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CHUCK: Hey everybody and welcome to Episode 107 of the Ruby Rogues podcast. This week on our panel, we have Katrina Owen.
CHUCK: Avdi Grimm.
CHUCK: David Brady. I’m Charles Max Wood from DevChat.tv and I’m going to be impostoring both Josh Susser and James Edward Gray today. We also have a special guest and that is Tim Chevalier. Is it [she-va-lee-ay]?
CHUCK: [Sheva-lee-ay]. It’s French.
TIM: It is.
CHUCK: Looks French-ish, so I said it French-ish, I guess. Anyway, do you want to introduce yourself really quick?
TIM: Sure. My name’s Tim Chevalier. And right now, I’m a Research Engineer at Mozilla. I work on the Rust programming language, but in my copious free time, I blog at geekfeminism.org and on Dreamwidth about the social aspects of tech, especially diversity and intrasectionality. I wrote a long-ish blog post about six months ago about Impostor Syndrome, which is probably why I’m here today.
CHUCK: Awesome. So, we brought you on to talk about Impostor Syndrome. And the very little that I’ve heard about it, I know I’ve experienced it. I know a few others on the show have experienced it, depending on their situation. Can you explain what it is really quickly?
TIM: Sure. Well, I would define it as the feeling that wherever you are, no matter what level of success you’ve achieved, whether in school or in a job or in the open source world as a volunteer or anywhere else, you’re only there because you’ve been faking it and you’ve been convincing people that you’re good at what you’re doing, maybe just by the power of your sheer good looks and charm, or maybe some other way. But deep down, you believe you’re just really not as good as everybody else and they just don’t it yet. Someday soon, they’re going to find out and they’re going to humiliate you in public by showing that you’re just not as good as they thought you were before. It’s all going to come crashing down. So, that fear is Impostor Syndrome. I think it’s something that’s really, really common, especially in the tech world where people really define themselves by their intelligence, which is a big complicated concept in itself. But the more you’re in a community where people define themselves by their cleverness and their intelligence, I think the more people are going to have Impostor Syndrome. With that said, it doesn’t seem to be evenly distributed. The more marginalized groups you’re in, I think the more likely you are to experience it.
DAVID: Interesting, because I feel that a lot, but I got nothing but first-world problems. I am not very marginalized. I’ve got a few axis in which I’m marginalized, but they’re tiny and they’re made up for by my huge privileges. So, that’s an interesting thought.
TIM: Yeah. I think you can be a hetero, cis-abled guy who’s white and who’s middle class and be all of these things and still have Impostor Syndrome. I think it’s because in the tech community, there’s just so much pressure on people to demonstrate their intelligence and there’s so much belief that it’s a meritocracy and there’s all this pressure and it makes people wonder, “Well, what if I’m not really as good as everybody else seems to be?” And so, somebody can have all of the advantages to start with, that you can have, and still experience this because that pressure is so strong. I just think it makes it worse when you also have the world whispering in your ear. For example, “Oh, you’re a woman. Women aren’t very good at programming,” or, “Oh, you’re a person of color. Well, we don’t see any other people of color here.”
AVDI: That’s interesting to me. Because this is the first time that I realized that it is considered to be more of a problem for women or for other minorities in the tech field. I just always thought it was something that, because I’ve experienced it my whole career and I just figured, “Well, either I’m inferior or hopefully, everybody feels this way.” [Chuckles]
DAVID: So, I guess I’ll just go ahead and ask a really dangerous question then. And you can slap me down if it’s wrong. You can educate me kindly, if I’m wrong. Are women and minorities more likely to have Impostor Syndrome or do they just have it worse, or suffer more from it when they have it?
TIM: Well, I can’t really cite studies on that. There probably have been some, but I don’t know about them offhand. So, to really answer the question, you would have to look at evidence or perhaps go to grad school and do some studies on it, if they haven’t been done already.
DAVID: Get a degree in social work, yeah.
