Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

By Rebecca Fernandez.

Have you ever felt that you’re not good enough to be a game developer? That your skill level is inadequate for the job that you’ve been aiming for? Or that you don’t deserve the praise that sometimes comes your way?

I’ll let you in on a secret – I almost always feel this way, despite frequent realisations that my view of myself (and sometimes others) is completely wrong. And I’m going to guess that a lot of you feel this way occasionally too.

I first felt like this when I started programming in my computer science degree at uni. Most of my classmates had prior experience – I had none. I was terrified that I would not be able to keep up and would fall to the bottom of the class. So I studied really hard and did a lot of extra work.

I shouldn’t have worried – learning to code felt like connecting with a part of myself that I hadn’t realised I was missing. I started doing more work because I wanted to, not because I was guilting myself into it.

However, I still had this idea that my classmates must be better than me. They were always talking and even boasting about the cool things they were making. All I could make was ugly console applications.

Then one day, after listening to one of my classmates (whose skill I admired) talk highly about a piece of code, I worked up the courage to ask if I could have a look…

His code was terrible – I could instantly see that things were wrong and inefficient. I was shocked! These people I’d looked up to since the beginning of session were now no better than me at programming. In fact, I seemed to be better than a lot of them.

Suddenly I gained the confidence to participate more in class, and be more experimental with my studies.

So did this cure me? Did I learn the lesson that I should have confidence in my abilities and take pride in my achievements? Sadly, no.

I was given another wake-up call in my third year when I managed to get my hands on some production code for a popular first person shooter. Once again I was shocked at the fact that some parts had obviously been coded by someone whose programming skill was very poor. This was the first time I realised that being a games programmer was probably not out of reach for me.

Still, I felt, for some reason, that I was not good enough to go far in the industry. There’s no way I’d be one of those developers that appears in tech videos, or is talked about by gamers with awe (not that I’m there yet – I now just know that I can make my way there eventually).

This misconception was shattered when I went to E3 in 2011. I’d received a scholarship through the IGDA – one of only 15 students selected worldwide, one of only 2 ladies selected, and the sole Australian. And still I thought of myself as a lowly student from a town that no one could spell who would have nothing to offer.

Throughout the week, we were introduced to the best and brightest in the industry. A personal highlight of mine was meeting Wil Wright. I’d been playing this man’s games since before I’d learned to tie my own shoelaces. I was so nervous – I fully expected these people to be some sort of game dev gods.

After talking with them – I worked out that these famous developers were just humans like the rest of us. They were not particularly more intelligent than I considered myself to be (except maybe John Carmack), or even more brilliant in the creative sense. The only difference was that they were much older than me, and had had a lot more time in which to accomplish things. They’d never given up. They’d kept making game after game after game and got better each time.

I realised that I could be just like them in twenty years time, as long as I never gave up. As long as I kept making games, and kept learning, I could be just like them. They were human, just like me. Suddenly I felt like I belonged in the world of video games – I had a right to be there. This realisation helped me to be bold and learn a heck of a lot during E3.

So, I’ve been forever cured of that particular misconception. I now know that I AM good enough to make games. All it takes is determination, and practice. Other game developers are my peers, not my betters.

However, the imposter syndrome haunts me still. I constantly feel undeserving of any praise that is handed my way. Why do I attract so much attention when I’ve really accomplished so little in my short career? That dreaded thought – “Is it because I’m a woman?” will not go away. Am I getting special treatment because of my gender? Most of the time I believe that’s not the case, but the thought lingers, regardless.

I often feel like there are so many others who are more deserving of the recognition that I seem to attract. I’m scared that people will realise that I’m not as good as they seem to think I am.

Part of me hopes that I will one day overcome this feeling, but another part of me hopes I never will. I detest arrogance in others – I don’t want to ever be that person who demands attention and accolades. What a dilemma..

I wrote this in an attempt to help those who are in the same boat as pre-2011 me. I hope that you can learn these lessons without having to experience similar events for yourself. Learn from my mistakes!
I also wrote this to connect with others who have a similar mindset to me. I mentioned the gender question before, but this is a mindset that affects both men and women in our competitive industry.

I wonder, have any of you progressed from my current state of mind? How did you learn to accept praise and attention without feeling unworthy? I’d like to be able to learn from the life experiences of others if I can.

I urge you all to make your own luck – stay determined and never give up. Your dreams aren’t actually out of reach, you have more power to fulfil them than you realise. Learning to be comfortable once you reach some of these sought-after places is a whole different story. I will continue to try and work out how to do this – if you know the secret, then please share!

Rebecca Fernandez is a programming teacher at AIE Sydney. She’s also the chapter leader for IGDA Sydney and a founding member of Convict Interactive, an independent game development studio based in Wollongong, Australia. In her infrequent free time, she enjoys coding some more, relaxing with a good game, book, or TV show, or hiking through a National Park.