Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong? Like if people knew the ‘real’ you, they wouldn’t like/respect you anymore? This is how I felt when I entered the InfoSec twitter community last year. I suffered from what is commonly referred to as Imposter Syndrome. It is a very common issue, over 70% of people in all walks of life feel its effects at some point [source]. So many of us suffer in silence, but we can overcome it. In this article, I hope to share some details about it, including some stories.
eginning of Imposter Syndrome
Dr. Pauline Rose Clance first identified it along with Dr. Suzanne Imes in 1978. They published a paper called “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. In this
- Obsessing over studies, always aiming to be the best (sometimes hiding how much they study).
- Hiding their true feelings to be more agreeable with those they feel are successful.
- Using charm and wit to be liked, and respected.
My Success Isn’t Based On Merit
People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome can come up with some of the most amazing excuses for how they achieved success. They can’t believe that they did it on their own merits. Imposters make jokes about luck, or external factors that helped them. They fear being discovered as frauds, that their peers will figure out who they ‘really’ are. If you have ever felt that way, and it bothered you for a while, you have experienced imposter syndrome.
If You Don’t Get Along, Get Out
Clance and Imes study focused on women, but subsequent studies proved that everyone can experience its effects. One cause for Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you don’t belong, or fit in. This can simply be because you don’t have anything in common with your co-workers. They might love Star Trek but you love Star Wars. In the world of Tech, women, and minorities are often underrepresented on the job. It is hardest to feel like you fit in when nobody else is like you. If you walk into an interview and feel uncomfortable with company culture, you might want to second guess that company.
Senior Experienced People Suffer Too
The first story comes from an anonymous source who had been working as a security architect for a few years. They passed the CISSP-ISSAP certification, which is an advanced version of the CISSP specializing in architecture. They were invited to an ISC2 exam writing workshop. These 2-day events are where they discuss the future version of the exam with experienced professionals. Upon arrival they noticed four things that started their imposter syndrome:
- They were the only person of color.
- They were the youngest person there.
- They were the only one without NIST experience (they don’t use NIST standards where they are from).
- Discussions often revolved around
U.S.defense sector, which they didn’t know anything about.
It Was Overwhelming and Difficult
An otherwise intelligent, experienced and thoughtful individual, they found they were quiet and didn’t participate. Even when discussing topics they knew very well and had ideas to contribute, they found it difficult. Self-doubt set in, and they questioned why ISC2 even chose them – was it a mistake? Whenever they did contribute, there was a lack of confidence. They felt that the room didn’t take them seriously. In the end it was a relief for them to finally be going back home.
Beating Imposter Syndrome
Looking back, they reflect on how Imposter Syndrome poisoned their mind. They didn’t really know for sure how people observed them because the room was just hard to read. Many individuals who focus on technical pursuits find it difficult to communicate. Maybe it wasn’t them, but the rest of the room? This individual said that they have since attended more of these events and the more they do it the more their confidence grows. They pointed out that sometimes making yourself uncomfortable can help you to get passed Imposter Syndrome. They even take leadership roles on panels now. This individual wanted to share the YouTube video they watched that help them to realize this. It’s made by Ronke Lawal.
Another Example of Imposter Syndrome
Individual number two had a hands-on stake in a bar. Times got tough, and they had to close despite all the hard work. This led them into a sort of tail-spin. Working at a stockroom job made them miserable, but that’s what they deserved because they weren’t good enough for happiness. Even then, they worked so hard they kept getting promoted to just shy of Manager. His friend saw his struggle and convinced him to start his career in IT.
Moving Up but Lacking Confidence
They didn’t specify what the job was, only that it was a simple entry-level position. Most people moved on in 6 months, they didn’t have ambitions. They weren’t good enough for anything better. One day, they finally got over it after two and a half years. They finally wanted to move on to something better, maybe another step up. What they found from management was an encouragement. This person skyrocketed to being a System Architect.