TIM: Exactly. But anecdotally, and of course, my friend group is sort of biased as well on that. I know more people in the tech community who are women or who are queer than maybe a lot of people do. But I certainly feel like it’s a lot more common. So, there’s a concept called Stereotype Threat, which is something that’s been studied in sociology. And that refers to when you tell somebody that they’re not expected to be as good at something because they’re a woman or because they’re a person of color, and so on. And you don’t even have to tell them as if you believe it. You can just say, “Well, you know, a lot of people think women aren’t as good at Math. I think they’re wrong, but a lot of people believe this.” And you could put it that way, and studies have shown that just saying that will decrease people’s performance if they’re in that group that you’re talking about and you’d ask them to do a task right after that. I think that’s really closely related to Impostor Syndrome because this thing about Impostor Syndrome is it often can be a self-fulfilling prophecy where just that belief actually makes you do worse. If you just hadn’t had that belief, you could’ve done fine. So, my basic answer to your question is, I don’t know, but just anecdotally, it certainly seems true.
DAVID: That is an interesting take on it. If you say girls aren’t good at Math, that is a subtle way of saying, “You don’t belong here. You don’t belong in this group.”
TIM: Yeah, absolutely.
DAVID: And that’s the heart of Impostor Syndrome, is when you start playing that tape in your head and say, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong in this group.”
TIM: Right. When you internalize it and you’re not even necessarily thinking to yourself consciously. If you’re a woman and you’re thinking this, you’re not necessarily thinking, “Oh, I think girls can’t do Math,” because if you thought about it, explicitly, consciously, you would say to yourself, “Oh, well, I don’t think that’s true. I know lots of women who can do Math.” But the danger comes when you’ve internalized it so deeply you don’t even realize that part of you is playing that tape. It’s sort of like a subliminal message, one of those records.
AVDI: Yeah. There’s a lot of research that says that you can just basically expose somebody to a message like that and immediately test them afterwards and they’ll do worse.
CHUCK: Well, we’re talking about stereotypical marginalized groups. But the other thing that I’ve seen is that a lot of folks who may not be in these marginalized groups, okay, so I’m talking about myself. But I have this tendency to keep score, so I go and work with guys that have been programming for longer than I’ve been, out of elementary school, or longer than I’ve been alive. So, I feel like I don’t measure up with them. Or I’ve also been in situations, for example, I started this podcast and I had guys like Aaron Patterson and James Edward Gray on the show. And it didn’t hurt that we then got Avdi and Josh, who I also admire greatly for what they’ve been able to do programming-wise. So, you start to downplay what you are capable of because you see that these other people have done a lot more. It happens. And you keep score on stupid things like how long they’ve been doing it, or things like that. Really, what it boils down to is it doesn’t matter what they can contribute, it matters what you can contribute.
TIM: Right. And I think that’s really true. And I think it’s very common in everybody to just, especially if you tend to just work with really capable, motivated people, to really compare yourself to the people around you and say, “Well, I’m not as good as so and so. He’s been programming since he was five and how will I ever catch up,” even if you’re actually older. I think one thing that can make it harder, if you are also in an obvious way not like those other people, is if you’re a straight cis white guy and you’re working with other straight cis white guys, you can say, “Well, that guy is not as good as me. Maybe he’s been programming longer,” there’s a lot of stuff to compare yourself to. But supposing you’re also a woman and you’re looking at all these people around you who seem to be total geniuses and they’re also all men. So, there’s that added factor of, “Wait a second. I’m also a woman and I don’t see any women who are like these people that I’m looking up to. So, maybe I’ll just never be able to be like them because that’s just not a level that women rise to.” And again, it’s not like you’re thinking this thought process explicitly because if you were, you’d probably be able to talk balk to it. It’s that this process in your brain just takes place so fast that you don’t see it coming.
CHUCK: Yeah. And that women or minorities think that in any way, it kind of terrifies me, to be honest. And I’m really hoping that we can help them identify that and figure out how to get past it. In fact, let’s talk a little bit about that. How do you identify that you or someone on your team might have Impostor Syndrome?
