Imposter Syndrome – My Experience + Sucking the Venom Out

So, something quite insane and personally significant happened this past week.

The week before had been a very difficult week in which I was up till 3 AM multiple nights working on things. At the same time I was dealing with the stress of selling our house and possibly being “homeless” because we didn’t know if timing would be on our side in terms of the move. The tipper was my wife. I’ll tell you one thing, nothing is worse than your wife being mad that you aren’t spending the time to be healthy, or time to take care of the family, because you’re up at 3 AM working. I love my wife. She is without a doubt the best thing that has ever happened to me, so know that putting her in this light is to paint a better picture of the issues that I’m working through.

My last post was on the Amanda Blevins talk at the VMUG Usercon in DFW. In it, one of the things that peaked my interest was when she talked about “Impostor Syndrome.” Either because I was distracted (or because I had 3 hours of sleep) I didn’t look into it or think about it anymore after that.  I do remember she talked about it as an issue in mental health, but I didn’t get what it was, or why/how it would impact my life.

Well the next week, a friend invited to take me to lunch. I had just screwed up and caused an outage for a product. There was a vendor in town, so I thought he wanted me to be part of a group. Over salads, we discussed how we both had been dealing with a lot of stress at home and at work, and how I felt as though I was not able to keep up as much as I wanted to, and many things were weighing on me. “You have impostor Syndrome!” my friend told me. “If you don’t know what it is, look it up.” It was the mention again of “Impostor syndrome” that stuck with me. I left lunch, and on a whim looked up impostor syndrome, and I have that thing to a T.

Impostor Syndrome

I’m pulling a lot of the next part of this blog from information from this: article

“I must not fail”

This thought is really easy for us to get into our head. I think for me failure is a constant, not something that happens now and again. Another engineer and I refer to our automation testing as “Incremental Assessments”. We both appreciate this as it helps us fail fast and learn what we missed. Once the testing shows good it’s then moved into a more production workload.

I always loved learning through trial and error, but lately that became difficult to the point of depressing. It morphed into “Every failure wasn’t learning, it was me failing.” This paired with the normal “Don’t screw up” voice that goes through everyone’s head during a normal workday became a crippling fear. For me this is the hardest to shake. I mean we all fear our own failure, even more, we fear that failure on a public stage where our peers, managers, and senior leadership are aware of said failure.

Remember this is an internal problem. Your own psyche is in a box of your brain, and it may have no bearing on actual reality. For me, people would tell me when I fail, “It doesn’t matter,” or “We know now something we didn’t before.” but it did matter; I still messed up and it rang in my head. How do we get out of our own heads? To combat this, we must listen, and believe. There are people out there that genuinely want you to succeed and grow. If you don’t know these people in your job, find them in your community. The vCommunity is great at this. We all fail, its part of our job. Accepting this and moving on is integral to our career. It may not help as much hearing things from outside of work, and I get that, but you need to hear it and believe it.

“I feel like a fake”

This is so true. I have stated several times I’m not a great automation engineer, I just find what other people have done and adjust to fit our environment. Its what I do best. If I had to start from scratch I’m not sure I’d get far. That’s my mental dialogue. It shows that this has been embedded in me for longer than even I’ve known.

The whole point here is not HOW I did the job, project, etc but that *I* DID it. Of course, others can use this to tear you down or make you feel little, just like any other kind of bullying. This negative feedback doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that others might be able do it better. I don’t know who out there is the best of the best period, but understanding, and being honest with yourself, and your abilities and contributions is key here.

Remember YOU did the work that was necessary. YOU made the solution work. YOU took what was out there and made it fit the need of the company. Its not about HOW you did it, but that YOU did it, that’s what matters to combat that inner voice. When you feel like a ‘fake’, you feel like you don’t deserve what you have, but, remember you didn’t manipulate things to become that way, and it is not ‘just luck’. I’m blessed to be at a job that continually states they want me there, and are happy I am working there. A lot of people out there don’t have that, and I feel for them. This can be really hard when others don’t believe in you. Believe me, I’ve been there. If that’s you, reach out. Don’t let that negative inner voice win. It is not the truth.

“Success is no big deal”,“It’s all down to luck”

This comes from the previous point, Its about your inner voice downplaying the high points. Removing success as the goal is pretty horrid in my opinion. I know a guy or two that have done the bare minimum and found amazing success, and are they bad engineers? NO! They did exactly what the company needed and made things work for the company. What else were they suppose to do?

