Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Imposter Syndrome is Alive and Well

Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
The last presenter for day two of the recent Write the Docs conference was Heidi Waterhouse speaking on "Success is More Than Not Failing." She wasn't the only one at the event to discuss impostor syndrome, but she's the only one who talked about it that made it into my notes.

Up until the conference, not only did I think I was the only one suffering from the malady, but I didn't even know it had a name.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia article says it's not so much a mental disorder but rather "an ingrained personality trait." Great, but why me?

Or should the question be "why technical writers?"

I can't speak for anyone else, but more often than not in my career, I've been the lone wolf writer in a room full of software developers and network engineers. It's easy (for me, at least) to feel like an uneducated idiot when rubbing elbows with people half my age and even younger who write complicated lines of code for highly sophisticated and competitive products like most people write out shopping lists.

Even on those very few occasions when I've worked with groups of other writers, our skill sets for so diverse that there was no easy basis for comparison so again, I felt like the lone wolf in search of my pack.

Interestingly enough, even software developers suffer from impostor syndrome. I never realized that...
Pair-programming can be particularly stressful but also writing open-source software and activities which push you into being genuine.
While Waterhouse's presentation and the Write the Docs conference was reassuring, it also presented challenges that actually heightened my particular "syndrome." The company handed over a sizable chunk of change for me to go to Write the Docs and they're entitled to some return on that investment.

I didn't take all those notes just for my personal edification. My outfit is in the process of not just changing documentation platforms but reconstructing the way we think of things like information and collaboration.

I'm content to sit at my desk and, having worked with the relevant developers, create content for customer consumption, but what happens when I start making suggestions, particularly to department heads, about changing our collective documentation process?

Actually, I've already done that since I spearheaded the effort to change how we document our product, but I learned things at the conference that had never occurred to me before and that I think would be valuable additions/changes to what we do and how we think. I'm not suggesting we change horses in midstream, but I think we'd get a lot more mileage out of re-equipping that horse and reorganizing the riders.

I know there were a number of practical suggestions on how to manage impostor syndrome made at the conference that didn't make it into my notes. However, advice on the Internet is cheap and lists "21 Ways to Overcome Impostor Syndrome." Looks like I've got some reading to do.

More than a week has passed since the end of the conference, and I've created some mental distance between me and that experience. This is making it easier to review my notes, but now I need to organize them and cobble together some sort of presentation, then schedule it, and then give it to a specific audience.

I can't weasel out the commitment because I've already told my boss that's what I'm going to do.

I suppose this blog post would be more meaningful if I had already done all that and successfully came out the other side, but blogging is part of how I process information so it's more cognitively and emotionally manageable.

Put another way, part of blogging for me is managing the "impostor" inside and encouraging that competent writer to acknowledge himself. This is how I prepare myself to go into "battle."

I keep asking myself, "I wonder if any other people in my field feel this way," which is an insane question since the conference already answered that query with an abundant, "Yes!"

The syndrome is alive and far.

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