Empathy and the Other Side of Impostor Syndrome

I cannot be sure–I don’t know if there’s any formal diagnostic that a mental health professional can perform to diagnose impostor syndrome (assuming it’s even a recognized mental health concern). So I won’t say that I suffer from impostor syndrome but it’d be hard for me to imagine that I have never felt the effects of it at any point in my life.

I was doing training for the last couple of years. The VP of the Training Team–a phenomenal trainer and a pretty good judge of people–said to me that one thing I could do better as a trainer is to be learner focused. That is, to do more to put myself in the learner’s place and thus figure out how to make it easier for them to learn what I was trying to teach. And he’s quite correct–I do have a hard time understanding things from the perspective of someone else.

This Can’t Be That Hard!?!

One of the causes of impostor syndrome as I understand it is the feeling “it’s just not that hard”. I mean I can recall taking differential calculus and thanks to some excellent instructors it all made sense and it wasn’t that hard to understand. I can recall taking integral calculus and that, likewise, didn’t seem that difficult to understand till we got to a point where they told us to start memorizing tricks to solve certain integrals. That’s where they lost me. But again, due to great instructors, the preliminaries–the idea of a series of polygons under a curve and the sums of the areas of those polygons–well it just seemed obvious.

I’m not saying that it’s not tough. I’m not saying that I’m that smart. What I am saying is that when the material seems obvious in some sense of that word, it’s really tough to understand why it isn’t obvious to everyone. Well, of course, as the width of the polygons under the curve approaches zero the approximation of the area under the curve will become more accurate. Well, duh!

To me this is the other side of impostor syndrome. That inability to understand how the material could be difficult for anyone to learn or master. That feeling of, well, of course thus and so is true–this can’t be that hard, right?!

I’ve had people tell me that they think I’m a good trainer. I have my doubts. Considering that I would ask people about things I’d demonstrated to them just a few weeks before and they’d look at me like I’d grown a third eye, I think I was not a good trainer. I guess time will be the ultimate judge of that. But not being able to empathize with people you’re training because the material just doesn’t seem that difficult to understand doesn’t help the matter.

I’d like to flatter myself and think that I was good at explaining things to my learners. But the truth of the matter is that no matter how I approached the materials I was trying to teach (software development and some very basic CS) it’s tough material to master. If it seems obvious to me that’s because I’ve had years of doing it to make mistakes and internalize the explanations for things.