T-SQL Tuesday #122: Imposter Syndrome
Kicking off T-SQL Tuesday for 2020, Jon Shaulis (blog | twitter) challenges us to talk about imposter syndrome:
I want to read your stories about when you’ve experienced, seen, or overcome imposter syndrome! Was there a job that you felt you were ill-prepared for? Did you make a mistake or did someone say something that made you question if you were a true data professional? Maybe there was a particular task you ran into that made you question your experience? Did you resolve your tasks and succeed in your job? How did you overcome that feeling of being an imposter and solve your challenges? Maybe you haven’t experienced it yourself but you saw someone who was feeling imposter syndrome, were you able to help them?
At the risk of going too meta here, I find myself asking “have I even experienced imposter syndrome? Am I qualified to write a blog post about this?” Which…yeah, ok, that’s probably unfounded because everyone has experienced this, and I’ve probably been experiencing it for more than half my life in one way or another. I can probably trace it back to…
Wait. This 👏 Is 👏 Not 👏 A 👏 Therapy 👏 Session 👏
OK, back on track. A job change, especially when you’re making a significant departure from what you’ve done before, is high-octane fuel for imposter syndrome. And I’ve had two job changes in the past 3 years.
In early 2017, I got my first production DBA job. Previously, I’d been more or less a development DBA and I just sort of fell into the role (the usual Accidental DBA story, right?). What I had access to, what I was doing, had no significant consequences if I screwed something up. If I were to get something wrong, at worst I’d inconvenience a dozen or so people. No money lost and we’ll sort it out before it hits production.
Being handed the reigns to a real production system, one with potentially tens of thousands of concurrent users, was daunting. It’s a company with customers all over the country, the software is how the company makes its money, and with one mistake I could take everything offline.
And they’re just letting me do this? Why do they trust me?
I put a lot of pressure on myself in those first few weeks to prove myself, but at the same time I was terrified of doing anything in production because I didn’t think I knew enough about the company’s software. I’d never used a Failover Cluster before. I’d never worked on systems this large before.
My colleague was very supportive, and gave me both the space and guidance to build up my confidence. But those first few big changes I had to make in production were scary. “Can we test this more? When are we supposed to do this? How do I know I got this right?” And her answer was “just go for it. It’ll be fine.” I had a support system, and she got me through it. The more I did, the more confident I got.
Less than 6 months ago, I accepted a new DBA position. Only this time, I’m a lone DBA. My new company had no previous DBA. Am I really qualified to come in and be The Person? Don’t they need someone with more experience?
It’s been a recurring theme for me. I’m presented with something new to do, some new problem that needs to be solved. My initial response is often “I’m screwed, I don’t know what I’m going to do here, why would anyone pick me for it?” Then I remind myself of four things:
- I’ve faced hard problems before, and managed to find my way through them.
- The person who picked me to do this job believes I can do it
- We are our own harshest critics. Others are likely to be a lot more forgiving of me than I am of myself.
- I have the SQLFamily support system - friends and strangers alike, who I can reach out to via text, Slack and Twitter to help me understand why things work the way they work or just bounce ideas around.
After a 4-year hiatus, I started presenting again at user group meetings and SQL Saturdays in 2019. Again, Imposter Syndrome reared its ugly head. I thought I had decent material, but what if I’m wrong? I mean, I learned a lot of this stuff from the community and experimentation, but what if I got something wrong anyway? On the portions that are somewhat opinion-based, are people going to call me out?
Even worse, what if I’ve written a bad abstract, no one’s interested, and the room is empty?
I have to remind myself though - if I’ve been accepted to speak, that means that the organizers think my session is good enough. These are experienced DBAs and presenters, they know a thing or two, so my session has to be at least okay, right?
So how to best handle imposter syndrome? The answer is going to be different for everyone. What works for me (aside from the three points I have above) is to force myself to Just Do It. That means pushing myself outside my comfort zone. Push that enough and you will build confidence and start getting comfortable.
I also find it helpful to stop comparing myself to others. Which is really difficult, but so worthwhile. You are your own person, and the only valid comparison you can make is to your past self. Are you more knowledgeable and experienced than yesterday’s version of you? Did you learn something from last week’s experiences? Again, use that to build confidence.
There will always be difficult days, I won’t lie. Some days, nothing seems to work right. But that doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job or that you don’t belong in that speaker’s room at an event. You’ve just found something that doesn’t work, and you’ll learn from that and be better tomorrow.