syndrome. Nevertheless, the conversation has to start somewhere.

Despite not studying a tech major, just by being at the University of Waterloo I felt the influence of tech culture in my everyday life. Weeks into my freshman year I was thrown into the world of technical interview prep and side projects. Tech was praised for having countless opportunities and career stability. I gave it a chance and somewhere between my first programming course and my first hackathon, I decided to change majors to Software Engineering.

Walking into my first lecture in Software Engineering, I immediately saw how behind I was. Sure I was “in tech” now but I was surrounded by people who had been coding for years or even had a few internships under their belt. It was inspiring to be surrounded by so many people who had a passion for technology, but if these were the people that were applying for the same jobs as me, how could I possibly compete with their experience?

Within the tech community it always felt like certain big name companies were seen as the best: widely recognized for their salaries, company perks, or brand names. Landing an internship at one of these companies felt equivalent to being a successful software engineer. If I wanted to prove that I was competitive in this industry, what better way to do it than landing a big name tech internship?

Every recruiting season I would set my sights on these large tech companies only to be met with a rejection email weeks later. Even when I received interviews from other companies, I would always do my research and practice my technical skills only to be met by rejection. I would eventually find a job but it felt more like luck going my way instead of something I deserved. In the meantime, it seemed like everyone around me was always reaching new heights while I was scrambling to find any opportunity at all. During this time I tried everything to find the reason why they were getting all these interviews and offers while I wasn’t. Was it my resume? Was it my lack of side projects? Was I just not working hard enough?

My attempts to find some sort of magical secret to success were fruitless. I would dig tirelessly through portfolios and resumes in a desperate attempt to find some kind of explanation as to why I wasn’t successful, but found nothing. I wanted so badly for there to be some easy reason why my peers seemed to be better than me, some subtle change that could catapult me towards my dreams, but it seemed like the harsh reality was that there wasn’t anything.

Accepting this fact took months and forced me to reevaluate my definition of success. I spent so much time chasing this “dream” that everyone else was after that I never stopped to wonder if it was something I actually wanted. Other people’s achievements didn’t diminish the value of my own. Nobody could judge my success except myself and when I thought about it, I was doing pretty well. I didn’t get the most extravagant opportunities, but I got to meet a lot of passionate people from all walks of life through my internships. I wasn’t top of my class, but I still loved learning. I veered heavily off course from my goals when I started in tech, but I still ended up somewhere I was happy with.

I let the fear of falling behind my peers motivate me to try new experiences. Instead of worrying if I deserved an opportunity, I worked harder to make the most out of it. Navigating my way through tech can sometimes feel like wandering aimlessly through the fog. I’m still not sure where I’ll end up but the people I’ve met so far and the experiences I’ve accumulated tell me that I’m headed the right way.

I can’t say that I’ve succeeded yet, or that I’ve achieved what I initially set out for when I started in tech — I am somewhere in the middle of that journey. There’s a long road ahead but here are some things that I’ve learned that I’d like to pass onto you.

🎭 Accept that you have imposter syndrome

Feeling like an imposter is acknowledging that there is something between you and “the real deal”. Use it as motivation to push yourself higher than you’ve ever imagined. Embrace imposter syndrome and let it guide you to learn and grow into the person you want to be. Every master was once a beginner, you’ll get there soon enough.

🕛 Take your time

Rid yourself of the expectation that you have to achieve everything by a certain age because life isn’t a race. There is no grand prize for speedrunning life. A single mistake will not define you and there will always be a next time. Slow down, take a break, everything will still be here when you come back.

🎉 Celebrate your achievements

And I mean meaningfully reflect on and celebrate how far you’ve come. Your achievements are not insignificant and you deserve credit for all the long hours and hard work that you’ve put in. Think back to when you started high school, university, or your first full-time job and compare that to where you are now. You’ve come a long way, celebrate that.

It is so much easier said than done to just “get over” imposter syndrome, and I am still learning how to deal with it myself. I’ve come a long way since my start in tech. I learned that I value team culture so much more than fancy perks or compensation. I found communities in the tech space that motivate and inspire me to speak up about mental health. I even considered ditching software engineering in favour of project management. My relationship with imposter syndrome has been rocky, but without it I would not have learned the important lessons that made me the person I am today.

Everyone experiences impostor syndrome differently so no matter where life takes you next, I encourage you to start the conversation with your friends, peers, or anyone you meet along the way.

Thanks for reading my story! Here are some awesome stories about others’ imposter syndrome experiences:

If you’ve ever experienced imposter syndrome, please feel free to share it with us by sending us an email to hello@hackthenorth.com! We’d love to continue the conversation and share it with others to let everyone know that they are not alone.

Hacker applications are now open! Take the initiative to learn something new, meet passionate people, and build something incredible in just 36 hours at Hack the North 2021.

👉 Apply at apply.hackthenorth.com

Round 1 deadline: July 30, 2021 at 11:59 PM EDT
Round 2 deadline: August 13, 2021 at 11:59 PM EDT

3,000+ students from across the globe join us at Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon, for 36 hours ofdreaming big and building incredible projects.