Imposter Syndrome is a well known condition in IT circles, but it exists in religious contexts too. On this episode, Leon, Josh, and Doug look at the ways in which imposter syndrome manifests in both spheres, and how our experiences combating in one area may help in the other. Listen or read the transcript below.
Leon: 00:00 Hey everyone. It’s Leon. Before we start this episode, I wanted to let you know about a book I wrote. It’s called “The Four Questions Every Monitoring Engineer is Asked”, and if you like this podcast, you’re going to love this book. It combines 30 years of insight into the world of IT with wisdom gleaned from Torah, Talmud, and Passover. You can read more about it, including where you can get a digital or print copy over on AdatoSystems.com. Thanks!
Kate: 00:25 Welcome to our podcast where we talk about the interesting, frustrating and inspiring experience we have as people with strongly held religious views working in corporate IT. We’re not here to preach or teach you our religion (or lack thereof). We’re here to explore ways we make our career as IT professionals mesh – or at least not conflict – with our religious life? This is technically religious.
Leon: 00:49 impostor Syndrome is a well known condition in IT circles, but it exists in religious contexts too. On this episode we’re going to look at ways in which impostor syndrome manifests in both spheres and how our experiences combating in one area might help the other. I’m Leon Adato. And the other voices you’re going to hear today are Doug Johnson.
Doug: 01:07 Hello,
Leon: 01:08 JAnd Josh Biggley.
Josh: 01:09 Hello.
Leon: 01:10 All right, so I think the first thing you probably ought to do is define impostor syndrome. So who wants to take a crack at that?
Josh: 01:18 Well I would, but I’m not qualified, so…
Doug: 01:22 All right. We’re there!
Leon: 01:24 We just, we hit it and we hit the ground running. Doug, that means it’s you.
Doug: 01:30 All right. I’m just reading a definition-definition from good old Wikipedia.” A psychological…”, uh, sorry. “Impostor Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve all that they have achieved. Individuals with impostor-ism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.
Leon: 02:09 Right. And again, this is something that IT folks, many IT folks struggle with quite a bit it is an aspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect. And I first heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect a long time ago, and my immediate thought was, “oh my God, that’s me.” Meaning that, you know the report that I was reading talked about people who thought they were really good at something. And in fact they were so bad that not only did they not know they were bad, but they looked at people who were good at something and they thought they were bad at it also. So they not only misunderstood their own skill, but they would rate other people lower at it who were demonstrably good. And I thought, “oh, what if that’s…” It was my first thought was, “what if that’s me?”
Doug: 03:03 And of course, there’s your impostor syndrome, right? But the classic example of that is, I read a study somewhere that 80% of all people think they’re above average drivers.
Leon: 03:14 Okay,
Josh: 03:14 I mean, I am.
Doug: 03:17 And that’s the point. 80% can’t be above average.
New Speaker: 03:21 Even, even if the numbers weren’t funny everyone’s demonstrable experience says that that’s not true. There’s, there’s another, so there’s a Jewish aspect of this, which is a Jewish mysticism talks about a group of people called the Lamed-Vav-niks. Lamed-Vav is simply the number 33. And these 33 people are truly righteous and it is on their behalf – for their sake – that God does not destroy the world and start over again. And if even one were to cease to exist the world would immediately be destroyed. It wouldn’t be good enough. And the corollary to that is that if you wonder, in the back of your mind, “I wonder, maybe, maybe I’m one of the lamed-vav-niks?” that is proof that you’re not. So there’s, there’s just all sorts of layers to this idea of impostor syndrome and who has it and how to deal with it. So let’s dive into this. When does this occur? When have you seen this in it context? When have you seen the Dunning-Kruger or the impostor syndrome really manifest.
