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Learning to Code with Imposter Syndrome

When I took my first Python course in college, I thought I would never want anything to do with programming for the rest of my life. Four years after that, I would find myself attempting to learn Python again, studying data science in the hopes I could put the passions I discovered late in my college career into a fulfilling career path. Despite being committed to continue learning and excited at the prospect of new opportunities, being a fresh college graduate in the middle of a global pandemic and minimal work experience in the relevant fields, I had an overbearing fear that I still wouldn’t be good enough to be considered competent. It wasn’t until I started at Flatiron School as a data science student that I learned about imposter syndrome.

I had never heard of “imposter syndrome” up until my coach brought it up for the first time, yet it was a feeling all too familiar throughout my life. Generally, it involves feelings of fraud, self-doubt, and incompetence despite one’s accomplishments and experiences. And starting as a student after an unsuccessful streak of finding a job related to my degree, I was already coming in with that same mindset, undermining my own knowledge and abilities. Not to mention I was already doubting how well I could do going into a coding bootcamp after barely getting by the Python course I had taken before in college. From when I breezed through my first few weeks at Flatiron because I was already familiar with Python and SQL through my own self-studies, to when I struggled to grasp the material learning about deep learning algorithms, I would constantly undermine my ability to learn and retain all the information I was taking in.

While I was learning more about imposter syndrome, I also started to realize how much it went in hand with procrastination, something I was a lot more familiar with. At the beginning of my program, I had mentioned to my coach that I wanted to work on my procrastination habits the most, and she explained to me that procrastination can be an effect of unpleasant feelings, such as the self-doubt associated with imposter syndrome. This quote from a New York Times article she sent summarizes the idea pretty well:

I would say this summarizes my experiences dealing with imposter syndrome pretty well. I still remember through most of my end-of-phase projects, I would procrastinate not necessarily because I felt lazy. I always had looming thoughts of “What if my project isn’t good enough?” and “If it won’t be good enough, why should I even try only to have my efforts mean nothing?” Just like the article had mentioned, I had strong unpleasant feelings — in my case, of self-doubt — that led to my constant procrastination.

So imposter syndrome not only is connected to feelings of inadequacy despite past experiences, but also the fear of being seen as incompetent in the future without knowing what will happen. Knowing that, all the feelings I remember experiencing in college and leading up to starting at Flatiron all made sense. But now that I’m doing a data science coding bootcamp, what am I supposed to do about this imposter syndrome? I’m scared of failure, but I’m dedicated to complete this program because I really am passionate about what I’m learning and am determined to make it my future profession.

Before I continue with that thought, I’d like to digress for a moment. In my research for this blog post, I came across the work of Valerie Young, an active speaker on imposter syndrome who publishes resources on her website (appropriately named impostersyndrome.com); in particular, I was looking at this article of 10 ways to overcome imposter syndrome. She also gave a TED talk in 2017 about imposter syndrome:

She briefly goes over her points in her TED talk and goes more into detail about ways to deal with imposter syndrome in her article, but the main takeaway from both is more or less the same: “The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.” This resonated with me, reminding me of the cognitive behavioral therapy I had attended in college for my depression where the main idea is to cope by restructuring your own thoughts. While that and imposter syndrome aren’t necessarily correlated, Young presents a similar idea in her work: the key to dealing with feelings of being an imposter is to reframe your thoughts to think like a non-imposter.

In addition to Young’s methods, which generally revolve around reframing thoughts of being an imposter, some other things I did that I personally found helpful in curbing the feelings associated with imposter syndrome and staying motivated during my studies at Flatiron included:

  • Reminding myself to not be so hard on myself for not understanding something or doing something incorrectly the first time around. Especially when learning new things, it’s important to remember that nobody’s perfect and it takes practice to become good at something.
  • Using the Pomodoro technique. It’s a great method to stay focused and motivated on your work while also making sure you take breaks. Any timer will work, but personally because my work was browser-based, I found Toggl’s Pomodoro timer (with a Chrome extension) to be extremely helpful.
  • Regularly checking in with my instructor and coach to make sure I was staying on track, and asking for feedback. During my time at Flatiron specifically, I would have weekly meetings with my instructor about the material and about my projects and anticipating those every week motivated me to try and get through as much as I could so I could ask questions later.
  • Trying to practice daily on code challenge websites; the one I used the most frequently was Codewars. It contains challenges for lots of programming languages other than Python, and helped me keep my coding skills fresh.

Final thoughts and reflection

At first I wanted to write this blog post to explain and hopefully educate about imposter syndrome, but along the line it became a reflective piece as well on my experience at Flatiron as I am about to graduate and (hopefully) move on to a career in data science. Despite not believing in myself at first and my ability to succeed, I truly do feel that I have come very far as an aspiring data scientist. However, that definitely isn’t to say that my imposter syndrome has gone away — I still very much struggle with doubting my own abilities and feeling like a fraud, even to this day. But what I’ve realized along the way is that even though I still struggle with these feelings, I shouldn’t let them stop me from achieving my goals and pursuing my passions. For those reading this blog post who is starting out at Flatiron like I did before, whichever discipline you’re going in, know that you’re not alone and you are capable of achieving great things with this program with the help of your instructors, mentors, and peers. You got this!

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Nancy Ho

Nancy Ho

Aspiring data scientist. Graduate of Flatiron School.