On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

The other night I went to a hacking meetup for the first time in months. It’s usually an informal Python learnfest, and as I’m refreshing my Python basics, I went with the assumption that I’d be the least technically skilled person there. Like, of course, right?

The hacking meetup that night was, as it turns out, an installfest, so I ended up generally poking around at the software being demonstrated, and conversing with strangers. One in particular caught my attention with a fairly ill-formed question: what meetups should he visit to learn how to make websites?

Over the next hour, as I answered his questions, it became clear that he just didn’t know much, compared to me, about software engineering, or about the wider world of technology or the web. He’s in the second year of a computer information systems bachelor’s degree, and knows his way around a little Java (of which I am wholly illiterate). He didn’t know about the LAMP stack, or about Drupal or Rails or Django (or why one might choose PHP versus Ruby versus Python versus Java versus pick-your-web-friendly-language). He didn’t know that these tools exist, or why one would use a framework or pre-existing CMS rather than coding “everything” oneself. He has never heard of bug trackers, or source control, or diff. He said he did not know what a wiki was (I scarcely believed this, and told him that Wikipedia is a wiki).

As a side note: I gathered that his entire career trajectory and curriculum comes not even from conventional wisdom, but from “I once heard someone say.” Examples: “Why are you doing CIS instead of CS?” “Someone told me that CS majors get outsourced.” Or, more boggling: “Someone told me Python is useless.”

From one perspective, this guy has more technical merit than I do. He has taken an algorithms class. He can probably do a job interview coding question better than I can (reverse the characters in this string, etc.). But I have a fair amount of wisdom he lacks, full stop.

Then there was the guy who was interviewing me to work at his startup. As we walked, he offhandedly mentioned his current project at his day job: a PHP web app needed to be able to turn user markup into HTML. “And you’ve already checked whether MediaWiki has something you can grab, right?” I asked. He stopped in his tracks. No, he had not thought of that.

I need to stop assuming that everyone else knows more about the tech than I do.

We’ve talked a fair amount here at Geek Feminism about impostor syndrome and sexism (my past post). I’m just going to start with a few postulates:

  • In sexist societies, women get especially socialized to think we’re not as intellectually capable as we are, and to act self-deprecating about our abilities
  • In technical spaces where women are the minority, sexists dismiss our successes and concentrate on our missteps

Regarding the latter, I recently reread Abi Sutherland’s “Permission to Suck”, which included a moment of a familiar self-flagellation:

…every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind.

It’s as though my goalposts came on casters to make them easier to move

But of course that is an error in judgment. Our sense of our own merit gets calibrated by feedback from the outside world, but sexism and impostor syndrome get in the way of that calibration. All the tentacles of this issue — the prejudice, the tokenization, the distorted self-perception, the discounting of one’s achievements and comparative lionization of others’ — bother me because they mess with proper judgment.

On an emotional level, I especially hate that anything is interfering with my data-collection and judgment. I am the kind of person who delayed drinking alcohol and took notes the first time she drank, to record any degradation in perceptions and prudence. I delayed getting a credit card till I’d supported myself for more than a year, partially to ensure that I had the correct attitude to judging purchases & debt. And here is this thing, clogging and fogging my mind, which I know is a lie, but which does not go away even when I speak its true name and snap three times.

Recursion Dinosaur


And a poisonous effect of the socialization is that it turns women’s conversations about the problem into yet another self-deprecation exercise.

“I hate myself for hating myself so much”

“oh god you’re awesome, I have worse impostor syndrome than you”

“No way, your self-confidence is admirable”

“I’m meta-shit”


So I seek lessons and tactics on how to become a less irritating person to my friends, and a more useful and capable person going forward. Some assorted thoughts and ideas:

Five ways you can feel as competent as you really are

  1. Everything in Terri’s earlier advice, especially a shield of arrogance.

    I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

    If you are worried about being confidently wrong sometimes, note that a small increase in confident wrong assertions is a small price to pay for a big increase in capability, correct assertions, momentum, and achievement.