Josh: 04:31 I mean when I first started to apply for jobs as a remote working… and I didn’t know that I wanted to be remote working… but as a remote working monitoring engineer. Boy, my world got real shaky. I was, you know, I’d come out to Atlantic Canada to work for a company, but it was a small company and I was horrified at the thought that a Fortune 25 company would want to hire me – and hire me sight unseen – and oh my, you know, I just like, “I can’t do it. There’s, there’s no way…” I think that when, when you aren’t in that comfort zone of what you’ve always known in your career, and for me it was making that leap into being a 100% remote worker, you don’t know what you’re going to do. You feel like the exception to everything we’ll talk about later, but I think that there’s power and embracing that exception, but yeah. Starting new jobs, starting a different type of job, becoming some sort of, um, you know, change in, in your career trajectory, whether you go from being an engineer to being a manager or vice versa. Those things are, yeah. For me, huge challenges.
Leon: 05:46 Okay. So change, like when you, when you’re going through major, changing in the status quo, that’s when you’re more liable to doubt your ability to actually do it, even if you’ve proven time and time again that “I do this all the time.”
Josh: 05:58 Yeah. And that goes back to the art. One of our previous episodes where we talked about the consistency of change. Now I just listened to… re listen to that episode today but the only consistent thing in IT is change. Therefore, if I was successful last week, then I can’t be successful this week because IT has changed so much that I can’t possibly do it. So then if you know, just reinstall it, that impostor syndrome right back into everything. You do it, it’s, yeah, welcome to my life.
Leon: 06:27 Oh, good. GOTO 10.
Josh: 06:28 Yes.
Doug: 06:33 Yeah. I mean, on the, on the topic of jobs, I mean, there’s nothing like it. I love the IT jobs. “We’re looking for a rock star contributor! We’re looking for people with a passion to go ahead and change the world.” And I’m like, “Really? Um, how about if I’m kind of good at what I do and when things need to be solved, I figure it out. But I don’t know whether I qualify as a rockstar.” I mean, I used to be a disc jockey. Rockstars bust up hotel rooms and stuff. They don’t necessarily do good things. Do you want a rock start working on your IT software? I don’t think so.
Leon: 07:09 Right, right. “Rockstar” used to be a pejorative, like “You don’t want your child to date a rock star, do you?” That would… you don’t want to bring home that!
Doug: 07:19 But now everybody wants… and you’re sitting there going, “Am I a rock star? I don’t think I am.” I’m good at, I mean, I’ve been doing this for what, 30 some odd years. I can’t tell you how many… I never, you know, clients never leave me. They always get upset when I need to move on to something else, you know, but I don’t feel like I’m a rock star.
Leon: 07:40 Right. And one would argue that when you talk to folks who are in that business, they don’t feel like it either. So, you know, that’s, once again, we’re right back to impostor syndrome. Okay, so that’s one place. One thing that I’ve seen it is when you’re either giving a conference talk, about to go onstage and give a conference talk; or just thinking about submitting for a conference talk, impostor syndrome hits with a vengeance. “Who am I to stand up in front of those, you know, 30, 50, a hundred, 300 more people and tell them anything? Like, what, what gives me the right to do that?” And not to mention the fact that you’re painting a big old target on your back and front, but that’s one of those places. And a corollary to the conference talk is working at a convention, working the booth at a convention because then not only do you wonder, like people are coming by, it’s like, yeah, “I worked for…” Josh to your point, “I worked for a fortune 20 company and we have 9 million devices and I set up things with using, you know, bash scripts and, you know, can you give me a better way to do that?” “Um, no, no, I can’t. I don’t, I don’t think so.” But it turns out that I can! Now you’re feeling sort of impostor ish and they’re coming up with a “prove it, you know, prove it to me. I dare you” kind of attitude. So it just makes things even more complicated. And, um, and that gets even more difficult if you are any sort of minority, you know, people of color, women, women of color, etc. Destiny, who is another of voice you’ll hear regularly on this podcast, I remember one of the first shows I went to with her, there was about 10 of us in the booth and somebody came up and was talking to one of my coworkers, another guy and he was pointing over at Destiny’s way and he says, “Well, she’s not… she’s not really like… You just, you just hired her to be in the booth, right? And the guy, without missing a beat he says, “Oh, I think you absolutely should walk over to her and ask her technical questions and see what happens. I think, and I’ll watch. In fact, I’m going to film it because this is going to be funny.” And he didn’t quite get it and sure enough he went over to Destiny and she just eviscerated him. Not, I mean, with a smile and a chuckle and just technically took him to the cleaners. Because that’s Destiny. But the fact is that having to deal with that does cause you to question like, “do I really know what I’m doing?” You know, every person who walks up to the booth is another challenge too… you know, another question mark in your own mind. Like “Maybe I’ve been, maybe I’ve just gotten lucky so far. Maybe I haven’t had real people ask me questions.” You know, on the third day of a 27,000 person conference, you still have those doubts. It’s amazing. Okay, so that’s, that’s the technical side of it, I think. But since this is Technically Religious, where does this occur in a religious context? Does this occur in a religious context? Do we have impostor syndrome in our religious life?
