Impostor Syndrome: It’s Not Your Fault!

[Crispernaki] and I have something in common. We both saw this awesome project that made a scroll wheel out of a VHS head back in 2010, and wanted to make one. We both wanted to put our own spin on the gadget, (tee-hee), discovered that it was harder than either of us wanted to commit to, and gave up.

Flash forward about a million Internet years, and [crispernaki] finally made his and wrote it up. The only problem is that it was too easy. In 2010, making USB gadgets was a lot more involved than it is today. (Back then, we had to chisel device descriptors on stone tablets.) Nowadays, the firmware is just a matter of importing the right library, and the hardware is a magnetic rotation sensor breakout board, a magnet, and super glue. Cheap, and easy.

All of this led our hero to feeling insecure. After all, a hack that beat him a dozen years ago turned out to be dead easy today. Maybe it was too easy? Maybe he wasn’t a “real” hacker? These are the signs of impostor syndrome – that feeling that just because you aren’t the world’s best, or climbing the highest mountain, or hacking the hardest project, you’re not worthy.

Well, listen up. Impostors don’t finish projects, and impostors don’t write them up to share with all the rest of us. By actually doing the thing – hacking the hack – all chances of being a fake are ruled out. The proof is sitting there on your desk, in all its Altoids-tin glory.

And it’s not your fault that it was too easy this time around. You can’t do anything to turn back the hands of time, to make the project any harder these days, or to undo the decade of hacker technical progress on the software side, much less change the global economy to make a magnetic sensor unobtainable again. The world improved, you got your hack done, and that’s that. Congratulations! (Now where do I buy some of those on-axis magnets?)

68 thoughts on “Impostor Syndrome: It’s Not Your Fault!

  1. I don’t about the rest of you, but I do a lot of projects that are beyond and sometimes way beyond my understanding of the issues. Usually they don’t work right away but eventually.

    I must say that anything that works the first time completely unnerves me. I know I’m not that good. And besides if it works immediately I’m denied all the education I woujld have earned figuring out the problems.

    1. In my opinion, if you’re not breaking something now and then, you’re not learning.

      You can learn a lot reading Forrest Mims’ Engineer’s Mini-Notebook…. but you can also learn a lot by taking the Reed Ghazala route, ripping that amp and finding out exactly where all those wires go.

  2. Wish more people kept this in mind. Impostor syndrome is omnipresent enough, that if we were to not count everyone who feels like an impostor, there’d be barely anyone left to consider! You hack on things, and that’s what matters. Don’t fall into the trap of treating yourself worse than you would treat other people ^~^

    1. Arya, I spent (endured) my career attempting architecture. If you do industrial architecture – railroad and process plants, you are often confronted with problems no one knows the answer to and you have to hope that whatever you come up with will work.

      It didn’t start out that way, but by the time I got to be about 60, I could stand up in front of a bunch of people and for the most part they would believe whatever I said. This worried me a lot.
      It still does.

      1. That is why we have design reviews. At one company I visited, all engineers were invited, so you had a number of other experts makingh sure you didnt miss anything obvious. At another company I worked at dis something simplar. You had to have you ducks in a row if you are presenting your design or proposed change to a room full of engineers and managers!

      1. I don’t know that it helps anything that the internet can be toxic AF. I see lots of project posts where the feedback is “that’s nothing new,” “that’s a waste of time,” “that’s done poorly” and if you’re already in mindset that’s telling you your project isn’t good enough, that kind of feedback can really reinforce it.

        1. That’s so true and discouraging. Also people will start to target others based on age (either negatively for no reason, or positively for no reason).

          I wish more interaction was about sharing and feeling connected, rather than competing and hating on each other.

  3. Ooooh, that’s made my day, about 10 years ago, I made a spinner with a 3.5″ hard drive spindle and a mouse. mounted the mouse pcb vertically, used the encoder wheel from the mouse attached to an m3? bolt through the spindle, it worked really well but the case I put it in (margarine tub) was a bit flimsy.

  4. It is called experience, and comes with age. When older people speak up, listen…they have already been around the block a few times, and generally only say something if they think it is important.

    We all started that way when we were younger, and most of us will end up with more wisdom in our old age…unless we never actually tried to do anything in our lives, in which case we’ll end up amongst the idiots.

    I believe wisdom comes from making mistakes, AND learning from those mistakes. If you haven’t made any, then you’ll stay an idiot, because you never did anything.

    Happy hacking.

      1. It’s scary if you have no one that can give constructive criticism or check what you say in a productive way. Think of medical issues, where there is nobody that can cure them yet, or has practical experience with enough care for details.

        But in current times, age (and negatively exaggeration of age) is really prevalent, as it is to put down people for their age, especially aggressively on the Internet.

        While arrogance is not good, being too dismissive is neither. You just need more well rounded and experienced people around you, finding those is an issue, the more specialized you get, the harder it becomes.

        It shouldn’t mean you put yourself (or your age group) down though, it also affects how inexperienced people treat you and your group. It can lead to agism, which is very prevalent today.