  2. Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.
  3. If you feel compelled to go from success to success, you may not be risking enough. As these entrepreneurs do, try assuming that you will fail the first time you try something.
  4. Every endeavor that anyone has ever done is therefore in some sense No Big Deal, that is, doable. Some people make the hard look easy, but experience and effort make for far greater variation than does innate ability — or, at least, isn’t it more useful to assume so? Watch other people succeed, and watch other people fail. Mere life experience helped me out here, but so did Project Runway, where I saw good people trying and failing every single week. And so did seeing these guys, at the meetup, at the job interview, being dumber than me. I just had to keep my eyes open and it happened, because I am smarter than the average bear.
  5. Notice the things you know. A friend of mine recently mentioned to me that she worries that people perceive her as incompetent if she asks more than two questions about a hard problem via her company’s internal IRC channel. I asked her to compare how many questions she asks and answers on IRC each day. She hadn’t even been considering that ratio, because she’d unthinkingly assumed that what she knew must be basic, and blabbing about the stuff she already knows is easy and natural and unremarkable. But upon consideration, she’s a good peer in that informational ecology, seeding more than she leeches.

This is all corollary to my earlier injunction to make irrationality work for you. We are all monkeys, seizing on narratives and any status signals we can find. Don’t keep the default sexist irrational assumptions get in the way of your confidence-competence virtuous circle. Make your own recursion dinosaur of win.

27 thoughts on “On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

  1. Brendan

    What a great post.

    I can vouch for the fact that a traditional CS education will leave you wildly unprepared for writing software in real life, particularly in terms of the web. Granted, I was a college sophomore (oh God) ten years ago, but everything I learned about scripting languages, the LAMP stack, frameworks and source control came from doodling around by myself* on weekends. Classes taught me what a pointer was, but not what to point to. If you know the latter, you’re way ahead of the practical game.

    * There’s a lot of privilege wrapped up in the fact that I had leisure and equipment to do that doodling, of course, but I trust that goes unstated.

    1. Addie

      Oh, agreed on all of that, except I didn’t spend my weekends doodling – I instead spent my first 2 years of employment feeling the utter terror of my lack of knowledge, despite my coworkers chirping all around me, “It’s easy! It’s easy!”

      There has to be a better way to marry the practical and a theoretical – a little more by way of practical from academia, a little more emphasis on training and initial skill-building for fresh-out-of-college newbs from industry (if they really want to require that CS degree). Unfortunately it seems both are insistent that this would be totally unreasonable for their sectors.

    2. G

      I have no CS training and I learned that I was not outclassed by people with CS degrees when I recently met a CS grad from a local college who had learned only Java during his entire 4-year degree. That’s all the profs at his small college knew and that’s the only language they learned. So his CS degree did not include any knowledge whatsoever not just of practical things like web development but also of differences between programming languages. Procedural vs object-oriented vs functional — what’s that?

      Credentials seem so specific but when you look at them closely they are often meaningless.

  2. Restructure!

    One of the things I liked about Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman was that Feynman didn’t take himself seriously, yet he pretended to be a genius. I mean, I actually do think he’s a genius, but not for the reasons most people do. I think he was a genius for pretending to be a genius, which helps him socially.

    When it came to things that were important, i.e., his career as a physicist, he was very serious and didn’t fake anything. When it came to unimportant things, i.e., how other people thought of him, he totally made up lies about himself, like that he could do complex mental calculations in his head. The benefit of this is that if no one figures it out, they walk away thinking you’re a genius. On the other hand, if people figure out that you were lying, you can be like, “LOL! I TROLL U”, because you were actually joking in the first place. It’s not like plagiarism or fabricating data as a scientist, which would actually be bad. It is about not talking yourself seriously, so you don’t care if people end up thinking you’re not-so-smart, since you weren’t emotionally invested in it in the first place.

    Basically, it might be a good strategy to perform genius and/or expertise for trivial things that don’t matter, while being humble towards things that really do matter.

  3. Skud

    This is a great post.

    Just had to get that out there before my knee jerked and I said: I don’t think the MediaWiki-to-HTML thingy is easily extractable for use in other projects, but how about Markdown? There are libraries in most languages.

    1. brainwane

      You are completely right re: Markdown. I remember that there was a specific reason I mentioned MediaWiki in particular, but I don’t remember why. In any case, code reuse & knowing your ecology FTW.

  4. thewhatifgirl

    I was totally tempted to start off this comment with a claim that I don’t understand most of what you said about computers because they’re always peripheral to what I do, but then I paused for a second and realized that I understand more than I gave myself credit for. Hah.