TIM: That’s a great question. I know that on teams that I’ve been on, self-deprecating humor is really common. And I think that can be a good thing because humor is a good thing. It’s a way for people to bond with each other. If you’re putting yourself down, you’re definitely not putting down other people for being in a marginalized group. It’s sort of a safer form of humor. But at the same time, if somebody does it a lot, it could be a sign of Impostor Syndrome, maybe. I think another thing is, at least in my experience, at times when I was less aware of having Impostor Syndrome and when it was having more of an effect on me, I would deal with it by withdrawing, because if I wasn’t asking questions, if I wasn’t admitting the need for help, then nobody could find out what a loser I really was. Nobody would know that I really didn’t know anything. So, I think if somebody seems to be not too outgoing, not asking too many questions, it’s easy for other people to just think, “Oh, that person isn’t asking questions because they don’t need any help. They must already know everything.” But of course, in thinking that, you’re setting the person up for the moment they fear, when it eventually gets to be revealed that they’ve been not able to make progress because they needed to ask something and they weren’t able to. So, I think just trying to, especially if someone’s new, trying to actually be proactive and seeing if they need help, instead of just assuming if they need help they’ll come to you, I think that can be really helpful. It doesn’t have to be about profiling somebody because you think they’re in this group that may be more vulnerable to it. It can be something that you can do for everybody. And the worst case, you say, “Hey, do you need whatever?” And they say, “Oh no, I’m doing whatever else.” And then, you find out what they’re doing. This could be at work or in an open source project, either way. I know nerds, at least stereotypically, don’t like to initiate communication. Stereotypically, at least, we’d rather be interacting with the computer than with another person. But everybody needs help sometimes. And so, if there’s a norm of people taking the risk and initiating it with each other, I think that ends up being a lot more satisfying for most people than a community that consists of a bunch of people just sitting alone at the computer, whether that’s in an office or on a volunteer project.
KATRINA: I think one of the really scary things about Impostor Syndrome is it feels so real. I feel, when I’m feeling it very strongly, it’s my reality. My reality is that I don’t belong there and at any moment, my whole life can come crashing down because if people discover that I don’t belong there. And there’s no help in people saying, “Well, you’re a good programmer. You’re smart,” or “You’re doing fine,” or “You’re delivering plenty of value.” It’s like, “Ugh, well no. I’m not. But you just don’t see it yet.”
TIM: Right. It’s one of those un-falsifiable beliefs because like Katrina said, no matter how much somebody else reassures you that it’s just this thing inside you that believes, yeah, they may be saying that now. But once they really know, they’re not going to believe that anymore. Or the other thing you might think to yourself is, “Maybe the other person isn’t insightful enough themselves to know what a fraud you are. But other people are going to find out eventually.”
DAVID: Yeah. This is a little bit personal. But for the first year or two of my marriage, if you’ve ever met me and my wife, you know that she’s just a wonderful person and she’s a saint. We’ve been married for 16 years, God bless her. And she hasn’t taken a knife to me while I sleep.
DAVID: And Lord knows I deserve it. For the first two years or so of our marriage, I slowly became aware of the fact that she didn’t really feel like she deserved to have a happy marriage. And she felt like I had convinced her that I was in love with her, but she had turned that into a story of I had a specific form of brain damage.
DAVID: And that’s why I loved her. And I can still remember the day that we were talking about my family and I was telling her how much they loved her. And I realized that she was extending the brain damage metaphor image onto my entire family. And I’m like, “You don’t get this, do you? We don’t just love you. We actually like you.” And it was like the lights came on and suddenly this new voice in her head started saying, “I am worthy of love.” And I’m tearing up just thinking about this because this was such a huge moment for us as a family. And I wonder if Impostor Syndrome sometimes is like that, where you have this moment where you realize. I’ll also draw from autobiography. But when I was really, really deeply into Perl, I was desperate to master it and prove that I could master it. And other programmers would come ask me questions, “How do I do this in Perl? How do I do this in Perl? How do I do this in Perl?” And I realized one day that I had been bothered three times a day for a month straight with Perl questions by the other people on the team because it was a new tool. And I realized I knew the answer to every single question I had been asked without having to look it up in The Perl Cookbook. Maybe I am a little bit good at this programming language. But it took a lot more evidence than a rational person would have needed.
TIM: Well, nobody is rational, right?
DAVID: Haha! Yes!