        1. “But in current times, age (and negatively exaggeration of age) is really prevalent, as it is to put down people for their age, especially aggressively on the Internet.”

          There’s a historical element to it, though. Old is relative.

          A few hundred years ago people died age 30, when they were considered to be old.
          That was because of bad health, hsrd winters and lack of food.

          That means that they never (rarely) reached the age of stubbornness or dementia, even if they looked like in their 90s.
          Since they died so young (by nowadays definition), their brains never were so worn out, perhaps.

        2. “While arrogance is not good, being too dismissive is neither. You just need more well rounded and experienced people around you, finding those is an issue, the more specialized you get, the harder it becomes.”

          I’m with you at this. People need to have a wieder view, more common sense and a healthy amount of basic education.

          Because, an “expert” is a person who knows a lot about something in a very small field, but knows very little about anything else.

    1. I see what you are getting at. If the skills and experience come from the making of mistakes and old people have already made those mistakes and can help you not to make them, then Old people are taking away our ability to learn and should be ignored. Ok got it, thanks. /s

    2. “It is called experience, and comes with age. When older people speak up, listen…they have already been around the block a few times, and generally only say something if they think it is important”

      Reminds me of my great aunt who’s always right, even if the isn’t. ;)

      Let’s remember “Age does not protect against stupidity” and “To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods”

  5. But what about when you’re just incompetent? If I try my hand at a project, the likelihood is that it fails entirely or it takes me forever to do and the end result is janky, unreliable and just simply bad.

    1. You either pay sunk cost in the school of hard knocks or you pay for a professional education. It’s debatable which is of more value. The former has the benefit of real world trial and error experience, the latter is mostly theoretical.

      1. I wouldn’t say the latter is just theoretical. Metaphorically, it’s learning about the wheel so you don’t have to invent one yourself from scratch. I, sadly, wasted my student loans on a psych degree instead of electronics or engineering, so I’m having to learn the hard way how to make my own metaphorical wheels.

    2. Ask for help, maybe. It’s not shameful to ask a friend or family member to assist you.
      In fact, admitting your own limitations and accepting help is a very mature move.

      It’s not easy to accept help, just like it’s not easy to apologize for something or admit a mistake. If the other people are similar mature they will realize this.

      It’s just important to stay calm and rational when asking for help, I think. That makes you appear more mature, if others trying to poke fun at you.

  6. Graduated college with BS in electrical engineering degree in 2019, have been in working in industry for 4 years now, on Job # 3 now. I have BIG TIME imposter syndrome at work, it’s something I really am struggling to get over.

        1. Welcome to the Japanese education system in a nutshell…

          I’m about to do battle finding my child a tech oriented school that promotes open and critical thinking.
          Wish me luck!………..

        2. That’s why “we” need more grandparents again, who play with children and inspire their imagination. Just like it was in 20th century, still.

          Back then, children got youth lexicons (books) with all sorts of interesting things about the world and big pictures in it.

          These parents/grandparents also sang lullabies for their children, read books with them and read bedtime stories to them.

          Elementary school is good in principle, but it’s not enough.
          Children need to get educated by their family, too.

          The family can do explain a lot of things in life which schools can’t teach, also due to political reasons and laws.

          Like preparing their children to think on their own and question authority – silently, in their minds, at least.

          But that’s not exactly new, maybe. It’s just that families nolonger spend so much time with each other.
          Which is sad, because children need orientation when growing up.
          A single family member or friend that puts the heart into that can make a change for the better.

    1. I had a couple of beers whith the guy who hosts the “learning to think” one semester course at a local college.
      “How do you do it?”
      “First day I give them a list of thiongs we could try to do.”
      “Do you arleady know how to do these projects yourself?”
      “Yes. I compile the list of things I know how to do.”
      “How about making the list of things you don’t already know how to do, then you and the class can wing it. Might be much more enlightening for you to share how you sneak up on problems you’ve never seen before.”
      “I could never take that chance, What if we couldn’t do the thing?”
      “Then the kids would get a sense of what failure is like and together you could analyze what you did and what you might have done.”
      “Not worth the chance of embarassment”


  7. > Impostors don’t finish projects

    Oof, what did I do to offend you Hackaday?

    More seriously, I enjoy tinkering with things, but sadly have too many other things going on in life to finish anything but fairly simple projects. I very much appreciate things being easier these days, as otherwise this sort of thing would be totally inaccessible to me.

    1. The problem is never finishing a project (according to my feature creep perfectionist addled mind). Most of my projects may seem to be finished externally but there’s always a long list of things I’m not satisfied with so I can never really say anything is every completely done. That or I just lose interest and toss the project into my drawer of abandon/purgatory.

  8. Not a wheel but the mouse itself. Etch-a-sketch style.

    I’ve got two gyro touch tune flywheels from a hifi that I junked out for this kind of project except I want mouse motion X or Y on each wheel. It would be nice to be able to scroll horizontally on video’s previews whilst staying on the preview line.

    I plan on using 2 optical mice one each on the 2 spindles that dial cord ran around but put a drum of sandpaper on each and run the mice together on 2 ports. One set vertically against the drum and the other at adjusted right angle.

