I am pacing backstage, a thin curtain separating me from seven thousand people. In less than an hour, they’ll all be looking at me. I try not to think about it. A few people comment on my “calm demeanor.” I almost laugh because there’s a battle raging in my head. Is it a skill to appear cool and collected when your thoughts are the opposite? I’m not sure. There are two voices fighting for my attention:
You can do this, you always pull through in the end.
How did you even get here? Why didn’t they pick someone else?
You built the thing, that’s why you’re presenting it.
Anyone could have built the thing.
But it was your idea and they liked it.
If you mess up, everything will be awful.
If you mess up, who cares. People will respect you for trying. Not many people are daring enough to do this.
If you mess up, it’ll reflect badly on women everywhere.
That escalated quickly. Do you even remember the last talk you went to, or if the presenter messed up?
I try to drown out these voices by blasting music into my headphones. Sometimes when I’m nervous a memory from summer camp comes to mind: the year my cabin was in charge of planning a day-long competition for all of camp called “color war.” We got so panicked about every detail, as if our contributions towards color war’s success would go on our permanent record forever. Our counselor sensed the anxiety in our frenzied preparation.
“Relax,” he told us all, “It’s only a color war.”
When I least expect it, “relax, it’s only a color war” pops into my head, a voice from my past trying to calm me down. It comes to me in this moment backstage, and I frantically replace “color war” with “enterprise cloud computing conference.” This doesn’t have the intended effect. I try to shoo the thought away, but it lingers, reminding me that the stakes are high and unlike color war, this one might actually go on my permanent record.
My thoughts are quickly interrupted by the stage manager telling me I’m up next. To distract myself I make small talk.
“Who’s the most famous person you’ve worked with?” I ask him.
“Anna Nicole Smith.”
What? Thoughts of “why me” quickly resurface, but there’s no more time for them.
“You’ll be great,” he says, pushing me into the spotlight. I welcome the way the light hits me, making the thousands of faces fade into a blurry backdrop. I pretend they’re not there. I can do this. Just like practice.
My fingers feel disconnected from my brain, but somehow I am saying words and typing things for four whole minutes. I’m done. People clap. I turn to walk offstage and break into a smile.
I think it went well.
Maybe they’re clapping because they feel bad. Should I have given this opportunity to someone else? What if someone asks me a question I can’t answer later?
Just. Let. Yourself. Have. This. One. Moment. Of. Celebration.
The logical thing to say to myself at this point would be: “See? You accomplished a big thing. You deserve this success because you work hard. You should never question whether you deserve something you work hard for.”
I wish I could tell you the imposter voice went away and never came back. But if I did, I’d be lying.
Imposter syndrome, according to Wikipedia, is a “psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” But in the beginning, when you’re just starting out, you have no accomplishments. There is no success upon which to question fraud. And as a result, there is no room for an imposter.
I’m a self-taught engineer. I didn’t study programming in college. I spent six months teaching myself to code outside of work, at night, on weekends, at meetups, in San Francisco coffee shops, before I got a job that let me code part of the time. During this time, I excitedly told everyone I met “I’m learning to code!!” I let it become part of my story, mostly to hold myself accountable for not giving up. Some people thought this was cool and others questioned it.
“How can you just ‘teach yourself to code’?”, friends and family would ask. I ignored their doubts and went full speed ahead, motivated to prove them wrong. I was 100% confident that with a good dose of perseverance I could pull this off. When I was getting started I wasn’t afraid to ask questions or share my tiny accomplishments with strangers. My naiveté was my biggest asset.
Feeling unstoppable, I decided to post a web app I built to Hacker News. I called it a “Yelp for APIs,” and I added a donation button to the About page so I could learn how to use the Stripe API to process payments. To my surprise, people on Hacker News upvoted it and someone even donated $5. I reached out thanking them profusely, asking if we could meet for coffee so I could get tips for interviewing for programming jobs.
On multiple occasions, I’d be working through a tutorial at a coffee shop and see someone next to me who was also writing code. I’d ask for their help, and almost always they’d enthusiastically agree, eager to see what I was working on. Now I’m horrified at the thought of asking a stranger to debug my code. When did I lose this fearless optimism?
Progress vs. doubt
With each accomplishment came a tiny seed of doubt, sometimes planted by myself, sometimes by others. I got a job at a small startup called Firebase. From the moment I signed the offer, a bit of doubt crept in. What if they made a mistake? What if another applicant who didn’t get the job would have been better? I worked harder to make sure they didn’t regret their choice.