TIM: I think a lot of us kind of aspire to be or think we are, but I think the more somebody thinks they’re rational, the more they’re not. And yeah, I think this is a really personal topic. And I think your story about your wife is a really good one here. For me, I grew up. I was a homeschooled kid and I had a parent who, let’s say, I knew early on that what she said wasn’t always in touch with reality. So she told me both that she loved me and that I was smart, but I knew somehow, even when I was really young, that when she said both of these things, it didn’t necessarily mean what everybody else meant because she had her own reality. And in particular, she really, for her own identity, she really needed to believe that I was smart which is not entirely a healthy thing for a parent to relate to kids. So because I came from that place, it was hard for me to believe later on, either if someone said that they loved me or that I was smart because early on, I’d really never had validation of either of those things from somebody that I trusted. So, I think there are more people, maybe, than we think who’ve had that kind of experience early on. And I think we should never assume that somebody else had a very ideal, secure, 50’s TV show kind of childhood. We shouldn’t assume the opposite either. But I think that it’s a good idea to remember that different people carry all kinds of traumatic past experiences and to just not assume that somebody had this strong foundation early on that we all wish we could have had. And just kind of be prepared to compensate for that. And sometimes, it can mean, like in your story with your wife, saying explicitly to somebody that you value them. And in more of a professional context, I think what that ideally would look like is not just saying to somebody, “You’re smart. You’re good,” these broad things that people see are big and could easily be said for insincere reasons. But I think being specific is really good. So saying, “Oh, that was some great detective work you did on isolating that bug. That is really unique and not everybody would have been able to find that,” just specific praise rather than vague praise because it’s not hard usually to think a little harder and come up with something more specific to say. And I think then it’s more believable. But of course, like you said, it’s not just like someone’s going to have this epiphany moment from one positive comment from somebody else. It takes a lot of reinforcements. But I think you can be part of that and you can mean more than you realize to other people.
KATRINA: One of the things that I discovered, kind of by accident, was that when I found worth within myself, when I realized my own worth in something, it meant a lot more to me than when other people said something nice about me. And one of the few tactics that I’ve taken in order to try to handle the Impostor Syndrome is to do something because it’s interesting to me, not because I’m trying to prove something. And so, what I ended up doing for a very long time was I would just refactor code because it’s something that was interesting to me. And I wasn’t trying to prove that I’m smart. I wasn’t trying to make the code better for someone else, or even for any business value. But this process of just doing that over and over and taking pleasure and learning things from that made me feel a lot more stable, kind of mentally but also professionally. And then when I started sharing the experience of what I had learned and what I had observed, a lot of other people started finding that interesting. But I didn’t do it out of some idea that other people would find it interesting or be impressed with it. And that had a huge impact on how the degree of Impostor Syndrome that I felt, especially while doing that experiment.
DAVID: So, I have an interesting question to ask those of us that have a strong heritage of Impostor Syndrome. I assume most of us have seen this article of don’t tell your kids they’re smart. I wonder how many of us were told we were smart as kids. Have we talked about that on the show enough that we can skim over that or do I need to sum that up? Or does somebody else want to sum that up?
CHUCK: I know it’s come up before.
DAVID: The short version is if you take a bunch of kids and split the class in half and give them a puzzle, third-graders I think was what they did, and then it’s a really easy puzzle. They all get it right. And then, you tell half the kids, “Good job! You’re really smart.” And then, you tell the other half of the kids, “God job! You worked really hard on this,” they take away from this a belief. The first group values appearing smart to other people and the second group takes away appearing to work hard to other people. And so, you come back later and you give them a much harder puzzle, maybe even one that doesn’t even have a solution. And you give the kids a choice between the easy puzzle and the hard puzzle. And the ones you told that were smart will choose the easy puzzle because they want to look smart. They want to produce a solved puzzle as quickly and easily as possible. And the ones that you told worked hard will pick the hard puzzle because they want to get to a state of working hard at things. And by the time these kids are in fifth-grade, they’re vastly outperforming their “smart” peers because they are driven and motivated to work. And I think Katrina really touched on that really well. Find something you love and dive into it without it having a social aspect of I’m doing this to get this gain, or this goal, or this reward.