    One of the great turning points for me on this issue in my particular field (archaeology) came when I started graduate school. I spent the first month feeling like a complete idiot – like I didn’t know anything and why the hell did they admit me anyway? It didn’t help that I said a few stupid things in class and was really embarrassed when the professor pointed out the stupid things that I had said. But I kept answering questions, risking that embarrassment but still feeling dumb. Then, one day, I answered a question in my tentative way and the professor barked at me… but he wasn’t telling me I was stupid, he was saying that I hadn’t given a complete answer. He knew that I knew the answers to all of these questions but that I was too afraid of being wrong to let myself be right, that I was fulfilling my own prophecy by being afraid that saying too much would show how thoughtless I was. Since then, I’ve given a few answers that were off the mark, but most of my answers have been correct because I am relaxed enough before I say something to just let my brain work and let it spill out of my mouth. I wish I could give that to everyone but hopefully I’ve explained it well enough to help.

  5. Addie

    Sumana, I have been thinking a lot about this issue, tangentially, today, so I’m really glad that this showed up in my RSS feed when it did. I’m also glad that I’ve met you in person, because it really brings the whole mood of this piece to life :-)

  6. Tessa

    this post is epic. thank you – i think it’s wonderful advice for everyone who might feel out of their depth but probably isn’t, not just teh geek laydeez. i love reading your blog even though i’m not really a geek in the computing sense.

  7. Thomas Beagle

    Two comments:

    1. There are a huge number of competent-seeming and appropriately arrogant people in IT who really don’t know what they’re talking about. No, even more than that. Sadly most of them seem to be male.

    2. When I was training someone to be a developer (who is now better at it than me, damn it!), I said that to be a good geek you had to have both humility and arrogance in equal measures. The humility was so you’d admit you didn’t know something and get help/read the docs/etc, the arrogance was the bit that said “I don’t know that now… but I can and I will soon.”

    And speaking as a geek, my favourite sort of people are those who can finely grade what they’re saying in terms of how sure they are about it – and be right. i.e. the difference between “The answer is X”, “I think the answer is X”, “Maybe you could try X?” and “Someone once said X was good for that.”

    Conclusion: I must have liked your post and found it thought provoking because I wrote so much in response. :)

    1. Cynthia L.

      “The humility was so you’d admit you didn’t know something and get help/read the docs/etc, the arrogance was the bit that said “I don’t know that now… but I can and I will soon.””

      Outstanding! I am so going to use this.

    2. John

      Similar observations go back at least to Old Testament times (and probably drawn from earlier sources):

      Proverbs 26:12: Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.


      Proverbs 26:16: The sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven [men] that can render a reason.

      These may be good things to remember when you encounter such people!

  8. Eivind

    One thing, I’ve found helps against imposter syndrome, is getting more clear information. Especially for someone who’s analytical and systematic such as you. I know that one cannot generally eradicate a feeling with fact, but it sure can help.

    Even in this article – seems to me you felt less and less like an imposter, as you discovered that, infact, your knowledge was not inferior to that of other participants. You do make excuses for him though; lingering on him having had some algorithm and java, for example. While the plain fact is, he is, he claims, interested in learning about web-development, yet he is TOTALLY unaware of it, atleast of the open source part of it. Having passed algorithms 101, does not counter this.

    I particularily like you suggestion 2: be consciously *aware* that sometimes your thoughts come from feelings, and are – in actual fact – unbacked by reality. A friend of mine has BMI 19, yet feels fat. But, the thing that helps quite a bit, is that she is aware that in actual cold hard objective reality – she is not fat. Which means the problem isn’t an overabundance of fat, but an overabundance of *FEELING* fat.

    Similarily, it’s much better to be in a position where you may still feel as if you’re an imposter, but atleast you’re aware that the feeling does not represent reality. Indeed, just having read about imposter syndrome, and be aware of it, lessens the impact it’ll have on you, if/when you end up feeling it yourself. (especially if you remember reading about it, at the time you feel it)

    1. John

      I know that one cannot generally eradicate a feeling with fact, but it sure can help.

      Yes, it definitely can, and there’s a well-established systematic framework for doing so, in the form of Cognitive Therapy; it might be worth reading some of the literature on that for ideas in reducing unrealistically low estimates of one’s own ability. In particular, the classic list of errors in thinking looks to me like it has quite a bit of overlap with the effects described here.