    I have a USB ball mouse but the textured surface and optical mice should be easier than messing with fussy chopper discs and IR.

  9. You should have just taken apart an existing mouse with a scroll wheel and connected the axle to the VHS head, easy. Bing bang boom—send out an invoice.
    I find this whole concept to be very impostor-phobic. Some of the greatest members of the community are imposters, have been secretly faking it for decades and making a lot of money doing so!

    If you’ve ever seriously used the term, you are correct. I can’t stand this kind of sentimental, neurotic, self-obsessed weepiness, it’s disgusting. These people can afford SF or NYC rent working from home, and they spend valuable time worrying themselves that maybe they aren’t as smart as everyone tells them they are. Come on man. Don’t talk like that around non-tech dorks btw, they will instantly clock as irritatingly out of touch and over-privileged.

    1. When I was a n00b, I found that other n00b projects were a great source of inspiration and ideas that a n00b could understand. So to those who consider themselves n00bs, please, keep posting away! And when you get toxic feedback, don’t take it personally. Some people have nothing better to do than sh… on other people’s work.

    2. Your assumption that it only concerns people who have high paying jobs or are even successful in general, career-wise is a big assumption. Not everyone in the tech world is super successful or gets praised a lot. Actually, often it’s very demanding with little reward (nor interest from others).

      There is also a big low-wage sector in tech, just saying…

  10. Yeah the USB stack on a micro controller was a daunting task to program and get it according to spec, if you can find the spec that is, around 2010 with all that pesky NDA and expensive fees to use USB standard.

    Luckily Arduinos come with manufacturer IDs that can be used with some generic HID stuff in it to make the glue logic and code a lot easier. No shame to stand on tall shoulders, it just means you can finish your project sooner without having to have knowledge of every little detail.

    Not knowing what you’re doing but still being curious about a certain subject is just a recipe for learning in my book. Even if you learn little, or that you know ‘it’s not for me’ is a valuable lesson. I learn by making the most basic and the stupidest mistakes until I gain a better understanding. In software engineering, seniors often watch me with great concern as I might bring a system to a grinding halt. But once I get passed that I often out perform them by quite a margin.

  11. I have one of those! Made it around 10+years ago, I wonder where it went…?
    Very nice for serious scrolling but a bit akward since it only has that single role.
    Vhs head + mouse btw, so no stone chiseled. But I did design the case in blender and printed it on my prusa Mendel, which still is my only printer.

    Imposter syndrome is a bitch and all over the place. And it’s a strange experience when you say something like “maybe we could…” And everyone’s all silent. And then they expect you to do it!?
    And then they tell everyone else it was great, and … What? That’s not how social interaction is supposed to work!

  12. The trick to never suffering from imposter syndrome is to realize that the opposite is true.

    It isn’t that you aren’t a real [X].
    It’s that NO ONE IS.

    Putting people on a pedestal is what makes you feel like your accomplishments aren’t worthy of them.

  13. Indeed, Kuhn. I have a bone pile of projects which periodically get dug out and parts used off them. Found a nice micro the other day taken from a broken CO meter.
    Interestingly, I “invented” the method of wiping out PIC code by overwriting with zeros, also due to waiting on a JW series EPROM PIC. Worked out to be 70% of the price of said unit.
    Did find out that recycling capacitors from a certain era ie before 2006 and or after 2014 is a good way to get high quality parts.

  14. Hacking, is about personal growth. There is a first time for everything. Success is never a certainty. We learn and grow, by simply trying, and seeing how it works out. Imagination and in ovation is what humans excel at. Fear of failure is what impedes most from ever trying. It’s never failure, if you learn something in the attempt.

  15. Same here, back in 2009, i started my very first µC project. It was a DMX-Interface für stage lighting. Basicly turn a spotlight on and off.
    I wrote down the source code in one go, hit compile and expected something to fix. But no, compiled fine. But surely there where runtime errors, no way it will work first time …

    Works fine until this day, never had to touch it again. Thats actually a strange feeling. ^^

  16. If you’re on the job, and know there are more qualified people around you, it’s probably not imposter syndrome. You were promoted because of emotional decision making (the only kind of decisions most humans do). Otherwise, carry on :)

    1. took a fair bit of scrolling to get to the 555 post, its good to know we got the right universe. well, i’m here now…
      might not need to build me a vhs scroller flywheel thingo after all.

      .. oh whats this over here..

      heart attack gun you say? no trace

  17. Devil’s advocate …. is it REALLY not your fault if you can’t properly contextualize the situation and abilities and still believe you’re undeserving? I’m not a huge fan of absolving ones self of responsibility, even if it is a fully understandable worry and requires working on ones self. I’d argue that it IS your fault, but it’s understandable.

    Yours, eternal imposter.

  18. VCR’s are getting rare, but they still sell fidget spinners!

    As for the syndrome issue: You can always feel bad about leaving it looking so lousy, and be right about that. I mean come on, on top of an altoids tin? Seems a waste of both the altoids tin and the potential of the project to look much nicer.

    Disclaimer: I suck at enclosures too :/

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