Impostor Syndrome: thoughts and tips

Recently a dear friend of mine is struggling to enjoy work. As this is their first “job”, a lot of pressure, imagined or not, has become a source of great anxiety. After discussing the mental hardship during these tough moments, I can’t help by remembering how I felt in my first job. Today I want to identify this problem, explain why it exists, and what we can do to mitigate it.

Before I begin, it should be pointed that I have not taken a full-time job either, and all my experience came from previous internships. I do believe my thoughts and pointers are valid, but take it with a grain of salt just in case.

What is Impostor Syndrome

Rather than giving a formal definition about the term, which you can find here, I want to give an example to start with. Imagine you are at a party, standing in a circle of discussion. Weirdly you know all the people in the group, but just cannot understand what they are talking about. You feel a bit embarrassed to ask, so you just listen quietly, and throw in a few “that’s interesting”s. When you are on the way home, you question your intelligence and if you looked stupid at the party, and you end up hating yourself for being an idiot.


Sounds familiar? Now switch the context into an office, and you are having Impostor Syndrome now. Often times, people feel bad for themselves for not performing well at work, or not following others’ train of thought, and they feel like they are frauds, pretending that they understand things they don’t; and they are Impostor(that’s where the term comes from).

Why we have it?

First of all, looking back at my earlier jobs, it is so viscerally understandable to have the feeling that you are not as good as you think, or people expect you to be, especially for me and my contemporaries, just entering, or about to, the industry. This is not a singular problem in tech, but across pretty much any industry. Let me walk you through how a new grad walks into the trap of Impostor Syndrome, and sometimes ironically rational.

You begin your first day, surrounded by people who all have more experience than you do. You want to “prove” that you are just as good, and you start your work with the determination of “I can figure things out by myself”. Not after long you get hopelessly stuck, and after a few hours of intellectual and mental battle, you got into a position where you have to ask someone for help, but simultaneously ashamed of showing weakness. When you finally solve the problem after possibly extensive help, you escape from work, wishing people had forgotten how stupid you were today. You get home and cry in the shower, thinking “maybe I am just a fake”, and you dread showing up at work the next day. Voilà?

In my opinion, Impostor Syndrome roots essentially from a lack of confidence, specifically in the workplace. Being fresh out of college, we may sudden realize just how much we don’t know that goes into our work, and that makes us nervous, worrying others may disapprove us. I totally had a mental phase like this, and I think many people have it too. And the worst of all is, you can’t really tell anyone about this, without admitting your unreadiness for work.

Removing the mental block

I want to introduce a different way of thinking about this, which helped me to deal with Impostor Syndrome. Instead of trying to resolve it, try to admit and embrace it.

People around us at work have worked for years, if not decades, to horn their skills in real life situations, which makes them competent when we look at them. They didn’t get to this point in a day. We must understand when starting a new job, most people would objectively struggle, due to inexperience. Most importantly, there’s nothing to be shamed of for not knowing. What matters is how you deal with that.

Also you need to see your career as a process, not a static view(pardon the pun). Right now you are not good at what you do, that’s for sure; so just accept it. What keeps you moving forward is the belief that EVENTUALLY you will be good at it, as long as you put in enough effort.

You may feel that “eventually” is too far and impractical, and that’s reasonable. I cannot predict when I will become a “strong” developer, but I can make sure that I work towards it everyday. In the end, the result doesn’t matter; what matters is the journey you take, and if you enjoyed it.

Some practical tips

If you have something like what I described before at work, try this tomorrow. Forget you are an employee, and think of yourself having a “behind the curtains” look into what smart people do at work. Simply observe and appreciate their work process, and absorb a bit to improve yourself. The trick here is you remove yourself from comparing against your colleagues, and move to appreciate them and in term you will appreciate too.

There’s a more readily applicable tip about Impostor Syndrome I feel like bringing up, and that’s talking about it. Yes it is embarrassing, but honestly talking about it with people you trust helps a lot, even if they just simply listen and nod. I am very lucky to have someone to share my fears and anxieties. And guess what? I can return the favors in the same fashion. Find a friend to talk about it, and offer to listen when they need too. When one mind can’t take, find another one.


I hope this helps you in accepting your weakness and finding ways to improve it. If you want to discuss the details, PM me on twitter and we can talk about it more in detail.

Tl;dr. Trust that you are awesome!



Back to Edinburgh: a short reflection

It’s been such a LONG time! I must start with an apology: I stopped updating here for about a month and a half by now. Previously work was a bit too much that I couldn’t spare enough time for blogging and I didn’t want to write anything not worth reading. Since I have finished work by now, and I will be moving into my new place in a couple of days, it seems right to get back to the site, and we will have our weekly posts as usual from now on.

