I get scared when I start new things. What if I’m not any good? What if others find out that I’m a fraud? Why am I taking so long to learn?
Starting something new is scary. I don’t think it has to be that way and I’d like to offer some suggestions if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Change is uncomfortable
I remember when I learned to drive with my mom. We sat in a parking lot and I got into the driver’s seat. I asked her how much pressure I should use when pressing the gas and she said “A little.”
It’s not hard when you’ve been driving for a few years to know what “a little” probably means. I didn’t know and she got frustrated when I prodded for more information. I worried that I would screw it up and it made learning an activity I avoided.
I think it’s easy to forget, once we’ve learned something, that it used to be a challenge. I think of it like being sick. When I’m sick, the only thing I want to do is feel better. Once I feel better, I completely forget how it felt to be sick. Same thing.
In a past life, I worked on films.
I remember when I worked as a production assistant and I overheard the Director of Photography talking to someone. He said:
“I’m always worried when I show up on set that they’ll discover I’m a fraud. Then, I give it a day or two, and I feel fine. No one else knows what they’re doing either.”
I think that’s a good way to put it.
When I started working as a full-time developer, I felt like an impostor. I felt like an impostor for months, actually. I felt like the company that hired me made a mistake. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt slow. I felt like I knew nothing and did not deserve a place at the table. My co-workers had worked as professional developers for years and I thought of myself as a hopeless novice.
None of that was true but insecurity does strange things. In reality, I had worked as a developer before. I more-or-less knew what I was doing, but didn’t feel like it, even when people told me I had done a good job.
I went home with a headache every day for a month. I had to fully focus my attention in a way that I did not have much experience doing. I felt depressed. I wondered if the feeling would go away, because I liked my job, but I did not like feeling the way I did.
I think we find it uncomfortable to talk about feeling inadequate. It feels like it’s a problem that’s unique to us or to our situation. The general idea is well-documented and has been discussed before by countless others.
It can be intimidating to admit that I feel or felt this way. A small voice inside of me usually says:
“But what if I don’t know anything and really am an impostor?”
I try to remember that the feeling goes away and that the voice is probably wrong.
For me, the feeling went away after I realized, like the Director of Photography, that no one else knew what to do either. I also started to listen to conference talks on my way into work as a way of improving and read a few books in my spare time. I talked to my friends about how I felt and asked for advice.
It took time.
My girlfriend, Carissa, started a transition from her last job into something new. She’s learning more about graphic design and finding it frustrating to feel like a beginner. She worked as a successful photographer for years and when you reach a level of mastery, it’s uncomfortable to feel slow or inexperienced again, even in something new. It’s tough to encounter a new challenge and be overwhelmed by it but continue. It requires patience.
“It’s gonna take a while.”
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and inadequate for a while. Everyone has felt the same way and is probably going through something where they feel that way right now. It usually means that you’re in the right place; doing the right things.
Sometimes simply paying attention to the feeling and acknowledging that we feel that way is enough to make it go away. I’ve found that meditation helps too. I like Mindfulness in Plain English as an introductory book.
Either way, it’s a good sign that you’re on the right path. Keep it up and do your best to stick with it.
Ira Glass has a famous quote where he talks the gap in our first few years of something. He says:
“It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while.”
There’s also Peter Norvig’s excellent article, Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. It takes time to get better and we don’t need to rush.
How to help others
When we trivialize learning something new for other people, it sends a message.
“This is easy. You should know how to do this. Why don’t you?”
It’s demoralizing. If you see someone else struggling, let them know it will be okay and that you’ve been there too. It’s reassuring, as a beginner, to hear that the thing that feels so impossible will one day feel easy.
In The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, Carol Dweck says that children respond better to praise for their effort than for being smart. So, I focus on praising people for putting in the effort to grow. The results will come later.
Julie Pagano gave a great, and related, talk on impostor syndrome at PyCon. I’d recommend listening to that as she has some great tips too.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or scared, or worried that you’re not good enough – be patient. Be kind to yourself. It takes time and effort to learn and the process is not instant, as much as we might like it to be when we’re feeling outmatched.