  9. Trix

    Totally agree with the main thrust of this post, which is checking one’s self-perception, and taking proper ownership of the stuff that we are good or even decent-enough at.

    Could not disagree more with the “shield of arrogance”. There is a HUGE dividing line between confidence and arrogance: I would quite definitely say that a lot of arrogance is there to hide an underlying lack of confidence. No one likes FIGJAMs, and I can certainly vouch for the fact that arrogant people I’ve encountered in sysadmin roles (or project management/development/DB administration) often (I would even say all that I’ve personally encountered) are the type of “clever-enough” cowboys to cause huge messes the rest of us have to clean up.

    I don’t care how much of a genius you are (leaving aside the fact that there are very few who actually qualify). Knowing one’s worth and expecting the appropriate recognition and respect for it ≠ arrogance. Being assertive and exuding an aura of self-confidence again ≠ arrogance.

    Not to wrongly characterise entire genders (the following is obviously not universal), but let’s not simply replace the more female-programmed type of insecurity-driven behaviours with the kind of ego-bolstering games practised by insecure guys.

  10. Cyrissa

    I know exactly what you mean and I have felt SO much of this. I am just now starting to realize how much I do actually know by reading through books on programming and realizing that I already practice most of what they say. Also, in talking with co-workers and friends who program, I am realizing more and more that I am able to match, if not surpass their knowledge. Yet for whatever reason, I’ve still found myself doubting my abilities. Which is profoundly frustrating.

    I just wanted to say great post, and thank you for articulating an issue I have been trying to grapple with so eloquently!

  11. Cynthia L.

    Great post! And so many helpful extras in the comments (thewhatifgirl, Thomas Beagle, John). Viva realistic self-confidence!

  12. Bruce Byfield

    A “shield of arrogance” might be more useful than a feeling of inadequacy, but I wonder if it’s any healthier.

    Instead, maybe people should aim for a perception that recognizes that they have skills while accepting that some other people will always have skills that they lack. The advantage of this perspective is that it tends to survive contact with reality (or, at least, it did when I was an unworldly first year student trying to cope with the vastness of university life).

    1. Manuel

      I think the “shield of arrogance” can be seen as a temporary help while building a deeper feeling of self-confidence and a more realistic perception our adequacy and skills. It might not be the most healthy way to handle problems, but it certainly is more useful (as you describe it) than any other usual reaction of people subject to self-confidence issues. It can keep you going.

      Anyway, if you’re used to questioning yourself, I don’t seriously believe you are at risk of becoming really arrogant. The shield of arrogance will remain superficial and not become part of your general personality (or so I hope).

  13. UK Woman

    Love this post :)

    I just wanted to say though that that article about pub going habits seems reeeally off, both in terminology and in content. I’m not sure how seriously it’s taking itself, but yeah.

  14. Karen

    How do you feel about being quoted? I’d really like to quote this part over on my LJ, and link to this post.

    Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.’

    BTW, I got here by way of a link-rec from Body Impolitic. Thanks for the excellent thoughts! Glorious RAWR of Recursion Dinosaur of Win! FTW!

    1. John

      Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.

      Seeing this bit selected specifically, reminded me of the principle (and book title) “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, the idea of which is that we don’t first get over our fears then do something, as much as getting over the fears by doing the thing we fear.

  15. John

    I’ve been thinking some more about these people (men, mostly) who know very little about CS but still act as though they’re not aware of that fact. From having taught CS at a university where quite a lot of the students simply didn’t get the idea of programming, I can’t help wondering whether they genuinely think that almost everyone else is in the same boat as them, and also bluffing.

    In fact, I suspect that quite a lot of people go through lives bluffing about their abilities of whatever kind, without it having crossed their minds that many people aren’t bluffing and really do have more ability. So the adage “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” may apply here.

    (This may seem like an odd possibility, but it’s fed from the analogy that I used to a be a depressive, and for a long time hadn’t realized it, as I assumed that that was what life was like for everyone and that they were all putting a brave face on it.)

    1. Restructure!

      I think a lot of the times, men bluff about their tech abilities to women (1) to impress us, and/or (2) because they assume that we would not have the technical knowledge to see through their bluff.

      This is also the reason why it is not uncommon for guys in tech to suddenly start mansplaining when there are women around. (I don’t think this is even limited to het men.)

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