TIM: Yeah. I read about that study not long ago and I found it really profound because I feel like my experience was this extra-concentrated version of that. Because growing up in my life, I just had my mom. I didn’t have teachers. I didn’t have a lot of adults, or even really, a lot of other kids. So there was really just this one person who was the source of validation. And she told me I was smart all the time. And she told other people that when I was within earshot. And so I, despite not really trusting her, a part of me had nothing else to go on. So, I kind of internalized that. Long before I even knew what was happening, I internalized this need to come off as smart. And for a while, that did work for me. For example, when I got to college and I learned programming, it was easy for me at first, especially compared to the other people in my class. So, that was feeding into this habit that I had. I kept believing I was smart because I was doing better than the other people and this was easy. But the first time I did something that was harder for me, which was the third computer science class I took, which was the Algorithms class where we were doing more mathematical, more on paper analysis of algorithms and not just programming on the computer. So, that was hard for me. I was 15 and I just lost it a little bit because it was terrifying. I didn’t have the reaction that someone else might have had of, “Oh well, on this subject, I just need to put more thought into it and ask for help more and think about I more slowly.” I just thought, “Okay, this proves that all of that other evidence is like nothing now. It doesn’t matter anymore. And this one class has proven that I’m not smart.” And the same thing happened, but larger, when I went to grad school. So, if I ever have kids, I’m not going to tell them that they’re smart. I’ll congratulate them for whatever it is they do and try to teach them that they have inherent worth, however you do that. But I won’t say that they’re smart. And I think even as adults, as programmers, as tech people, if you think about it, how often do you hear somebody talking about someone and saying, “He’s so smart,” or, “She’s so smart.” I hear that all the time. But maybe it’s not really what you like about that person. It’s an interesting exercise. If you feel the need to praise somebody else, even when they’re not there and you want to say they’re so smart, well maybe think about what else could you say about them?
CHUCK: I want to add something to this, because my growing up experience, my mom was always telling me I was really smart. But she was also telling me, and I don’t think she intended this, but I got picked on quite a bit in school. I grew up with a name like Chuck Wood. Kids are mean and that’s life. My mom basically told me whenever I’d come home complaining about the other kids at school, that they were jealous of me because I was smarter than them. And that that’s why I was being picked on. So, I not only got the, “You’re smart” reinforcement, but then I got the “And it’s causing you problems” reinforcement. So, I didn’t really know which way to go with it, because I wanted to be smart and I identified with being smart, but then I wanted to be accepted too. And being accepted and being smart were mutually exclusive.
TIM: That was true for me as well. I had not as much interaction with other kids, but I did sometimes. And my mom would always tell me, “Well, they just don’t like you because you’re smart.” So, I did kind of believe that for whatever reason, so I guess I internalized that whenever I didn’t get along with other people, or whenever other people criticized me, it must be because of that. And as you can imagine, that didn’t necessarily lead me towards being able to take criticism well when I was older. So yeah, that can be really another pitfall. Thinking that any interaction with someone that doesn’t go well is a threat to your self-image, in my experience, that is not a recipe for good relationships.
CHUCK: Yeah. And I’m very much that way. And I have to fight that part of my nature.
DAVID: I wonder if one of the first coping strategies you have to adapt if you’re going to go down this route of developing Impostor Syndrome is first get this mental image of yourself that’s incorrect. And then, when you meet the inevitable feedback from reality, you have to develop a persecution complex. I certainly did. This is like a “Dr. Phil of Ruby” show, today, isn’t it?
CHUCK: I guess we need to add the disclaimer, “We are not psychologists.”
TIM: Right. We don’t even play one on TV.
CHUCK: Yes. This is not intended as any kind of advice.
DAVID: This is not intended to diagnose, treat any disorder.
DAVID: The FDA has not approved these comments. No, but that’s really, really interesting.
CHUCK: Yeah. Anyway, it’s really kind of a funny thing. I want to talk a little bit about what we can do to help ourselves and then I’d also like to talk about what we can do to help other people.
DAVID: Yeah, how do we fix these guys?
DAVID: You just call them out on a team meeting and say, “You!”
CHUCK: So, one thing that I’ve done that really helps, there are three things that have really helped me with some of this stuff. One is that whenever I complete something, I have to recognize it. And so, I just look at it and I say, “That gave value.” And if somebody else gives me a pat on the back, I realize that I gave them value. So, I don’t have to measure up with anyone else, but as long as I’m getting the feedback, “Hey, this has value,” then that’s something that I do. Another one is, I don’t know exactly how to say it because I hate bringing up religion on this show, because it’s not really on topic. But a lot of the things that I do as far as prayer and reading scriptures and participating in Church activities, and there are equivalents for most belief systems for this. But going and doing that and deriving some self-worth just out of the fact that I have a conviction that God exists and that He loves me and that those things exist and there are reasons why I have value outside of the fact that I’m good at something, is something that helps. Those are two things that come to mind right away, that have really helped.
