Don't Be Afraid to Be Weak
October 07, 2018
“The greatest of all weaknesses is the fear of appearing weak.” Andy Hunt, The Pragmatic Programmer
I’ve found that the most consistent fear among programmers is the fear of appearing unintelligent or uninformed. Personally, I think that this fear is one of the root causes of impostor syndrome.
This problem is a bit of a catch-22. You don’t want your employer or coworkers to think that you are incompetent, but if you don’t address your knowledge gaps, then you are stagnating. Eventually, your stagnation will result in the thing you are most afraid of: incompetence.
You’ve arrived at a decision point: you can admit your ignorance (look a little stupid) and grow, or you can hide your ignorance and struggle your way towards unemployment.
It’s hard because being a software engineer is, in some respects, being paid to know things. It can be extremely intimidating to admit when you’re lacking in that department, but it can also be freeing.
I’ve dealt with this first hand; I can tell you that without a doubt it is better to feel dumb for a few minutes than to hide your ignorance until some event outside of your control ultimately exposes it.
One of the most valuable things you can do for your career as a software engineer is to do away with the fear of looking stupid; it will free you to ask more questions and learn more rapidly than the vast majority of software developers in the professional world (who are still wrestling with the internal fear of appearing weak).
Andy Hunt is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever had a conversation with (despite the brevity of our interaction, I can almost guarantee he’d shy away from that compliment), and yet I can assure you that he has felt the fear of being weak in its many forms.
Feeling this fear doesn’t make you unique; instead, it makes you like the rest of us. All of the people on this planet writing code for a living feel the occasional (or not-so-occasional) hand of imposter syndrome dancing from their amygdalas into their frontal lobes.
What makes you unique, and a better engineer to boot is acknowledging the presence and counterproductivity of this fear, using that acknowledgment to harness your anxieties, and deciding to lean on your peers to advance your understanding of this profession.
Leaning on others is great, but it’s also nice to support those around you.
While you can free yourself up to grow as an engineer by being unafraid of admitting ignorance, you can amplify that effect by encouraging other engineers to rid themselves of their fear.
Creating a culture of accepting knowledge gaps and filling those gaps collaboratively is a force multiplier. It’s a culture that produces experts and mentors alike.
I was once asked in a class, “What is the best way to improve communication and teamwork in a professional setting?” My answer was immediate: “Help your teammates feel comfortable looking stupid.”
When I start a project with new colleagues or someone joins my team, I always reassure them that I’d love to hear their stupid questions, and I warn them that they will hear mine.