Doug: 11:07 Oh, you bet.
Leon: 11:10 Okay.
Doug: 11:11 Well, I mean, in the Christian world, we have prayer warriors. These are people who can call down fire from heaven and can get people healed and just, you know, and, and they’re just, they’re put up on this, uh, alter. I was gonna say pedestal, but honestly, we’re in church, so, there are these wonderful people and you just sit there going, “I can’t pray that good… I don’t… I… You know?” And, and the reality is they are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. They don’t raise themselves up that way, but other people do. And it just makes you feel like, I’ll never, I do this,
Leon: 11:54 I’ll never measure up to that. Wow.
Doug: 11:56 And the answer is, and it has more to do with my ADHD than anything else. I just can’t sit there that long. Yeah. So TeaWithTolkien, the Twitter handle for the person TeaWithTolkien, said the other day and it caught my eye. She said, “Me: (praying one time and remaining mostly focused.) I’M A MYSTIC!” Like, just that one time. And it’s like, “Oh, I see the whole world now!” Just because I can do it one time. And you watch other people who are just praying with such sincerity and wiwth such focus. Like every time you’re like, “yeah, no.”
Doug: 12:42 Wish I could. Doesn’t happen.
Josh: 12:45 That’s weird. I thought Mormons had this… well I thought we had the market cornered on really awkward prayer. So semi annually, there’s a huge conference that is telecast from Salt Lake City. It’s called the General Conference and it’s two days, 10 hours of instruction. And the prayers that open and close these meetings, they’re legendary. They, uh, we, uh, we often make fun of the people who say these prayers to open these meetings because they are so eloquent. But it’s not like, “oh, that was really good and sweet.” It was, “oh my goodness. That was horrible!” So I laugh, I laughed Doug because when I hear those people pray, I think, “Are you kidding me? Like, do you pray like that at home? Because I think you’re just putting on a show. I think you’re faking it till you make it.”
Leon: 13:45 Wow. Okay. And I’m holding off on the fake it till you make it, because I have very strong feelings about that, but…
Josh: 13:51 OK, we’ll put it aside.