“It’s all down to luck”. This is something I’ve really never felt. I’ve always had a bigger issue with being a “fake” in my career. They seem to go hand in hand, but I’ve never felt that luck is what got me to where I am. I understand some may believe this. That somehow they stumbled upon things that “allowed” them to be successful. Unless that thing you stumbled on was a big sack of money, I doubt you stumbled on success. YOU got there.

End Notes

I am religious man. I believe there is more out there than what we see. If you’re not, that’s fine, believe what you need to be believe. BUT believe something, and it’s okay believe in yourself. In my college we discussed the “Worldview” of each person. This was basically created by asking the question, “how you see the world affects everything.” this naturally flows right into the question of “how do you see yourself?” Both are equally important when dealing with impostor Syndrome. Thinking through both can help you combat it.

I think that’s what this all boils down to. Belief. Amanda Blevins had an amazing talk on creating and using your brand, but the majority was based on knowing what keeps you happy and healthy in your career. Again, her mention of impostor syndrome initially put it on my ‘radar’. I summed up her talk as “Be Healthy, Be Happy” because it’s all about taking care of yourself. As Amanda put it, “It’s like the oxygen masks on an airplane, If you don’t put yours on first, you’re not going to be much help to those around you.”

You have to take care of yourself, and the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. I had to have a CIO scream it in my face (well not really scream, but he was loud and visibly worried). Don’t let it get to that point. I really want this to be something to create awareness. Life is more than work, eat, sleep, repeat. Work is more than success and failure. No one can live like that.

If you think you might have Impostor Syndrome, don’t wait, reach out immediately. It’s a warning sign of much worse things to come.

Here are some other points from the link above to help you mitigate the negative effects of Impostor Syndrome. Keep these in mind:

• Recognize impostor feelings when they emerge. Awareness is the first step to change, so ensure you track these thoughts: what they are, and when they emerge.

• Rewrite your mental programs. Instead of telling yourself they are going to find you out or that you don’t deserve success, remind yourself that it’s normal not to know everything and that you will find out more as you progress.

• Talk about your feelings. There may be others who feel like impostors too – it’s better to have an open dialogue rather than harbor negative thoughts alone

• Consider the context. Most people will have experience moments or occasions where they don’t feel 100% confident. There may be times when you feel out of your depth and self-doubt can be a normal reaction. If you catch yourself thinking that you are useless, re-frame it: “the fact that I feel useless right now does not mean that I really am.”

• Re-frame failure as a learning opportunity. Find out the lessons and use them constructively in future. This is a critical lesson for everyone.

• Be kind to yourself. Remember that you are entitled to make small mistakes occasionally and forgive yourself. Don’t forget to reward yourself for getting the big things right.

• Seek support. Everyone needs help: recognize that you can seek assistance and that you don’t have to do everything alone. This will give you a good reality check and help you talk things through.

• Visualize your success. Keep your eye on the outcome – completing the task or making the presentation, which will keep you focused and calm.

DFW VMUG Usercon (my experience)

Usercon is an amazing event. Thanks to some of the leaders I was able to volunteer this year and be part of the team. This came with some discussion with the speakers, Talks with friends, hearing good speaker, and some good meetings with vendors in the solutions exchange. The great thing about usercon is that it comes accross as basically a min-VMworld (which it should!). Some of the sessions were almost identical to VMworld, in fact, our keynote was also a talk that was presented there. All of these things are what lead to some amazing talks with community, help with career development, and assist in basic IT needs. These are some of the many things that make this community so great.

The Keynote

Amanda Blevins did our keynote this year. it was focused on building your brand, but even more importantly building yourself as your brand. This was an interesting thought to me, as I had always thought that your brand is how people view you. However, I never truly gave time to think about what building that entailed. Yeah, sure, a Twitter handle and a blog helps, but digging in deep on the idea of “brand” reveals it as basically the perception of you.

Amanda’s talk was pretty eye opening, as I had spent my days busily fighting to prove that I was worth something at work, while at the same time, also selling my house. The endless hours of work tied up with the stress and fear of where am I going, what house will I be in etc. made her talk incredibly timely for my personal situation, and words I was ready to heed. One of the many take-aways I had was to create a sort of “budget” of your own needs and desires. We do this financially (I’ve been doing it daily since I’m buying a house), but we barely ever do this for our mental, spiritual, and physical well-being. To put it in short terms,

  • Sit down in a quiet room and center yourself (or meditate, pray, whatever to quiet the things around you in your life)
  • Now where do you want to go in your career?
  • How do you want to get to that point?
  • How do you want others to see you?
  • What makes you happy?  – This point is critical, as it drives us to achieve the other goals, but we also toss happiness aside for the others. So don’t forget this one
  • What makes you healthy?

