If you’re in tech, you’ve probably heard of impostor syndrome. You’ve also most likely encountered so-called rock stars. But have you ever wondered if one feeds into the other? If the two are related, what can you do to protect yourself and keep a healthy view of your own talents and accomplishments?

Words construct our reality. Suisse linguist Ferdinand de Saussure said, “language constitutes our world, it doesn’t just record it or label it.” This article explains that concept well (be forewarned that the blog is a bit NSFW). The small worlds (or groups) that we all exist in are constructed by words. A group’s agreement on what words mean defines how they will handle events, the topics that can be discussed (or must be excluded), the forms of interaction allowed, and the level of meaning of events.

Since language is how we define our world, lets start by defining some terms.

What is impostor syndrome?

The Harvard Business Review defines impostor syndrome this way:

Impostor syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Impostors‘ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.

What is a rock star?

The definition of a tech rock star was harder to find. The Oxford dictionary has two definitions:

  • A famous and successful singer or performer of rock music.
  • A person treated as a celebrity, especially in inspiring fanatical admiration.

The second definition applies to tech rock stars. I really liked Brian Gracely’s definition of a tech rock star:

  • Most bands aren’t made up of dozens of people on stage; instead it’s just a few. So most people are either roadies or groupies.
  • Rockstars travel. A lot. That’s part of the job. The big money is in being close to the customer. No travel, no rockstar.
  • Not all rockstars make the big money. There are plenty that are only headlining at small venues in 2nd or 3rd-tier cities.
  • Except for a few rare exceptions, Rockstars burn out in a short period of time.
  • Rockstars begin to expect indulgences that lead to unrealistic expectations.

So here’s a simple definition:  a tech rock star is a highly visible, highly skilled person who is treated as a celebrity.

Can rock stars build worlds that foster impostor syndrome?

There has been quite a bit written about the dangers of hiring rock stars into a team. Some people say that naming individuals “rock stars” on a team can demotivate the other members of the team. Others point out that the way rock stars are appointed is in itself problematic. Since people only “know rock stars when they see one”, the decision process can “reinforce and magnify structural oppression” (via Model View Culture).

What happens if the rock stars are leaders in a community? Remember, our worlds are created by words, they help us understand the boundaries of a community, what is real, what is unacceptable. Is it possible that rock stars can use the power of words to ensure they are always seen as the primary source of knowledge and truth?

You’ve probably seen this in action. If a newcomer challenges a technical opinion championed by a rock star, very often the fight plays out very openly, online. When you watch someone renowned for his/her knowledge surgically take another technologist down for disagreeing with their opinion, what impact do those words have on others in the community? Do we need to believe our rock stars are infallible?

Do we have to have rock stars to show us the way in an ever-changing field? Maybe it’s more important to have a community that makes everyone feel like a rock star, that values everyone’s contribution. Using words that make talented people doubt their own expertise may help the rock star retain their notoriety, but it waters down the community.

How do you protect yourself?

To start with, remember our worlds are built from words, and that includes the words that we tell ourselves. Remind yourself that you are enough. Remember that just because someone is a rock star doesn’t mean that individual has the same expertise that you have.

Work out loud. Share your work publicly. The industry is moving too fast, everyone’s voice and expertise is needed. Added bonus: input from others reaffirming your expertise and refining your understanding and skillset.

If our worlds are built on words, we need everyone to contribute to building that world. We have to take care of ourselves, so that we don’t allow rock stars to shape the view we have of our own skills and fall prey to impostor syndrome.