Leon: 13:52 I was not expecting where you were going with that story. That it was bad. Although we were talking about study sessions, learning, and the number of times – whether it’s IT or religion, when I go in thinking, “I don’t know anything about this topic and I’m really excited because this person is going to teach me all this stuff” And I walk out and like, “I could have taught that class. I could have done that.” So I think sometimes we do fool ourselves. Now in Judaism there’s a couple of other aspects to this. First of all, there’s the language, Hebrew. So if you’re not good at reading Hebrew, and I am not, then, being asked to go up and lead the prayers… Now it’s not only lead, not only have a level of eloquence or music quality to it, but also in this language, which has a lot of sounds that English never makes and never should make, and do it quickly. So there’s that piece. And then also even in learning, there’s, I mean, if you took the Talmud and you read one page a day, it would take you seven and a half years to get through the whole thing, start to finish. Just to give you an idea of the volume. And that’s the Talmud without commentary. Then there’s commentary. Then there’s more and more and more and more. And there’s people who have vast swathes of it memorized and, not only quoted but analyze it and dig into it and, and you can’t, you just can’t fake that. Like there’s no, “well you gave it a good shot.” Like there’s just nothing you can do about that. So again, feeding into the impostor syndrome is when you see a whole community of people, where many, many people are fluent in these ways. I was like, “Yeah, I’m not. I’ll just sit here and watch.” You know, that’s, that’s another thing that I think contributes to religious impostor syndrome. Because so many people grew up with this. Now, what I will say, and this is an interesting aspect, is that the judgingness that I feel and I have seen in IT contexts, in a Jewish context is not always or often there. I’ve watched, you know, 10 11 year olds get up to give a lecture on a piece of scripture and, you know, very – not simplistic – but a very basic reading of it and a room full of rabbis, you know, 300 years of combined experience represented in the room, all listening, very attentively, all focused, completely asking pointed questions, not above the child’s level but asking questions. “So when you read this thing, you know who said that again was that, was that this rabbi or that rabbi?” you know, just clarifying things and really giving their full attention to it. And the result of that is that the kid walks away 11 feet tall, having had that room’s attention. Feeling validated and justified. Not a whiff of being patronizing or you know, just like, “Yeah kid, just say your piece and, and get outta here. Cause we have important things to do.” Never that. And that has that stuck with me that Judaism has that feeling of anybody who’s going up there, you know, you give respect to the person, you give respect to the Torah, that really what’s being represented is Torah, and that gets our utmost respect, regardless of who’s bringing it to us. You know, that’s sort of, that’s the counter… That’s the antidote to impostor syndrome, I think.
Josh: 17:39 I do like that idea that that’s the antidote. I oftentimes will hear people quote “out of the mouths of babes” as a justification for the things that children say that are insightful, as though we’re somehow surprised that children are insightful. And I think more often than not, we need to embrace that idea that children are insightful. I know that we’re getting to how do we solve this idea of impostor syndrome? But maybe because I regularly feel as though I’m an impostor in a vast majority of the places that I engage in. I love to instill that impostor syndrome into people. I love to bring people who, for all intents and purposes, have no business being involved in a situation because I do think it democratizes the approach to that problem. I know we’ve talked in the past about this idea, this challenge that we had or that I had at work, which was to figure out how to make a very large, uh, annual sum of spend go away when nobody believed that it could go away. It was “the cost of doing business.” And what we did is we brought together this group of people who really, they were impostors, they weren’t… some of them were not IT people. And we asked great questions. And in the end we achieved an 87% cost reduction for something that nobody thought could be done. So I love … and I’m going to steal that, Leon. I’m going to steal that mindset of “let’s get the least among us, quote-unquote, “least” (air quotes”, and bring them and let’s learn from them. Let them teach us, because obviously their insights aren’t clouded. And I know we’re solving this impostor syndrome thing, but I think it’s actually something we should just be grabbing onto and embracing. It seems to have worked so well in my career.
Leon: 19:46 And Judaism emphasizes that the, the highest praise you can get in, in yeshiva, the Jewish school system is, in Yiddish is “du fregst a gutte kashe”. (You ask a good question.) That’s the highest praise you can get. It not, “oh, that’s a really insightful answer.” Answers are easy. Like there’s plenty of answers, but asking good questions, that’s the part that gets the highest praise. So I think that that, you know, to your point, finding people who can ask good questions regardless of what their background is or where they come from is more valuable in both an IT and in a religious context, but certainly in IT context. You mentioned a couple of times “solving it.” So one of the things that people talk about solving impostor syndrome in IT contexts is “Well, just fake it till you make it.” Like, just pretend you know it and soon enough you actually will know it. You’ll be the expert. That bothers me because it reinforces in the mind of the person who’s doing it, that they’re faking it, that they don’t really know. I don’t know what your feelings on that are.
Doug: 20:54 I’m just not fond of the concept of faking it, period. I mean, fake to me is not a positive description of something. If you say somebody is being fake, it’s never good. And the problem is an awful lot of people think that faking… It is, I understand that it’s “fake it until you make it,” but a lot of people just stop right at “fake it.” You know, that’s good enough. I don’t need to put in the work to go ahead and make this happen. So I’m not fond of the expression. I understand the concept, but I think the faking it part really has a bad spin to it.