I’m the sort of guy that goes all in at projects and issues. “You want my attention, well you got it bubba, Lets do this!!” tends to be my mindset. I’ll take the analogy of Captain Kirk – “leap before you look”. Its gotten me in trouble sometimes, but it is my nature to dive in to resolve issues. This made the idea that your “brand” is linked to your personal “budget” a new thought, but one I’ll be utilizing from now on. I’ll condense whole talk down to its most important take-aways for myself. #BeHappyBeHealthy

vCOMMUNITY!

I love these people. Some of the best and most wonderful folks to talk to are always around during a usercon. Al Rasheed was the one I was attached to the hip with, as he and I met on the Twitterverse and found him to be a very kindred spirit. We both believe fervently in this community, in the idea of practicing kindness, and the importance of giving back. It was great hanging out with him and talking to him about all the things that he was up to both professionally and personally. Great guy to know.

 

Paul Bryant is also one of my go-to guys to talk to. I’m sure most everyone knows Paul, hes commonly known as “The NSX Guy!” but one thing a lot of people don’t really know about, is that Paul is a solid, genuine guy who looks out for others, and is a great friend. Even on this day, Paul was pulled aside on an NSX issue and realized the problem and fixed it within minutes. Very impressive… TEACH ME SENPAI!

I actually got to give back a little bit when talking to another person at the show about creating your brand, telling my experience, that was stumbling through setting up a blog, twitter, and then going through a whole ton of stuff where I basically vomited information on devops, kubernetes, containers, etc. Sometimes I guess just having a soundboard helps.

Other people shout outs to this awesome community are to @indylindy22 @KCDAUTOMATE (We will talk about vRA someday!), I got to talk to them at the dinner before the usercon, but not hang out at the event. These two got a vLadies panel together to go over women in the field. I don’t remember the title, which I hate myself for not writing down, but these are two people to know, as they are genuine people, know their stuff, and wonderful to talk to.

Basically, if you can go to a usercon or VMUG get involved and go. These are amazing people with great skills who would love to help you improve, grown, and enjoy life together. Come be part of the party.

The Positive Side of Failure

Disclaimer: This isn’t another Mental Health post. I’ll share that part of my story sometime later. This is going to be raw, so if you can’t read this, don’t. I am not looking for empathy or sympathy. These experiences brought me to where I am and I don’t resent them. I want this to be something that helps others know they can be better, and push themselves to find it. Even though the road is rough.

The first road

One thing people find strange about me is that I never intended to work with computers. The idea of IT work was something that sounded so tedious and horrible, that when I was 7 I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do. No, 8 year old Nathan knew he was going to be a pastor, or a missionary but definitely something to do with the Gospel message of Good news. I taught Sunday school, lead children’s church as a teenager. Led worship once even, and while I was in college I was a youth minister for a small church. However, whatever religion, belief you are, you know that things don’t always turn out how you plan.

While I was in seminary our church went through a very rough time. So rough in fact that the pastor had lost the trust of the session. To those that know what that means its a pretty messed up place for all involved; the church, the session, and most importantly the pastor. The church voted to remove the pastor, a man who had been mentoring me in becoming a better version of myself behind the pulpit, and a strong help in my life.

This was rough, but then I was also flunking one of my classes. I talked to my teacher who told me,

“Just memorize this passage and I’ll pass you.”

Instead of taking the win, my reaction was, “Then why is this class mandatory?” The straw that broke the camels back was we were in seminary housing, and we were told we could have a cat. But when they found out we had one, they wanted us out. This lead to a perfect storm that taught me one thing. I was in the wrong place.

One thing that came out of it was my wife (who’s still married to me, don’t ask me how). Came home after another day of bringing home the $$ for the family, and found me in the middle of the living room, with all the pieces of my computer spread out. “What happened??”, I replied, “I found the noise in my computer, I KNEW it wasn’t the fan.” This led my patient wife to ask me later on, “So why don’t you work with computers??”

The second road

“So why don’t I?? Its always been a hobby. I’ve been ok with it from time to time, and for some reason my wife and others think I’m good at it… Nah, I’ll never be good at it.” 

This was my thinking after we moved out of seminary and into a house. I took a job as a barista at Starbucks over a job with Bomgar (which is now Beyond Trust). At the time we were living in Mississippi, and Bomgar headquarters was only 20 mins from my house. That nagging feeling stayed there. Especially when I couldn’t say what “DNS” stood for.

