Back in August, Scott Hanselman wrote an excellent post at his blog that I’ve been taking my sweet time digesting: titled I’m a Phony, Are You? in the best possible sense, Hanselman points out that sometimes it’s the people with the most ability that underestimate their own capabilities: people who are living the life that other people dream of who are quickest to minimize what they do. It very well may be instrumental in the reason why we’re so chronically unhappy, even if we get the things we’ve always desired. Here’s one interesting point:
I used to speak Spanish really well and I still study Zulu with my wife but I spoke to a native Spanish speaker today and realize I’m lucky if I can order a burrito. I’ve all but forgotten my years of Amharic. My Arabic, Hindi and Chinese have atrophied into catch phrases at this point. What a phony. (Clarification: This one is not intended as a humblebrag. I was a linguist and languages were part of my identity and I’m losing that and it makes me sad.)
But here’s the thing. We all feel like phonies sometimes. We are all phonies. That’s how we grow. We get into situations that are just a little more than we can handle, or we get in a little over our heads. Then we can handle them, and we aren’t phonies, and we move on to the next challenge.
I got an email from a podcast listener a few years ago. I remembered it when writing this post, found it in the archives and I’m including some of it here with emphasis mine.
I am a regular listener to your podcast and have great respect for you. With that in mind, I was quite shocked to hear you say on a recent podcast, “Everyone is lucky to have a job” and apply that you include yourself in this sentiment.
I have heard developers much lesser than your stature indicate a much more healthy (and accurate) attitude that they feel they are good enough that they can get a job whenever they want and so it’s not worth letting their current job cause them stress. Do you seriously think that you would have a hard time getting a job or for that matter starting your own business? If you do, you have a self-image problem that you should seriously get help with.
But it’s actually not you I’m really concerned about… it’s your influence on your listeners. If they hear that you are worried about their job, they may be influenced to feel that surely they should be worried.
I really appreciated what this listener said and emailed him so. Perhaps my attitude is a Western Cultural thing, or a uniquely American one. I’d be interested in what you think, Dear Non-US Reader. I maintain that most of us feel this way sometimes. Perhaps we’re unable to admit it. When I see programmers with blog titles like “I’m a freaking ninja” or “bad ass world’s greatest programmer” I honestly wonder if they are delusional or psychotic. Maybe they just aren’t very humble.
I stand by my original statement that I feel like a phony sometimes. Sometimes I joke, “Hey, it’s a good day, my badge still works” or I answer “How are you?” with “I’m still working.” I do that because it’s true. I’m happy to have a job, while I could certainly work somewhere else. Do I need to work at Microsoft? Of course not. I could probably work anywhere if I put my mind to it, even the IT department at Little Debbie Snack Cakes. I use insecurity as a motivator to achieve and continue teaching.
Goodness this rings true. When I was working in an office, people would ask me how I’m doing – especially on those days when I looked stressed, and I would reply “I’ve had better jobs,” and revel in the grin they would give me, expecting me to say “I’ve had better days,” but the twist gave them something to laugh about. At the same time, I definitely know those days where I’m just grateful to have work, or grateful to wake up, much less take too much joy in what I’m doing.
Still, that’s only part of the story, and part of what Hanselman is saying: a lot of us teach things they we’re passionate about and are forced to learn the lessons that we’re teaching others. I write for Lifehacker, one of the most widely read sites on the Web, and yet I still think I have a lot to learn, both from our commenters and from my colleagues. While it’s certainly true and it’s definitely me being humble, I still have a hard time taking compliments from those colleagues and look up to them like rockstars – which I don’t feel bad about, but I have a hard time considering myself a rockstar too. Just last week, I had a really difficult time begging my Editor-in-Chief to include me on our masthead as an actual member of the team, instead coming up with reason after reason why I shouldn’t be a bother or I shouldn’t nag.
We’re all phonies – and I think that we definitely need to come to terms with the fact – but we also need to make sure we’re aware of it and not let it keep us down, or keep us from being aware of how long our arms are. Otherwise we’ll never reach as far as we can or tap into our real potential.