Josh: 21:45 So when, when I served as a LDS missionary in Las Vegas, this whole idea of “fake it till you make it” was something that we said to each other quite often. Whether you were a struggling emotionally or spiritually or intellectually. People who had to learn new languages (And I was not one of them) often, it was just “fake it.” And now as an adult, I look back, and I realize how truly dangerous that was in a religious context. You take young men and women. When I went, it was 19, was the earliest eligibility for men and 21 for women. And you put them out into a situation where they are on their own and you tell them, “you just fake it.” And you try to be successful. And if you’re not, you just pretend like you are. Now, remember these missionaries are going into people’s homes and they’re teaching them about the fundamentals of Mormonism. And you just want them to fake it? That is, to your point, Doug, that’s super disingenuous. Right? They should not be out saying, “Hey, I know that this is true.” if you don’t know that it’s true. And I encountered friends and colleagues as a missionary who didn’t know, didn’t believe in the things that they were saying, and some of them did the right thing and they laughed and some of them stayed out and ultimately got assimilated by the Borg, for lack of a better term.
Leon: 23:19 And I think, in an IT context, um, it ignores the, the real power of the words., “I don’t know.” I think all three of us have spoken on this podcast and elsewhere about how powerful it is personally, but also how powerful it is in a team. And for a company, for people to be comfortable saying, “Yeah, I don’t know that off the top of my head,” or “I don’t know that at all, but I’m going to go do some research” or whatever it is. I think that’s powerful. What I have found though, in terms of, again, solving for the problem – solving for x where x is equal to impostor syndrome, is, the word “imagine.” Now imagine is different than “fake it.” Imagine is personal, it doesn’t mean “go play pretend,” which is similar to fake it. What I mean is that if you feel stuck and you feel like “I’m not equal to this problem, I don’t know how I’m gonna deal with this.” Take a minute and close your eyes and imagine that you did. Imagine that you knew how to approach this. Not “imagine you have the answer” because if you did have the answer, you’d have the answer. But imagine that you knew how to approach this and what do you see yourself doing? What do you imagine that you would do next? To find out how to proceed, how to address the problem, how to go about fixing it, whatever it is. Right? And imagination, as we know from children is a really powerful tool that we can use. And that helps people get unstuck. You know, to Doug’s point, you know, you don’t want to fake, you don’t want to imagine outwardly. You don’t want to just be somebody who pretends to know things and hopes nobody notices. That’s even worse for people who suffer from impostor syndrome, but using imagination to get past that, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly write that CFP for a talk.” “I couldn’t possibly give that Bible study class.” Well close your eyes for a minute. Imagine that you could. Imagine that you were expert enough to do that. What would that look like? How would you, what would you do next?
Doug: 25:20 I’ve used that multiple times. I used to teach continuing education at the college level and I’d come across a topic that I knew was really, it was interesting and it looked like it was going to be a big thing. So I would write up a course description and I would submit the course description. Keeping in mind that at this point I knew nothing about it. And sometimes, because this was back in the days when it was all print stuff. So I had at least six months before this class was going to happen at the earliest. And I had at least four months from the time it got accepted or didn’t get accepted because of the lead time. So I’d come up with this idea, I’d say, “if this course existed, here’s what it would teach, and I bet there’d be a really good teacher for it. Oh, that might be me!” And so you would go ahead and I’d submit it and they’d approve it and then I would have to study like heck, because I knew I had to teach this thing, but it’s not faking it, exactly. If somebody had said on that day that I submitted it, “Do you know this to… could you teach this tomorrow?” The answer would be no, but six months from now I can.
