Issue 45, 2019-08-09

Editorial: A modest proposal for the mitigation of impostor syndrome

Thoughts on impostor syndrome and participation in the Code4Lib community

by Eric Hanson

“… a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” [1]

A frequent topic of discussion amongst my closest friends in the profession is impostor syndrome. Every time I or one of my friends is up for a promotion, assigned new responsibilities, or interviews for a new position; the same things are said:

    • I’ve never done anything like that, I don’t even know where to start.
    • I probably won’t apply, I don’t think I could learn how to …
    • I can’t ask anyone about that because I’ll feel incompetent.
    • How long before they figure out I don’t know what I’m doing?

I am no stranger to these feelings as I’ve transitioned from an acquisitions assistant to a metadata specialist to my current position as a software engineer. However, my status as a straight, white, cis male puts me in a privileged position that insulates me from many of the issues that contribute to the impostor syndrome affecting my friends. There are a multitude of factors rooted in sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism, and other prejudices that create a more insidious strain of impostor syndrome than what I’ve experienced. With so many factors influencing these feelings of inadequacy, there is no one-size-fits-all cure. However, I believe that the Code4Lib community is an excellent resource for building knowledge and confidence through the professional connections it offers.

In addition to simply gaining more experience as I spent time in each new role, the Code4Lib community was a major influence that helped me tame the impostor syndrome. Unlike much of the professional literature I encountered, this community was focused on practical solutions and there was a lack of formality that I found inviting. It seemed to be a far more approachable community than many other professional organizations. These were not people constantly theorizing and developing complicated universal standards. There are certainly elements of that higher-level work in the Code4Lib community but I quickly saw that most participants, like me, were just looking to fix everyday problems.

I’ve never counted myself as a very active participant but I am also not a passive consumer. I asked questions. I contacted people off-list when I thought we were working on similar problems. I emailed the authors of articles in the Code4Lib Journal to express my thanks for the lessons I learned from their work. I made a number of connections when I attended my first Code4Lib Conference in San Jose earlier this year. I also answer questions when I feel qualified, which has become a more frequent occurrence.

At first, I worried that my questions were too basic and would just be ignored. I quickly discovered these worries were misplaced. Even when someone did not have “the solution,” they would often point me to documentation or other people that might have the answer. Everyone I contacted in the community responded humbly and without condescension. This made me far more comfortable seeking advice, which led to a number of deeper professional connections. I not only gained knowledge from these individuals but they also modeled how to effectively provide information so that I understood both how to fix a problem and why that fix worked. As a result of this, I’m also more eager to offer assistance to others, from answering one-off questions to more extended collaborations and mentoring opportunities. When I consider my own positive feelings and gratitude towards those who assisted me, I want to pay that forward to others seeking solutions and greater knowledge.

While I can only speak to my own experience in the community, I hope it is a common experience and not an exceptional one. If other members have different experiences, I hope that the community can find a way for them to safely share their stories so that we all have an opportunity to learn. We should always be asking ourselves tough questions in the service of making our community more welcoming and doing it thoughtfully so that the burden does not fall on those who are marginalized. The recent discussions about what topics are appropriate for the listserv revealed a community that is very much a work-in-progress with regards to inclusivity but willing to engage in these types of necessary, and often uncomfortable, conversations.

I encourage anyone who has just been lurking to reach out to others who are working on similar problems and to let people know when their work has helped you. Similarly, I encourage all members, as they are able, to be as receptive and welcoming to inquiries as those I’ve contacted. If you have knowledge, share it openly and without the harmful attitudes that are commonly associated with seeking and giving technical advice. Library technology is a wonderful community in that we are encouraged to share our solutions with each other and extend them. Unlike the private sector, which generally treats solutions as closely guarded secrets to be kept proprietary and hidden. Let us take advantage of that distinction.

*Thank you to Maggie Dull and Lora Woodford for their editing help with this article.*

References

[1] Dalla-Camina, Megan. “The Reality of Imposter Syndrome.” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome

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ISSN 1940-5758