Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

The Friendliest Freelancer #15: How to control impostor syndrome

Published 8 months ago • 3 min read

First, some housekeeping: I’ll make this newsletter bi-weekly for a while.

Does bi-weekly actually mean “every other week”, or“two times a week”? 🙂 In this case, it’s the former one: I’m dialing the pace down a bit to keep it sustainable. I’d like to return to a weekly rhythm again later, though!

Okay, with that out of the way, on to this week's topic. Many software developers experience impostor syndrome, and it’s extra frustrating when you’re working as an independent contractor/consultant. Thankfully there are ways to mitigate it, and this can help your business, too.

Have another great week! ☕

“Oh jeez, my client will surely discover I’m not as good as they initially thought. They’ll kick me out any day now!”

Recognize this feeling? I’ve been a software developer for over two decades, and I still feel this. If anything, it’s more intense now than earlier in my career.

Most of us will intellectually recognize that this feeling is just impostor syndrome talking. It’s not logical, not based on reality, and you feel it no matter how satisfied your client or project manager is.

The problem when working as an independent contractor/consultant is that this “they’ll kick me out” feeling is extra frustrating. It can add a lot of stress, especially when you’re with your first client. And too much chronic stress can lead to burnout.

So let’s work around it.

Here, I’ll go through the techniques I find the most helpful to mitigate impostor syndrome. #3 is the most important one, and it also tangibly helps your business!

One: remember that it’s prevalent!

Impostor syndrome is more openly talked about now than when I started, and it helps that we have a well-known term for it these days. According to recent research, as many as 58% of all tech workers report the same feeling. You are not alone! If you keep this in mind, it helps normalize the experience.

You should also share the feeling with others—you will find that some developers you least expected feel the exact same way about themselves!

Two: keep your expectations in check.

The full-stack developer is supposed to be a thing now, and it’s sometimes interpreted as “strong across the whole stack.” In reality, most of us just have a few areas where we’re truly solid at any one time—plus many other skills where we are just okay enough to get by.

You don’t have to be all-knowing: it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

Just focus on this: do you get things done? Are you able to make clients and stakeholders happy? Yes? Then you’re doing great: you’re not a fraud!

Three: record and review achievements

If you make your wins tangible, it becomes easier to remind yourself that you are competent. Here are two ways to do that:

Create a public portfolio. A web page where you showcase tangible things you have worked on, what problems you solved, and samples of your work: include screenshots, write-ups, open source code, and so on.

Collect testimonials and recommendations. Ask past and current clients, managers, and colleagues for a summary of your strengths and what they enjoyed about working with you. You can use the LinkedIn Ask for Recommendation feature—or just email some of your contacts and ask for a write-up directly.

Gathering evidence of your competency serves two purposes. First: if you regularly review this material, it helps mitigate your impostor syndrome.

But more importantly, if you’re working as an independent contractor/consultant, that public record of your achievements also signals competence and trustworthiness to the rest of the world. And this makes it easier to sell your services to future clients.

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Thomas Kjeldahl Nilsson

The Friendliest Freelancer

Software dev of 20+ years now helping other devs gain autonomy and become calm, independent contractors—new issue every other Sunday

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