Impostor syndrome and BOMTYCC problems

This post will be my attempt at describing how I keep on pushing myself to improve my skills and go beyond performance plateaus, despite struggling with impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome

As far as it applies to me, impostor syndrome is an inability to objectively evaluate my skills and accomplishments (Jean Hsu wrote an interesting post on the subject). It can be quite unnerving at times: it is all too easy to think “if I can do this, it can’t be that hard”, which is usually quickly followed by “oh no, if I take on a bigger project and I’m unable to deliver, everyone will find out I’m a fraud and that I’m not as competent as they think I am!”.

Put another way, people with impostor syndrome always feel they’re an incarnation of the Peter Principle: they’re worried anything given to them might be beyond their abilities, although time and again, their projects were completed successfully.

Striking back

How, then, can impostor syndrome be countered? Take a page from Tom Preston-Werner (founder of GitHub) and take on some BOMTYCC problems. I had been using the concept for a long time, but finally had an acronym to stick on it after watching Tom’s talk at Ruby Conference 2010.

So what are BOMTYCC problems? The acronym stands for “Bite Off More Than You Can Chew”, as is pretty self-explanatory: always take on problems that are slightly out of reach given your current skill/knowledge. This seems daunting to me every single time, but things tend to work out in the end: you’ll usually find a solution to the problem you’ve set out to solve, and regardless of the outcome, you’ll have learned a ton.

The making of an expert

How does one rise to the top of a given field? The 10,000 hour mark is often bandied about, popularized by Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers. However, few people realize that by playing golf for 10,000 hours won’t turn them into a professional.

The fact of the matter is that all practice is not equal: improving yourself requires deliberate practice. Naturally, it’s a lot more fun to practice things you’re already good at, which is what people often end up doing. Doing something you’re terrible at, over and over, is no fun. Unfortunately, it’s also the surest and quickest way to mastery.

Rescued by side projects

The best way I’ve found to counter impostor syndrome and improve my skills is through side projects (most of my projects are open source, another isn’t). There are several reasons to that:

  • Creating something of value out of nothing is quite exhilarating;
  • It’s MY project: no one to answer to, no meetings, etc. Personal projects simply move faster;
  • Every project can be chosen to learn something (which isn’t always the case in your day job);
  • It helps in realizing (after spending hours on the web to solve specific issues) that “hey, I’m doing something no one else has done before”. In other words: maybe I’m not as mediocre as I thought.

But how can you get started with side projects? I’ll pass on Seth Godin’s advice:


Yup, that’s all there is to it: decide to do something, then set out and do it. And don’t be shy:

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn (source)

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