I worked as a Barista for about a year, and man I was good at it. I loved working with the people, and I REALLY loved my boss, Summer. She was a hard taskmaster but a good listener. She really helped me out once or twice at work. Some of the assistant managers didn’t take too kindly to me when I started, but I worked my way up, and moved to the only barista on the 6AM drive through (Which meant I took orders and made the drinks). Man I was good at that. It helped that I was good talking to people, after about 6 years in retail from selling toys, to books, and music.

As I was working at Starbucks my dad told me of one of his friends who needed a tech hand. I asked what was needed and he said, “Oh you just need to be able to image and re-image machines.” Thats childs play I though. I told my dad I’d be happy to look into that job all the while that voice was in the back of my head. “You can’t do IT… Its not your thing…” was the voice in my head. Arguably it was a jump. At this point I’ve only worked on my own computers and sold them at Circuit City(dating myself here). So I picked up the job.

Third Road

The interview process for this job was strange. I came to this mans house and gasped at how nice it was. I went to the front and rang the doorbell. After meeting his wife and son, I met the friend of my dad’s. He was a military man and I could tell from talking to him he was a strict man. After our discussion(which was over an hour), He told me I had the job and told me to start Monday. This wasn’t a problem as my manager at Starbucks was stellar and a friend from seminary. She let me off and I took the position.

Its worth mentioning this was my first time to touch a server. It didn’t help that it was a desktop server and not rails. In fact, I never touched a rail server through this job. I pushed updates, Ran CCcleaner and did random tasks. I basically did whatever his client asked me to do. I started to learn from them and him, but I was distracted. That voice never left. I never could break the idea that I could do well in this environment.

One thing I immediately realized was I had an issue with checklists, I had an astigmatism in my right eye that made me skip lines when I was reading, so I would miss steps.

I only worked for the man 3 months. Within the first 1.5 months we were at odds. I’d ask for help from him on the phone and he would talk me through things now and again, but one time I stayed on the phone after I said goodbye just out of tiredness and I heard the words,

“What an Idiot!”

To say my confidence was shattered at that job from then on is pretty easy to understand. I kept trying though. I became unable to think for myself, and leaned on him more which led him to get more angry at me. You see, he wanted me to ONLY do things his way, but my personality was more curious than that. If I had a document to follow, I’d still have questions about it.

In a troubleshooting session I called him and after working through some issues he said he would reach out to support. When I was back on the phone with him I was greeted by a friendly, “Good to meet you Nathan, let’s take a look.” So I began to talk through what was going on and what the issue was, after about 30 seconds, my boss interjected, “I’ve already told him the issue you don’t have to go into it.” I shook that off this time, because this time I thought I found the issue. I let him talk for a second then asked, “Well I think the problem is over in…” and was interrupted again,

“Nathan this is the guy who helped code the application. Your opinion is not needed or wanted, you can go home.”

So I did. I never heard what the issue was, and I asked. My boss never told me. It was a week later my boss said he believe my heart to not be in the job. A week after that I told him that I was going to quit. I’ll never forget his response.

Thats good Nathan, I think your a great artist. You should do guitar or choir or something in music but stay out of IT. You will never be successful in that field. You don’t have what it takes. I just don’t think you can comprehend it”

The artist statement was because I was a music minor in college. I played classical guitar and sang in the choir mostly. I also took a couple of classes here and there. The problem with going into music was I was in my mid 20s at the time and I knew I didn’t have the skills.

The pit stop

Calling the next couple years a pit stop is a generous statement. I literally had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I took on odd jobs, played lots of video games.

That awesome Starbucks manager took me back, and even though she already had the staff to run the shop, she found a place for me. So I went back to Starbucks for another 6 months. That time was pretty critical for me because I started re-gaining some very needed confidence.

I began realizing that no matter what people said, I am good at things. I just don’t know what I should be doing.

My amazing wife continued to be my cheerleader, friend and hope each day. She took on some rough jobs to keep the bills paid, but she was just stellar through this whole process. She would come home and talk about the people at work and I would tell her how I played video games each day, and did some studying.

That studying was because I had an amazing cousin who spun up a Hyper-v cluster for me to utilize to learn Microsoft Active Directory and other computer issues. To be fair, I didn’t utilize it enough or appreciate the gift that he had created for me. My mind was in such a state that I just didn’t know what to do, and I needed a good kick to get me out of this funk.