Leon: 26:28 And that’s, and I think that’s where impostor syndrome hangs a lot of people up is, you know, “hey, I’d like you to do this.” “Oh, I can’t do that.” Well, it wasn’t asking to do it now. I was asking you to do it three months from now, a year from now. Are you interested in doing it? And some people implicitly hear that and some people hear when that’s actually not true. I really do need you to do this right now. And think that’s how personality lays out. So that’s how we address in IT. I guess the question is, flipping back to the religious side, does it translate to religious life? Now, I already mentioned that in some contexts that’s not true, right? You can’t pretend or imagine you know, Hebrew or that you’ve learned all of Talmud or whatever. If you don’t know, you can’t make it up. But everyone is a learner. And in fact, one of my big frustrations when I became more religious was that when we were studying text, when I would go to a class, the only verb people would use is learn. “I have a person that I’m learning with.” “We’re learning this piece of text.” “You just have to learn it.” And I finally got fed up and I said to an advisor, you know, my rabbi, I said, Why not ‘memorize’, not ‘analyze’, not ‘read’ – any of those other words? Why is the only word we seem to be able to use learn?” He said, “You’re missing the point. Everyone is using it in the Hebrew context. In Hebrew, there’s only one verb: limud. And it means “to learn”, but it also means “to teach”. It’s the same verb. And that’s not just like a cute little happenstance. That’s on purpose. Because when you go in to a class, you may think you’re the one who’s teaching when in fact you’re the one who’s going to be absorbing information that the other person is giving that you didn’t even know they have. That maybe they didn’t realize was relevant, and vice versa. You may be going to a lesson thinking “I have nothing to offer, I’m just going to be consuming,” and all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, but I do have life experiences or insights or things to bring to the table that the other person just had never considered.” And so it, it’s, it’s intentionally a bi-directional verb. You can’t fake knowing something, but at the same time you never know whether you’re going to have something to contribute. You can’t predict that either. And so you shouldn’t hold yourself back from something simply because you just assume you have nothing.
Doug: 29:00 We’ve all had experiences where somebody in the group who’s just sitting there, all of a sudden they get this epiphany. This light bulb goes off in their head, they get excited and they share it and then the whole group just comes alive because of this little thing that this person, they just saw it at a completely different way that all of a sudden just opens your eyes. And it can be, it’s happened in Bible study. Scripture groups has happened in IT teams where we’re trying to solve a problem and then it’s just like, it can come from the least expected person there, but if they get that little insight, it can just energize the whole group.
Josh: 29:39 When when we see somebody who is struggling, we have two choices, whether we’re talking in a religious context or within an IT context, or really within the greater part of humanity. And that is we can see that weakness and tear them down, or we can hold them up. And I love that idea of holding someone up. Now, my Old Testament knowledge is not great, but I believe that there is an instance and it… was it Moses who needed his arms held up? And I think that that is what I want to be. Moses certainly didn’t feel as though he was qualified to do what God wanted him to do. And there was a time when he needed others to hold him up. And so if we see that, how do we solve impostor syndrome? We solve it by when we see it, we don’t say it, but we act as though it exists and it can be eradicated. I love, I love that imagery.
Leon: 30:48 It’s a really good point because the three people involved was Moses, Aaron and Joshua, and in that battle, whenever Moses had his arms up, the Israelites would win. And as he got more and more tired, his arms would start to fall down and the Israelites would lose. And he realized that that was the case. And so Aaron and Joshua would hold his arms up for him. But throughout the Torah cycle, the narrative, in different situations, Moses upheld Joshua or Aaron upheld… they would each hold each other up. So, to your point is that, maybe I’m the one who’s doing the supporting today with the knowledge that my team is going to have my back, is going to support me later on and help me do that. And I think that’s a wonderful image. And again, maybe I don’t feel up to it, but if I know that the team has my back when I falter, they’re going to be there to help in some way so that I don’t fall flat on my face.
Destiny: 31:54 Thanks for making time for us this week to hear more of Technically Religious visit our website, TechnicallyReligious.com where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions, and connect to us on social media.
Leon: 32:08 This podcast is going to be great!
Doug: 32:10 Well, it’ll be pretty good.
Josh: 32:12 Uh, maybe okay?
Doug: 32:15 Well if I don’t mess it up too bad.