So today I would like to write about what I did in the summer. For those of you not that familiar with me, I was working at Google London for 3 months this summer, working in the Adsense team. My project is to help people sign up in Adsense easier, to put it briefly. It was hard work all around, since this was a new team for me, with different code conventions and new technologies to learn. But in the end I was able to complete the project and produce a working demo, and hopefully my feature would be rolled out into production soon.

Even though I was glad to finish everything in time, there are a few things I definitely wish I would have known in the beginning. Fortunately, these tips might be helpful to you.


We developers are stereotyped to be unsociable, and I do have to admit that it comes with some grounds. Yes it can’t be easy to squeeze yourself into an already well-built circle, and it may feel left out. I certainly have this problem: during the internship I didn’t connect well with other interns, both for practical and mental reasons.

One day I was confiding this to a good friend, and she gave a quite profound yet meaningful response:

“You are not what you think you are; you are not what others think you are; you are that you think others think you are.”

A bit twisted I know, but let me explain. Naturally we care about what others think of us, and sometimes it is hard to do something because it may come off as stupid and we would feel embarrassed. However, a big part, if not the most important, part of “blending in” is put yourself forward. It may seem desperate and pathetic, but you must realize that these are not what you are, they are things you feel like people would think. As long as you keep a sincere interest in people and be brave to start talking, making friends is less daunting as you think.

And for what it is worth, this will be helpful to you, both professionally and in life in general. I was not aware of the importance of communication in software development until quite recently. Even though software is something to reason about, more then often you need to present your ideas well so others can understand and therefore agree with, or bring up concerns. Take this as an example: I had a problem with a front end component during the internship, and I was explaining this to a colleague. He didn’t quite get the problem at first and asked me to elaborate further, so I did. Literally in the middle of talking I suddenly realized something I hadn’t considered before, and problem solved itself. If I were to sit silently and think about it on my own, it could easily take hours.


At first I thought this may just be something I have to watch out for, but it seems that it is more prevalent than I thought, so I want to explain this a bit. It originated from work again, when I was thinking about how to design UI for my project, I got into a debate with a colleague. We each had a different plan of implementation, and as the debate went to it was clear that his plan was better in the long term, with less maintenance and high extensibility. Yet, as stupid as it may be, I wasn’t quite ready to drop my plan, kept stating it would be easier to implement and the potential problems are only potential, and we have other mechanisms to guard against them.

In the end, I was persuaded to adopt the other plan, but there’s something quite interesting to discuss here. Even though my idea was logically suboptimal, it was still hard for me to completely discard it, simply because it was my idea. We all have, more or less, some self-righteousness to insist on our ideas, whether or not they are actually good ideas. And this goes back to what I was talking about earlier, if we admit our ideas are bad, that kind of implies we are not clever as we claim, and that hurts our faces.

But there’s a caveat here, ignored by many people: you intellect, if can be reflected, should only be reflected by your best idea, not worst. Therefore, if you do come up with a bad idea, it doesn’t mean you are stupid as well.

Take Google as an example. Over the years they have made some bad decisions as well, investing on products that never actually got on. Yet, nobody can denied the brilliance of its search algorithm, and few competitors are even present in this field. Certainly it is a bit off to compare a company to a person, but you get the idea.

Last few words

Hopefully the things I discussed above helped you in some way. Let me know if you have something to add, or if you disagree with some of the things I mentioned. Next week we should be back with a technical post. Have a great week, and I will see you soon!

Back from a long road trip

Just got back last night from a LONG trip, arguably the longest trip I went on over years. There’s a lot that I saw, both of the nature and people, so I decide to write a reflection post about it.

First of all, some background would be helpful. I went on a 9-day road trip around the southwest of China, across the mountainy area, both valleys and snow mountains over 4000m of altitude, and even a few places mainly occupied by Tibetans. Most of the way we drove, with me doing around 20% of the driving. Things went with and against plans, as I will talk about in the coming paragraphs. To help you rad and understand things, and also easier for me to write, this post is split into two sections: positive and negative. In the end I sum things up and give a few overall thoughts.

What went well?

Going off the grid

Undoubtedly, the fact I got away from my computer for a few days is considered good. Even in the holidays, my schedule is still packed with private projects, my internship stuff, my upcoming job hunting, and many other business. “I will rest when these are dealt with.” Most of the time I use this line to put off resting, and especially trips which bring me away from my computer. However, as the past six months went, it stuck me that these “things” are never going to be totally gone, at least not in my early 20s. Relentlessly prolonging working periods does not get tasks done quicker, it usually does the opposite because of burnout and productivity drops.