Then I started giving technical presentations and teaching people how to do things with code.
“Did you write that code?” people would ask me after I gave a presentation. This was a new, ugly perspective I had never considered and the doubts came rushing in like a tidal wave.
What did I do to make them think I didn’t understand this? Did they somehow see me as a faceless machine, a delivery mechanism regurgitating memorized information, information I didn’t truly understand?
“Are you a developer?” others would ask.
I had always thought that teaching something was the best way to learn it. It wasn’t passive like reading a book, where you could make a deal with yourself that it was ok to proceed past that section you only partially understood. To teach something, you can’t cut corners. You must stop altogether when you encounter the slightest thing you don’t yet know. You must go over and over it until you can nod to yourself that yes, finally it has begun to come into focus. But with teaching, even then you are not done. Because the way it came into focus for you is almost certainly not how someone else will see it.
If each of my presentations were paintings in a gallery, each person who expressed doubt was a tiny needle-sized dart, puncturing a microscopic hole in something I thought I should be proud of.
“She sounds like a robot,” someone commented on one of my presentations on YouTube.
Blip. A tiny dart. But one was ok. Who cares what one person on the internet thinks? If you looked at things from a certain angle, you could ignore it. But then another.
“Girl, smile more.” someone wrote in the anonymous feedback for my talk at an event.
Did they even listen to what I was saying? What if I only get these opportunities because I’m a woman? I’d think. No, ignore them. It’s ok.
“It’s so cool that you’re a woman who can write code.”
An insult disguised as a compliment. What did they expect me to be doing instead?
Progress, it turned out, was a constant battle. Two steps forward followed by one lingering thought that you didn’t deserve to take those steps in the first place. But maybe the progress and doubt didn’t have to be opposing forces. Maybe they could coexist. And maybe, they could even help each other.
Just like I did when I was just starting out, I learned to turn others’ doubts into tangible things to prove that I belonged. They don’t think I can write code? Ok, I’ll write more and then I’ll publish it. They don’t think I really, truly understand how this thing works? Ok, I’ll study it enough so that I can teach it. I’ll write down every possible question I might get and develop a thorough answer, ready to pounce on any potential hint of doubt.
As frustrating as that little imposter voice can be, I have to thank it for fueling me to create.
I did a thing
One semester in high school I decided to join the track team. Mostly because there were no tryouts, which was rare in a school that bred world-class athletic talent. Sports did not come naturally to me. I wanted to be a sprinter but my times were not fast enough so I was relegated to the “distance group.” I didn’t give up. I worked hard, arguably harder than those to whom it came naturally. Still, I idolized the people who seemed to effortlessly fly around the track. I’d put every last drop of my strength into going faster, but it didn’t work. I never passed them.
I was so concerned with being as good as everyone else that I failed to realize I was slowly improving. Huffing and puffing at one of our final meets of the season, I finished the mile in 7:51, shaving 40 seconds off my previous time. In a sport where victories are often determined by less than a second, I had defeated my past self by 40.
At practice the next day, our coach read off the names of everyone who had broken a personal record. She began with one or two people whose best mile times now started with the elusive number 5. Then she rattled off a long list of people who had slid under the 7 minute mark. And finally, at the bottom of the list, was me and my little achievement.
“Robinson broke 8!” she said excitedly.
My cheeks flushed. Everyone turned around to look at me, sitting nervously in the back. I wanted to disappear. It felt like a blow, to work so hard only to find yourself still at the bottom. Why did they even let me on the team?
If I could go back in time, I would tell younger Sara that for the whole season, practice after practice, I kept showing up. I worked hard. I did a thing! I deserved to be there because I was trying my best, and there was a whole 40-second PR to prove it. As my favorite comedian John Mulaney puts it: “Percentage wise, it is 100% easier not to do things than to do them.”
I remember that moment from high school track when I find myself falling into the trap of saying “I wish I could be just like [insert person here]” or “If only I could do things like [person] does.” Why does success have to be defined by comparison? Admiring someone is ok, but when I idolize people it starts to fuel my imposter syndrome.
Sometimes, I try to just let myself be proud I did a thing. To compete only with my past self. Because when I strive to be like someone else, I lose the best version of myself in the process. After all, wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we were all good at the same thing?