Learning to Breathe Water: An Imposter’s Guide to Getting Started

Let’s start with a confession. I have imposter syndrome. It’s one of my core personality traits. I’ve gone through my entire life wondering when I would, inevitably, be exposed as an incompetent fraud.

It’s just a matter of time

There are a ton of resources available to help clarify how common imposter syndrome is. Here are a few I like.

To be clear, I’m not a therapist. I have no special insight on imposter syndrome beyond my own experience of it. In my life before programming, I was a writer. My imposter syndrome mostly manifests in my work as writer’s block (or the programming equivalent). Being frozen by the knowledge of my own inadequacy.

In my life as a writer, I had a handful of tricks to cope with this, and when I transitioned to coding, I repurposed them. They’re designed to get you started when starting a project or task feels overwhelming. I hope they can help.

1. Get the worst thing you’ll write out of the way

My favorite exercise, when I had writer’s block, was to write the worst poem I could think of. Something transcendentally bad. When I’m stuck in code, sometimes, I’ll do the same thing.

function rgiirughw(pwgieufpwegiuf{iurgegpireg[ewf[8eqfy2]r\u11r30\j-13t[g973'2r i24ef dub

I do this because it resets the baseline for bad work. Comment it out and keep going. Now you’ve written the worst code you’ll write all day —whatever you write next can’t possibly fail as spectacularly as the code above. That gives you more freedom to make stupid mistakes and try creative approaches.

2. Your hands are better writers than you are

I once asked a professor about dealing with writer’s block, and they replied, “Your hands are better writers than you are. Stop trying to guide them and just write.”

You don’t have to know where you’re going at the beginning. If you start writing, your hands will guide you.

3. Embrace ugly code

Everyone wants to produce lean, beautiful work on the first try. It’s a noble pursuit. It’s also rare. It’s much easier to find an ugly solution and then revise it. Remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Think of it as separating concerns. First, try to make it work. Then, if there’s time, make it pretty. But don’t worry how it looks in the first draft.

4. The worst case scenario is not that bad

Ultimately, the question every imposter has to ask themselves is “what’s the worst that could happen?” The answer usually boils down to some version of “I’ll do a bad job.” That’s fine — you’ve done badly before. You got through it.

I like to embrace the worst-case scenario. Pretend I’ve already failed. I’ve found that imagining I’ve already failed removes the possibility of failure, and thus eases the pressure. It sets the bar so low I can trip over it.

Me @ me

5. Remember that imposter syndrome can be a strength

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about tricks to get ahead of the shame of feeling like an imposter. But the irony is that I’m secretly grateful for my imposter syndrome — in fact, I think of it as one of my greatest strengths.

It’s weird to admit. But the fact is, feeling like a fraud in everything I’ve done has made me better at it. It’s forced me to be (often distressingly) aware of my weaknesses, pushed me to work harder, and led me to always over-prepare. It’s made me always question what I know, which allows for creative solutions. The secret fear that I’ll be exposed as a fraud has made me do a solid impression of a person who knows what he’s doing.

The trick is redirecting the fear of being exposed. Instead of dwelling on how I’m a fraud, I try to ask myself how I could improve. Write a list of tangible, concrete things you’re struggling with. It’s important to be as specific as you can.

None of these tricks will work every time. But used together, they’ve helped me to get started, even when learning programming feels like I’m trying to teach myself to breathe water.

I think imposter syndrome is inevitable. But my fear of burdening people with my inadequacy is, at its core, a tool. I can use it to get better. I know that you can too.

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