The kick

During this time we had moved from Mississippi to Fort Worth, Texas. We were living in a house that my in-laws had and wanted to keep clean/kept up, instead of just being dormant. Well it was summer and we were told the house needed to be sold and we needed to find a new place. Also during this time, we were trying to sell the house in Mississippi that we bought. That house stayed on the market for over a year, and after swapping realtors we found out that we were asking well over what that house was worth. However, we got an offer and took it having to pull a 12k loan to get out of that house. Debt piling up and the fear of no roof over my head, the only thing I could do was go back into the job market. I went to a legitimate temp agency just to get something. Surprisingly, they said my skills are mostly fit for IT, and they place me at RadioShack as a graveyard shift tech for setting up new stores.

Its kinda funny how that 12$ an hour job was a godsend to us. My income had doubled and I thought, “This is ok for now till I find a better solution.”

The Road I’m On…

Working at RadioShack ended up being a great experience. The people I worked with were fun and hilarious, the bosses were nice (mostly), and some were even tough taskmasters. But one thing they all had that I didn’t know existed in IT, was resilience. Failure wasn’t the worst thing, nor was following documents. The worst thing you could do was to be lazy and complacent.

While I was there I learned a lot, but still thought I’d never be great at higher level IT. I didn’t even think this was IT. I just slung hardware at problems and never really dug into much. Then after the project was over they were going to cut the contractors. However, I had worked through the night and into the day shift and had grown a good relationship with that team and manager. They had even put me in the day phone queue for a while to help with calls. After all this my bosses boss came up to me and said,

“Stop working overtime! I’m not going to pay it if you can’t watch your hours!” That shook me for a second, then the dayshift manager (who wasn’t my manager) piped up and said,“He’s worth it”. Then his boss responded, “Well, HIRE him.”

The guy that said that probably had no idea, and still doesn’t know how big those three words were to me. For the first time, I had worth in the IT field. I was GOOD at it, at a professional level. Even though phone help is seen at a lower scale, to me it was still a “big boy job”.

RadioShack definitely had its hardships, but I built great relationships with people, learned a lot, and went from a phone tech, to a level 2 server admin, to a network operator. My next job was a graveyard tech at an Oil company. I worked graveyard for about a year, and then moved to the day shift doing data analysis with BMC Remedy, and then the VMware guy who was dealing with vRealize Automation asked me to code the automation for creating, adjusting, modifying tickets and the CMDB.

My issues with checklists, went away with automation, and I finally found my home. I’ve been working automation ever since pushing either DevOps code based solutions, or Gui based automation that will push one thing to the next without having to manually click buttons off a procedural checklist.

The Positive Side of Failure…

This may read very negatively, but I’m very glad for each step I took along the way. I love my wife and remember each day that she did for me, what I do for her now. I love that she can be what she wants and has that freedom. I push myself each day to learn and grow, but more importantly, I push myself to ‘fail’.

Out of my career I’ve learned that failure isn’t an option, it’s a part of life. It’s going to happen no matter what you do. It is how you respond to it that defines your success. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. I still know people who deal with failure incorrectly. They think if they fail, they will never be successful. I find that I’m successful, because I fail, and I’m not alone. Here are some quotes by some interesting people:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ” – Calvin Coolidge

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.  – Thomas A. Edison

As a kid, falling was embarrassing. As I got older, I got used to falling and picking myself back up. There’s not a sense of failure. It’s of disappointment. You train so hard to not make mistakes. When you do, you’re learning from that. How do I improve? How do I get better for the next time? Through every failure, there’s something to be learned. – Michelle Kwan

“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” – C. S. Lewis

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

Let these be the voices in your head, and each time you fall, remember that fall, accept what happens, take the noise from the fall out of your head, and move on. Each fall is teaching you something, learn from it. Michael J. Fox uses the word vacuum very well:

“There’s always failure. And there’s always disappointment. And there’s always loss. But the secret is learning from the loss, and realizing that none of those holes are vacuums.”  – Michael J. Fox

This hits home for me. That voice in my head so many years, was a vacuum, and these take multiple forms. You can let it be a boss, a job that you lost, a friends issues, etc. The challenge of life is to learn from these and move on. Because if you don’t they may suck you in and down a hole that takes entirely too long to get out.

If you made it this far, thanks for staying with me. This is a bit of my story telling how I made it to where I am. I’m not the most amazing person out there, and I don’t have the technical knowhow to know everything, but that’s the path I’m on. Wether I learn from failing or reading, or doing, everything is learning. I may fail in how I teach my kids, or how I fix up the shower, or anything. This is my perspective now in life.

“I will fail. I will fall. But I will learn the best that I can from it.”