Olivier Lacan

Software bricoleur, word wrangler, scientific skeptic, and logic lumberjack.

Ego Time Machine

Written on January 02, 2015 in Paris, France

Impostor Syndrome is much more pervasive in our industry than even many successful people are willing to admit. I've been crippled by it many times in my life.

Over time, the only reliable system I've developed to combat it is something I called the "ego time machine".

Once in a while, get lost in your own brain and try to remember a time when you knew less about the topic you find yourself focused on right now.

Sometimes it's almost impossible not to feel like a fraud. You see any evidence to the contrary as a sweet lie hiding an awful awful truth.

The exercise I describe above is useful because it comes from within. It's not external validation you can be tempted to brush off as a kind compliment. It helps you take a step back. It equips you a thought machine that will can hopefully help you to chip away at your own feelings of inadequacy.

  • 5 years ago basic Object-oriented programming baffled me.
  • 4 years ago I thought I would never understand Ruby on Rails.
  • 3 years ago caching seemed like it was too much work.
  • 2 months ago I was still afraid to look at C code.
  • 1 month ago I didn't know how databases search for records.

Looking at it this way, it's impossible to deny the progress I've made and how far I've come.

Progress in knowledge acquisition is often hard to measure, hard to sense internally. It's common for the people generalized as "knowledge wokers" not to realize how much they know. We often worry about whether we know enough, instead of worrying about whether we're good at learning more. The fact that there are entire portions of my daily workload that contain activities which would have baffled me just a few years ago is immensely useful to combat the lingering sense that I'm not pulling my own weight.

In a great post called Impostor Syndrome Jason Freedman describes a ritual he follows when he fells out of his element:

I actually have this little tradition I do personally when I’m most stressed out and my body feels weak – I have this strange craving for McDonald’s. It happens every time. And I don’t really eat McDonald’s any other time in my life except for when I’m really feeling stressed. So now I have this thing whenever I’m really feeling pushed a bit too hard, I head straight to McDonald’s and have my little ceremony with my hamburger, chicken mcnuggets and fries. And I think back to all the times I have sat in this exact same seat, eating this exact same thing, feeling this exact same way. It helps me, in the moment, gain that temporal perspective that allows me to remember that this too shall pass.

This is the Ego Time Machine at its best. It reconnects you to your past accomplishments in a way that makes it near impossible for your to willfully ignore them. It forces you to see that there's a good chance your fear and doubt are not rational. They're part of the cycle. It gets better.