Still Having Doubts, in Spite of Success
The second person enjoys working in tech, but still faces doubts. They lack formal education in the field, and this makes them feel like they ‘cheated’. They commented about their lack of a large vocabulary, but how this doesn’t stop them from being able to do webinars. What matters most is the ability to talk, not just use big words. They felt that this was a weakness and still waits for it to hurt their career. They mention ‘My Fair Lady’ and says he always feels like that but before the transformation.
Their Thoughts on Job Requirements
These thoughts are very common, and many people have them. They continue to talk about how without a degree, they hesitate when looking at jobs. Degree requirements are the norm now for tech positions. They tell themselves that they don’t qualify, the company will find them out for fraud. This is one of the most common thoughts, that if the company hires you, you must have fooled them.
Company Culture Can Effect Imposter Syndrome
Rox brought up a good point to me in our conversation. Imposter Syndrome can be fueled or deterred by the environment your employer fosters. It can be welcoming of new talent, friendly and willing to train. If it is cold and highly competitive, it can only make things worse. A lot of emphases is placed on the individual suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Managers and leaders can engage with their employees to solve problems proactively.
My Personal Fight With Imposter Syndrome
I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome since I first joined the military. There were many times where I was faced with impossible situations and had to choose the best of the worst. I’ve always felt like when I got ahead, it was through luck or because I knew someone inside the organization. At various points in my career, I’ve always felt like I wasn’t good enough or smart enough.
My First InfoSec Job Was Lucky
Getting my first job in InfoSec, it was because the better-qualified person didn’t work out. I literally took another job and had given up on information security but kept in contact with the recruiter. One day he told me the manager wanted to speak to me again, I did another interview and got an offer. I also found out that one of the interviewers recommended against hiring me. There are four feelings associated with imposter syndrome that I suffered from:
- I am so good at selling myself, that I was able to trick people into thinking I am better than I am.
- The people that hired me felt so bad for me that they gave me a shot, they know I am less than capable but either don’t care or hope I succeed.
- I was afraid to ask for help because it would prove I didn’t know.
- I learned things the hard way by making mistakes, which made me feel worse.
Blown Away by the Talent of Others
Last year when I got started with this website, I wanted to be a positive resource in the tech community. I started just writing about my failures and successes learning to hack. I answered peoples questions based off of telling them about my mistakes. The people I met, everyone seemed to smart, so knowledgable and talented it was intimidating.
Feeling Like an InfoSec Imposter
I was afraid that if people knew who I was, nobody would listen. I initially hid my indemnity because I felt like a fraud. I read and spoke with so many people who were far younger than me, discovering their passion for security in their teens or early 20’s. I’m in my mid 30’s and just getting started. It was so intimidating, and I just knew I’d be embarrassed if anyone knew the real me.
Surrounded by Good People
People have helped me to realize that although I don’t know everything, I obviously made it. I’ve studied how to write more cohesively, and how to write in a more organized fashion. I have faced some adversity and came through just fine. The interviewer who recommended against me didn’t do so because I was a bad candidate, and we’ve talked about that since. I respect their opinion. They’ve become my go-to person and my mentor at my job once I got over it and started asking for help.
How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome
In conclusion, most people feel like an imposter at some point in their lives. It is normal and ok. It might not be easy to overcome yourself, but the community is full of supportive people who just want to help. There are many ways to overcome imposter syndrome.
- Surround yourself with supportive people.
- Break up the things you find difficult into smaller tasks.
- Put yourself into uncomfortable situations until they become easier.
- Challenge yourself to stay honest with yourself.
- Practice soft skills to communicate more effectively.
The most difficult thing that I’ve done was the interview on the Getting into InfoSec podcast, with Ayman Elswah. I go into some detail about where I come from (and some of my darkest moments). I’ve also connected my professional profile on Linkedin to my social media profiles as InfoSecJon. I’m becoming so comfortable now that I even had the opportunity to talk to a college security group with Ontologicalrobot. I can acknowledge that I’m not a superhuman master of all, but also realize that I have accomplished things that people look up to. By talking and writing about those things, I can help others achieve their goals and that is what matters to me most.
Read more articles aimed at self-improvement like Setting Long and Short Term Goals or 2 Helpful Tips Being More Organized
Read my opening article on trying to make sense of Cyber Security Roles,