Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

with Alicia Liu

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When you are unaware failure is the normal state, you feel deficient.

Alicia Liu

Software Engineer, Entrepreneur, Writer

Lessons Learned

Entrepreneurs have to be almost delusional to think that they are going to succeed.

In programming, you are just failing until it works, and then you succeed.

Failure just means that you have not succeeded yet.

Startups are experiments to what will work.

If the default for a startup is to fail and you fail, then you are normal.


Lesson: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome with Alicia Liu

Step #9 Success: When you are unaware failure is the normal state, you feel deficient

In tech I think it is particularly challenging because the rate of technology is changing so quickly. So it's not like you learn, learn, learn, learn, and then after 10 years you are suddenly really good because in 10 years technology has completely changed or you are using different languages, different technologies stacks, everything is changing all the time. So you are always in this state where things are changing and you feel like you are falling behind so you never feel like you are really an expert, or you really have grasped it. Especially when there are always people that know more than you, like someone will know all of these obscure commands.

But the thing is that that is not necessarily the only marker for success and I think for a long time I kind of looked for one dimension of what it means to be successful. You look for the people that are really, really, really deeply knowledgeable about one specific technology. But the thing is, that's not the only thing that you can be good at. You can actually be a good generalist. Someone that is adept to using a multitude of technologies to build something. So I think in tech we do have this problem of only seeing one specific way to be successful when really there are multiple ways and we should celebrate that rather than focusing on you need to grow a beard and be really, really good at UNIX and that's a good tech person.

I guess startups are just experiments to see what will work or not. So in a start-up you really have no idea if it's going to work or not but you're trying to figure that out. And the difference between a startup and an established company is an established company, hopefully you've already figured out what it is that's going to work. But in startups you haven't so failure rate is obviously extremely high because most things that we try are not actually going to work. The failure is even more pronounced.

One thing that they say is good about the Silicon Valley Bay Area is that people are very tolerant of failure so if you have failed, it's no big deal, you can try again. You're given that chance, whereas that may not be the case in other places.

I think that actually dealing with failure goes back to what I was talking about with programming, which is to realize that it's actually normal. So if the default state for a startup is to fail and you fail, then well, you haven't done anything terrible. I think it does go back to reassessing what is normal or expected. People talk about how entrepreneurs have to be almost delusional to think that they're going to succeed. So I think that's true. Most people are expected to fail.

So in programming, you're just failing until it works, and then you succeed. So there's actually a ton of failure involved, and I think when you don't know that, then you just think you're really bad, because you're just like, "I'm just failing all this time, and nothing works. I must be bad at this." But the truth is, even good programmers are doing the same thing. They're failing all the time, until it works as well, because you're doing something that you haven't done before. Maybe no one has done before, right? So it's obviously perfectly legitimate to fail, and maybe a better way is to not even call it failing. It's just you haven't succeeded yet, right? I think when beginners run into that, it scares them off, because they think that they're really bad, when really it's just normal.

The thing is, a lot of the things that happen to us is luck. If it happens to be good, then it's good luck, and if it's bad then its bad luck, right? It goes both ways. But a lot of the things that happen are actually random. So when we look at pictures of success, a lot of these success stories are actually constructed after the fact. So they try to attribute all these things that made them successful, but a lot of it is actually random and it's luck. But no one says that. That doesn't make a good story, right? So a lot of these things for success are actually misattributed, and they can really lead you astray. How that relates back to Impostor Syndrome, I don't really know.

Silence relates back to failure as well. It's when you don't know that that's a normal state, that you feel like you're actually deficient. So in this startup world we live in this bubble where we're constantly hearing about successes. We hear about people raising huge rounds. We hear about people eyepealing. There are all these successes that are constant. But what you don't hear about is this slow quiet death of startups, all the time. And then you think that, "Oh well, everyone is actually being really successful," but really everyone inside is like, "Oh crap, I'm dealing with this huge thing. My startup's going to fail if we don't solve it." It's constant, right? So once you realize that that's actually normal, then it doesn't feel so bad.

So I think just not being afraid to talk about your own experiences. I think that's a big thing, especially when you have Impostor Syndrome is, you don't feel like your own experiences matter, or that everyone knows already. But that's not true. Everyone's experience is quite unique, and everyone has their own story of how they got to where they are, that they can share, that other people will find valuable. So if more people just share their story, then you break that silence, and then people will know that, "Hey, it's normal to feel like this. Here are the next steps that I can work on.”

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