Talent, Effort, and Imposter Syndrome: You’re Doing Better Than You Think

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“Wow, working for an international company? I certainly don’t qualify for that. I think even if I could get in, it wouldn’t take long for them to realize I’m a fraud and lose my job.”

Have you ever thought that you will never achieve something because you have no talent? Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach thinking that you don’t have what it takes to achieve all your dreams and goals, because there are other people much better and more qualified than you? And if you’ve had these feelings, were they paralyzing? Did they make you want to sit down and cry, faced with the torturous contemplation of your insignificance in a world filled with people so much more capable than you?

Calm down! Take a deep breath! You are doing much better than you think. But you may be suffering from impostor syndrome. To provide some context (and boost your self-confidence), I recommend taking three minutes of your time to watch the following video. I promise it will be worth your time.

Dove Real Beauty Sketches | You’re more beautiful than you think (3mins)

Regardless of what you’re thinking about this video, after watching it (You watched it, right? It’s only three minutes.) you should realize that it highlights a common habit amongst all people: we criticize ourselves too much, and we praise ourselves too little. And this feeling of self-deprecation becomes even more evident when we are the target of criticism from other people. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, author of the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance constantly heard from her disappointed father that she was “just not exceptional.” Dr. Duckworth devoted much of her academic life to the study of what factors make people successful in their endeavors. Are successful people simply exceptional on a level that’s unattainable to mere mortals? Or could anyone reach such a high level through hard work and continuous effort?

If you had to hire a professional today to perform a job would you choose: (a) a person who has the talent to do the job or (b) a person who has put in a lot of effort and shown perseverance to learn how to do the job?

According to Dr. Duckworth in her best-selling book Grit, this question has been asked in several national surveys to Americans who usually answer the latter — that people who strived the most to get where they are in their careers should be hired. She then mentions that questionnaires distributed by psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay to musical experts had consistent results with the surveys. Later, the same musical experts are then shown recordings of different parts of a musical score and told it’s from two different musicians, in which one is labeled as a hard worker and the other as a natural talent. They are then asked which one they think is more likely to be successful, and the answers are usually biased towards the one described as talented. The twist? Both recordings are actually being played by the same person. But it shows that although people say that hard-working people deserve to be rewarded, they actually believe that people who are ‘innately talented’ will always be better.

Okay, but where am I going with this?

The big problem with this bias that most of us have is that it applies much more intensely when we reflect on our own abilities. In the context of software engineering, we often compare our experience to that of extraordinary people (who are sometimes our age), but are already at a much higher level than us in seniority, salary, professional experience, and more.  This can be demotivating or even make us question whether we really know how to do something right. This level of criticism can evolve and become something very destructive if we don’t learn a very simple fact: everything can be learned. Alvin Toffler, author, futurist and doctor in Letters, Laws and Sciences wrote the following: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Nobody was born knowing how to do what they do. In fact, no one was born knowing anything. We are all born helpless and completely dependent on other people for us to survive. And yet, we see many people reaching extraordinary levels of proficiency. Is this because they are talented? Not necessarily.

Obviously, it would be naïve to believe that there are not people with innate talent for certain activities. But the secret is that talent without effort is just wasted potential. You may have an innate talent for playing the violin, but if you’ve never played a violin in your life, or if you’re never interested in developing that skill, you’ll never become a professional violinist. The opposite, however, is not true. Effort, even without innate talent, will always generate results, even if gradually. So, the next time you think you don’t deserve to be where you are or that there are people much better than you, remember that you are exactly where your effort, your perseverance, your resilience, and your willpower took you.

And that if you want to go further, just keep pushing diligently on your journey. And when it comes to people you think are better than you, remember two things: (1) they are still learning, striving and persevering, and (2) you can’t compare your beginning to everyone else’s middle. Everybody has their own struggles, and they’ve come a long way to get to where they are.
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With over 10 years of experience in software outsourcing, Alex has assisted in building high-performance teams before co-founding Trio with his partner Daniel. Today he enjoys helping people hire the best software developers from Latin America and writing great content on how to do that!
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