When I got the job I now work in, I hadn’t even finished my education yet. I did not possess any relevant experience working in information security. Yes, I had several years at a medium-sized ISP under my belt, but I was a total rookie, even in that regard. So I was nervous when I first met my potential future coworkers, I was nervous when I met them the second time, I was nervous when I started working together with them, and I’m still occasionally nervous more than three and a half years later.
Some of my coworkers have been on the Internet longer than I’ve been on this planet, the average time they’ve been at my company longer than me is nearly a decade. Which, in information security, is the equivalent to hundred years; they are professionals in every sense.
I’m lucky that the same thing applies to the people I hang out with online. They are talented and good at what they do. Hell, they even have potential to be thought leaders (Sorry, you knew I would never let you live your success down!). I’m constantly surrounded by people I can, in a sense, look up to and learn from – which is awesome on one hand, but was, and to some extent, still is, a source of constant anxiety for me, because I always compare myself to them.
That inexplicably lead to me feeling unworthy, because my English is obviously horrible (compared to native speakers), I am completely incompetent as a systems administrator (compared to people who’ve been doing it professionally for god knows how long) and I have absolutely no clue about information security (because I didn’t discover APT1 myself).
I expected people to find out about my own incompetence any minute now, which would result in me finally being given the work I deserve and should have been doing from the beginning. Like making coffee or preparing sandwiches. But let’s be fair, I obviously would suck horribly at that, too.
I was, more often than not, convinced that I had fully embraced the “Dunning-Kruger“-effect, that I was merely an impostor, in no way belonging in the position where I’m currently at, that I was a worthless human being compared to everyone else out there.
The funny thing is that there is plenty of evidence that should have convinced me that everything is actually fine. I’ve spoken at the biggest security conference in my country, and even if I would argue that I only was there as a co-speaker, there were numerous other talks that I’ve given on my own, on topics I had researched myself.
There was this one time where I beat an assembly of various European teams during a cyber exercise (I really hate this term.) in 2014, and the other time when I did the same thing together with coworkers this year.
As I found out over time, I’m not the only one who experiences these feelings. Apparently, there’s even a name for the way I feel, the so-called impostor-syndrome
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
I’m not a high-achieving individual, I’m a regular guy. But holy shit, that struck a note! It was only after reading more about this, after talking to people about it, and after I gave some thought to it when I realized how the very same way of thinking has slowly crept into my personal life as well.
My father is the only carpenter in the family, I am the only person with an IT-job in the family, which means that we get the same amount of attention when problems related to our profession pop up – people, obviously, turn to me when they are looking for help with computer problems.
I’ve recovered university papers deleted by accident, battled financial trojans, replaced defective hard drives and supervised operating system upgrades. But whenever I got thanked for that and complimented upon it, my reactions were similar to these phrases:
- “Ah, it was nothing!”
- “No worries, you could have fixed it yourself, I just got lucky!”
- “I’m sorry it took so long!”
Trying to deflect blame is a natural (I’m not a biologist.) reflex, but defecting and doging compliments and praise is quite the opposite, it’s actively harmful. But even when I’m not ‘depending’ on praise by other people, when I’m accomplishing things on my own for my own, my way of thinking seems to be the same.
I work out on a regular base, a normal week sees me at the boxing gym five times, that doesn’t include the occasional weightlifting session on weekends. I enjoy it and take it seriously, it’s an outlet to deal with stress and has greatly improved my overall health.
Yet after each training I felt worthless, no matter how well it went – because my brain thought it was a appropriate and a good idea to compare my performance to a professional fighter, who trains more than ten times a week and has been doing so for the past decade. Excellent idea, brain!
Once I realized that I had fully embraced that thought pattern, I tried to find a way out of it, tried to do things to get a ‘normal’ perspective again, such as:
- Not comparing myself to other persons so much. I’m not better or worse, they aren’t better or worse – we are different
- Remembering that being wrong about something doesn’t mean that I’m faking, and that asking questions doesn’t mean that either
- Moving away from self-sabotaging back to ‘good’ humility, not thinking less of me, but thinking less about me
- Talking to people when I’m having my doubts, accepting feedback and expecting it to be truth rather than words out of kindness
I specifically used the phrase “tried (or try) to do”, because I don’t always succeed in doing so. Speaking of trying: I’m not trying to make you feel pity for me, and this isn’t an attempt to self-diagnose one thing or the other, I’m fine mentally.
Everyone has bad days, and for me that means staring at my list of things I want to or need to get done, and silently judging me for not working around the clock in order to get the number of items on it to zero, and managing to ignore my self-judgemental-me is hard during these days. But worth it.
The important message I am trying to bring across is: It’s a lot easier to look at one’s own shortcomings and mistakes, so easy that we tend to forget the things we accomplish. Whenever you are having self-doubts, take a (mental) step back, and look at what you’ve been doing as of lately, how you’ve – personally and professionally – grown throughout the last year or two.
Acknowledge your successes, even if you feel that there is space for improvement. That room will always be there. You are doing well, fam.