Engineering Our Own Obstacles

Life isn’t perfect. Things are hard. Improvement takes work. We all know these things. Many of us are used to battling the obstacles placed before us, whether it is relationships, school, or our jobs. We have become experts at jumping hurdles, pushing through, and fighting for what we want.

I don’t want to discuss those everyday life obstacles, though. While they can be extremely hard and taxing on our energy, most are pretty easy to see. There are a lot of resources out there for how to do things like negotiate better pay, get better jobs, and be more successful at X, Y, and Z.

Today, I want to talk about a different kind of obstacle. Those obstacles that we engineer and build for ourselves. Specifically, I want to talk about Imposter Syndrome. There are many articles and TED talks available on this subject(Like this one and this one!). Still, I wanted to add my own experiences because the best way to fight this issue is through sharing our experiences. Realizing that this is not an isolated event, the idea that it’s not just us having these thoughts is essential for truly gaining an understanding that these thoughts are not actual representations of reality but rather manifestations of our own insecurities.

Imposter syndrome is something I have dealt with for all my life. All through high school, people constantly told me how smart I was. How successful I was going to be. It always made me feel uncomfortable because I didn’t feel those things for myself. I mostly shrugged them off and continued about my daily activities. I graduated high school and was ecstatic when I was accepted into the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Idaho.

Being young, dumb, and independent for the first time, I made many mistakes, some of which resulted in lower grades than I was capable of. At the time, I didn’t realize that, though. I thought this was evidence that I didn’t actually belong in college. That I was not cut out to be an engineer. No one in my immediate family went to college, and very few of my extended family had either (at the time). Who was I to think I would be the one to “break out” of this family cycle?

So, I joined the military. I didn’t really have the military mentality, but I still managed to excel. I went from E-1 to E-5 in three years and 2 months, which is nearly as fast as it can possibly be done. But still, as a junior Non-Commissioned Officer, no matter how well I performed or how good my evaluations were, I was constantly scared I was one mistake away from being “Found Out.” That they would realize their mistake, and somehow, I would be demoted. I justified my awards and achievements as accidents or things anyone could do.

When I got out of the military, I went back to school. At first, I went back into the Electrical Engineering program, but then quickly switched to the Physics department. I remember the first time I took a Sophomore-level engineering course. I was dealing with PTSD from my deployment, divorce, and custody issues in court, and later with the diagnosis of my then partner with a debilitating and ultimately fatal genetic disorder. I didn’t recognize the stress I was under but instead attributed the effects of that stress as further evidence that I wasn’t meant for college. This idea was solidified for me when a physics professor told me after I failed a course during this time that there might be some degree program out there for me, but it wasn’t physics. I was both heartbroken and devastated to hear my fears repeated back to me by a person of authority.

Now, I don’t blame that professor. He gave his honest assessment of the situation from his perspective. A young adult was struggling in a low-level undergraduate physics course. I’m sure he was trying to help me. So, I took a semester off. I reevaluated what I wanted, and I came back. I still struggled, primarily with confidence, but academically, I drastically improved. I graduated with a 3.0 GPA and ended up securing a position as a Range Systems Engineer at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in southern California.

You would think that would be a significant indicator that I was doing well. You’d be wrong. The level of fear and lack of confidence I felt up to that point was NOTHING compared to the first several years I worked as an Engineer. Every day, I came to work screaming in my head, and I was sure that everyone around me saw it. I only later learned that most people felt I was extremely confident in everything I did. Looking back, I can’t see how people could think that, but it ended up being an excellent objective lesson in how we aren’t always aware of how we are coming off towards others, in both good and bad ways.

Now, the part that really made a difference for me, that really became the turning point in my life, is when I decided to apply for the mentorship program. This is the real story I want to tell here, despite the nine paragraphs it took to get here. I was fortunate in that, of all the people who signed up to be mentors, I received Al Bowers. Al was the Chief Scientist of the center. I’ll link his bio at NASA here (EDIT: Al has since retired, and NASA has removed his bio), but I encourage you to google him yourself and look at his career achievements because I feel like it is vital to understand his contributions to NASA, science, and engineering in order to truly understand the weight of this article.

Now, we didn’t meet a lot. He was busy, and I was busy, and honestly, we didn’t actually do all the things we were supposed to do according to the mentorship program, but what he did do, on one of the first times we met, is sit down and tell me about himself. Sure, he mentioned his educational and career background, but really, he told me openly about himself. The things he had learned that weren’t necessarily “Engineering” or “Science” related. The stuff he was proud of, things he regretted or wished he had done differently. Most importantly, he talked to me about Imposter syndrome.

This was a new term for me. Al described how he, even now as the Chief Scientist of a NASA center, constantly battled feelings and fears that he didn’t belong. That someone would find out he shouldn’t be where he was at. He talked about how crippling it could be at times. I was shocked. Completely floored by several realizations at once. First, I now had a name to describe the feelings I had been having my entire life. Second, the acknowledgment that it was a real thing that existed and wasn’t even that uncommon. Third, this person who had achieved so much, of which I would be lucky to achieve even a fraction, felt the same way I did.

I realized that if he could feel this way, anyone could, and if that were true, maybe there was more to it. It was the first step to realizing that these fears, insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy were not actually representations of who I was. They weren’t secrets I was holding, waiting to be found out, but were, in fact, terrible manifestations of my own creation that were stifling my true capabilities. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, this moment was life-changing.

Over the past several years, I have been working on myself with this. A lifetime of second-guessing yourself doesn’t change overnight. It took a long time to fully process this, and to work on it. I take it every day, one day at a time. I try to consciously acknowledge my successes and understand the true causes of my failures. I try to really hear others’ compliments and criticisms for what they are. I accept praise and positive evaluations from my supervisors and mentors. These people are not dumb. They are professionals with many more years of experience than I have, and they are telling me I am doing well.

I still battle these fears occasionally, but today, I feel comfortable calling myself an engineer. I don’t feel like a sham who is sneaking by under the radar. More importantly, I am no longer scared to reach for more. More responsibility, more accountability, and more challenges. I no longer let every failure or letdown feed into this idea that it’s because I am not worthy. So if these are feelings you recognize, I don’t expect my words to suddenly make things better, but I encourage you – no, I challenge you, to look for more stories. More people who are succeeding in their relationships, careers, and life in general, while also battling these thoughts and feelings. I encourage you to analyze their experiences and compare them to your own. Talk. Listen. Share.

We live in a world with very real obstacles to success. Some of us deal with real and scary things like harassment and violence in the workplace. Some of us deal with inequalities that others will never understand and even refuse to acknowledge. Some people have health issues or family issues that interfere with their ability to succeed. These are real obstacles that exist outside of our control and are numerous beyond counting. We do not need to engineer more obstacles of our own