TIM: Yeah, for me personally, actually, I would agree with the religion part. And I’m saying this as someone who identified as an atheist for most of my life, but I was going to Quaker meetings pretty regularly for a while. I don’t exactly want to say I’m a Quaker because then I’d feel like I was an impostor Quaker. But in any case, doing that really gave me this, well I wouldn’t say it gave me, it strengthened anyway the feeling that I had of having worth and having value that was not about my accomplishments or how much value I could create for capitalism, or anything external. It just strengthened my feeling that I had inherent value. And it’s kind of hard to explain. It sounds kind of fuzzy and woowoo. But for me anyway, that was really helpful. And in a way that had nothing to do with doctrine or specific beliefs, but just this sense of there being more meaning in life than just what you do. So for me, that was helpful. It wouldn’t be helpful to everybody. Another thing that’s helped for me is learning to acknowledge being wrong, learning to acknowledge having made mistakes and not knowing things. I try to practice doing those things as often as I can. And I get plenty of chances. And like most people, I’m wrong all the time. I wouldn’t say I’m perfect at that but part of what fed my Impostor Syndrome before was never admitting I was wrong and never admitting mistakes because any of that would have been adding more evidence that I wasn’t perfect. But the more I can do those things and the more I can see that the world doesn’t explode when I do it and that people still like me and maybe in some cases people even like me better, that’s helped a lot. And the third thing that just came to mind right away was trying to put work out there early and get feedback at it early. I do lists with my blog posts. I’ll send them to a small group of people first for comments when I feel like they’re in a very, very early draft. And I have to fight my impulse to work on them more and work on them more so that I never even get them out there. And just try to send something as early as possible. And then, I can see that I can receive criticism about them but also that seeing that early work is not going to make people think less of me. And that’s been really helpful, too. It’s kind of hard to say, in retrospect, what’s helped me get to where I am because so much of it is just this experience that I can’t put into words. But those are the specific things that come to mind.
KATRINA: One of the things that have helped me a lot is working really hard at something difficult and making progress on it. It’s just that feeling of it’s really, really hard and somehow, I am progressing. Not measuring myself against someone else’s coordinate system, but more of a polar coordinates where I’m the center of the universe and I’m just measuring compared to myself.
DAVID: Well everyone, this is a dirty secret of the universe, is that everyone is the center of their universe, right?
DAVID: One of the best advice I ever received back in my college days was somebody grizzled, white hair, and I’m like, “Do you have any life advice, Don?” And Don put his arm around my shoulders and he says, “Son, figure out what corner of the universe you can wrestle to the ground. And then, go wrestle it to the ground.” And yeah, that’s brilliant advice, Katrina, something that you measure up yourself. and then I found out after getting that advice that I was really bad at finding out what corner of the universe I had any hope of wrestling to the ground.
DAVID: But back to Chuck’s comment and Tim’s, for those of us that are less gnostic or less deistic, I guess, or theistic in their belief systems, I think any system that gives you unconditional love and gives you access to that. In nonreligious context, in Buddhism, acceptance is what they call it. Just accept that the universe is. Accept that you are. And if you’re a complete atheist and follow no religious tradition, then what Brené Brown in her vulnerability book, she says just say to yourself, “I’m enough.” I think if you can get that message into your head and rehearse it and play that tape over and over, I think that can be very, very helpful.
CHUCK: So, I’ve been listening to a lot of business shows lately, podcasts, especially on Mixergy, they’ve been talking to these sales guys and some of these guys really buy into affirmations. So you basically write your affirmations on the mirror, you look in the mirror, you speak them aloud. Have you guys found that that helps?
KATRINA: Absolutely not.
DAVID: Because every time you say, “Every day in every way I am getting better and better,” this little voice in the back of my head says, “Bullshit!”
TIM: No I’m not, yeah. I feel like that wouldn’t help for me either. I read a study recently that said that actually, people who did affirmations were less likely to achieve their goal because if someone was spending time saying, I don’t know, saying to themselves, “I’m a good programmer,” they would lose the need to actually become a good programmer and they wouldn’t work on it, just taking that as an example. And it seems believable to me. It’s not about saying, “I’m good enough the way I am,” because hopefully, everyone should believe that. But if you say, “I’m good enough at doing X,” then you stop needing to spend your time working on X.
