imposter syndrome

Day 7 of 30. Two of my favourite YouTube channels are Mind Your Decisions and 3Blue1Brown, both of which walk the viewer through interesting concepts and problems in mathematics. As a self-professed geek of many stripes, including the mathematical, I think there's something wonderful about problems where there's no One True Way to solve it.

Here's one video from Mind Your Decisions I watched recently:

One question the video explores:

If you shuffle a deck of cards, what is the expected number of cards that stay in the same spot?

...and of course, the video goes on to explore one possible solution to that problem. But there are others! (My solution involved rotations; I rather like it, though it's not as straightforward as the solution presented in the video.)

Or take the Pythagorean Theorem, for instance. Here's the proof presented in Oliver Byrne's rendition of Euclid's Elements:

This is a math problem that's over 2000 years old, and new solutions are still being found. That's pretty amazing.

I've been writing code professionally for 15 years, and there are two things that have never gone away for me:

  1. the wonder of solving complex problems that have no right solution;
  2. the unshakeable feeling that I'm not really any good at this code thing, and that my staggering incompetence will come to light and everyone will hate me for it.

Point #2 is often referred to as imposter syndrome: you feel like an imposter, like someone pretending to be good at a thing. This has no correlation to your actual skill at the thing (see the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example).

I think - and I'll put this thought out here without rigorous justification - that #1 and #2 are related. That is: for me, and for many of the creative people I've known, spending a lot of your time working on complex problems that don't have One True Solution comes hand-in-hand with imposter syndrome.

Because if there isn't One True Solution, it's often also hard to find an objective standard, hard to interpret feedback. Sure, I did a thing and line went up and to the right - but how much of it was me? How much was the rest of my team? The organisation as a whole? The vagaries of chance? How do I know there wasn't a better solution, and I'm just not good enough to find it?

I won't pretend to have a solution to this complex problem, the one of imposter syndrome. I can say that it's important to celebrate small wins, to put your work out there and get feedback anyways, to hold ourselves to high yet reachable standards, to accept that our brains are flawed sacks of meat that tell us ridiculous lies even as they make wonderful things possible...

...and that this might just be part of the process of working on truly difficult things.