And as it turns out, going off grid isn’t as scary as I thought. I still miss my computer and wish I had brought it, but mostly it is because of entertainment and not really work. Only in the last two days I started worrying a little bit, because I wouldn’t have a long time to rest and pack before I leave for London again. But those are not really work related issues either. A tip for other software engineers, and people getting overwhelmed by work, consider taking a break and leave for a trip, preferably away from the city you live. I completely understands the feeling when staring at a wall of post-it notes of todos and realizing you literally cannot leave the desk, but please try to squeeze some time out and go for a trip; even a day trip is fine. And most importantly, do not bring work with you, both physically and mentally.

The “Earth Forret”. Have to say this sweeps away my worries.

Life lessons learned

I am also glad to have gone on this trip for another reason: I learned a lot of life lessons during it. I won’t list them all, but there’s one I want to elaborate. Quite coincidentally, I was reading about the fundamental psychology about doing a task, and it says with every task we undertake, we first set a goal, then we make a plan, execute each step, observe what happens, understand it, and compare it with our expectation. There’s one sentence that I find particularly reflecting during the trip:

“Goal and expectation setting is critical: setting expectations too low leads to apathy and boredom, and setting them too high leads to frustration and anger.”

One reason I say this is reflecting during the trip was when we got to a high altitude, most of us will get uncomfortable because of the lack of oxygen in the air. So, it is vital to carefully set your activity levels. Trying to run or jump too much will only leave you gulping for air for minutes, with pain in your chest. I learned this the hard way. The following day, I started not walking too fast, and save my energy to essential jobs and tasks.

What went wrong


I once read this line from an article: The best way to truly know a person is to travel with them. At first this seems preposterous, but I saw it clearly in the few days. A quick example, one of my co-traveller snapped and shouted in the car when we couldn’t find the hotel on the map, after about 4 hours of driving. The same person sometimes is very rude to others in the group, not to me fortunately. Nevertheless, personally I believe in treating people nice as possible, so there lies a sharp difference between two people.

What this taught me is to make compromises. Try to steady the mood and morale when someone freaked out, and try to point out to that person their behavior is rude and disrespectful later in private. Running a team is not easy, professional one or not, and I certainly have much to learn. But this trip turned out to be a perfect example to practice it.

Plans don’t always work

The snow mountain, as mentioned before, was actually an accident. None of us thought it was going to snow at the end of May. But it did. To make matters worse, our car had a flat while climbing up, and therefore could not make it across the mountain. In the end, we were stuffed in a motel hallway with some blankets to pass the night, which was absolutely horrible. Sheer cold, constant headache, and frequent gulping of air. I barely slept that night. The headache didn’t go away for another day and a half, and I caught a cold along the way as well.

Stuck here for a night. This was taken the following morning, which was still snowing 😦

Obviously the people who made the plan weren’t to blame completely, but I think they are not totally free either. As a software engineer, I did a post-mortem after the fact. We could have taken another path, one that would take us to the same destination without ever going up that high. Also, as soon as we saw the snow, we should probably turn back and get out of the mountain area ASAP. Of course these are all after the fact reasoning, but a lesson is to be learned: make a plan, always have a plan B when the first one fails.

Last few thoughts

In all, I consider this trip to be a bittersweet experience, but to be precise, at this point it seems like the bitter is taking the lead. If I were to estimate, probably 40% of my waking time is spent unhappily, due to different views of the world and values. To me, traveling is never about the scenery; it is always about people: who I am traveling with, who I will meet or re-meet during the trip, and who I talk about the trip with afterwards. Luckily, the fact I can put up this post summarizing the trip is intrinsically rewarding to me, because a) I am sharing my experience and feelings, and b) maybe my experience can help others in some way. If taking that into account too, the odds will turn and these 9 days would be a worthwhile effort, and I am happy what I did it.

What’s your last traveling experience like? Do you like it or not? Which place do you want to visit the next time? These are all interesting questions to ask yourself have some good thinking. Hope this post interests you in some way.

Summer is coming, are you excited for it?

See you all soon.

Why I started this section?

I am a developer. I write cold, only logical code to better others’ lives.

Or so I thought.

After spending some time back home and talking to a few people I knew for decades, it struck me that before I am a developer, I must human first. Pretty obvious statement, but once immersed in the ocean of programming, sometimes I forget that.

So I want to start this section on my main blog. A section where I am just a man, talking about things that are more tangible to everyone. I want to write down things I see, feel, and think about.

In the past I have done this on a weekly basis, a practice I inherited for the technical blog posts. However, this time I want to take my time with this. I might post many blogs in a span of days, or just one over months. In the meantime, I will still keep my weekly schedule of technical posts as before; that is not going anywhere.

I will be going on a road trip for a bit over a week soon. Expect to have a few epiphanies during that. Stay tuned.

Hope you enjoy, and have a nice day.