DAVID: Yeah. I’ve read a similar study that the Impostor Syndrome is so strong that it comes down to ‘am I smart’ or ‘do I work hard’. If you try to feed yourself ‘I am smart’, ‘I’m a beautiful person’, ‘I’m a good programmer’, your brain will start supplying evidence to prove this claim false. I have found a set of affirmations that do work and they have to do with identity where you basically say, “I am the kind of person who never gives up on this kind of problem.” And your brain says, “Yeah. What about this time you gave up and what about this time came up.” But then at 7:00 at night, when you want to go home because it’s a Friday and there is a bug in the code, that’s when that little voice says, “You know what? I am the kind of person who would stay and bulldog this.” And you then produce results, which produces evidence that you can then reinforce yourself with. So, affirmations usually don’t work the way they’re intended. But I think if you focus on identity and give yourself programming for motivation, rather than programming for lying to yourself, yeah, maybe.
TIM: Yeah. Actually, that reminds me of another study that I read. It was about, I think, physics students. And they did two experiments. These were college students entering a class and they gave them a quiz to determine how prepared they were. And they found that on the average, the women students didn’t do as well as the men. But then, they did a second experiment where they ask the women students to spend maybe five minutes doing this little writing exercise, not a long essay or anything, about their core beliefs and their values and what they believed made them who they were. And if they spend five minutes doing that, the gender gap went away. The women did just as well as the men. And I think that shows that just spending some time thinking about your beliefs, your values, what makes you who you are, can be self-motivating because then you actually want to go and live up to those things. And what I thought of listening to that last bit, it might sound like out of left field, but I found that writing a dating profile can sort of have the purpose of that exercise, because it’s not necessarily very effective in finding dates, but when I’ve worked on my OKCupid profile, it encourages me to think about, “How would I actually describe myself to somebody who didn’t know me? What are really my strengths?” And not just professionally, but all kinds of strength, everything. I thought of things about myself that I wouldn’t have thought about, I guess, any other way. Like one thing about me that I think that persists is that I’m always curious and I’m always interested in learning. I get depressed a lot, but even when I am, I still want to learn new things. So, that was something that occurred to me when I was doing that exercise. And so, I found that writing a dating profile is less useful for dating than it is for just figuring out how you want to present yourself.
CHUCK: That’s really interesting. Back when you said that people were less likely to achieve their goals if they were saying affirmations in the mirror, I thought you were going to say that they don’t do it because they spend all their time talking to themselves in the mirror. [Laughter]
DAVID: Who’s the pretty boy? Who’s the pretty boy?
TIM: Well, it’s not really a problem until the mirror starts talking back.
TIM: Then, you might want to examine things a little bit more.
CHUCK: So, we’ve talked a bit about how we get over Impostor Syndrome. And the only other thing that came to mind while you guys were talking was that I’ve had to get to the point where I tell people ‘no’, and that’s really hard for me because I don’t want people to hate me. Getting there and just being able to tell people ‘no’ is another thing. Just being able to prioritize things and decide what’s important to me and then do it. Anyway, let’s switch over and talk about helping other people. So, if we kind of identified that somebody has Impostor Syndrome or doesn’t give themselves enough credit, telling them that they’re smart enough or good enough or whatever doesn’t seem to help. We’ve kind of established that. So, what can you do?
AVDI: Can I make a suggestion?
AVDI: Ask them to help you with something.
CHUCK: I love having Avdi on the show.
DAVID: I wish Avdi wouldn’t talk so much during the show. And when he does talk, he goes on and on.
DAVID: Could you maybe elaborate?
AVDI: How do you even elaborate on that? Ask them to help you with something, you know? It’s pretty self-explanatory.
CHUCK: Okay. But then, how do you make it evident that they’re actually helping, that they’re making a contribution and that it’s not just because they’re sitting next to you, pair-programming on whatever you’re working on, for example.
KATRINA: It’s inherently apparent. You needed help and they helped you.
AVDI: And they’re the one you went to.
CHUCK: And then, you make sure you let them know that it made a huge difference?
AVDI: Yeah. That’s good, too. I think if I were them, just knowing that somebody asked me to help, but also just knowing that I helped. I don’t necessarily need them. It’s always nice to hear, “That was super helpful.” It’s super nice to hear that. But I can just think back to the fact that they had that question or they were staring dumbly at their screen and I pointed out the mistake that they’d made or the thing they were missing. Holy crap! I do know what I’m talking about.
DAVID: I can remember the flipside of it, of telling people, I can remember the first time I was in standup meeting and one of the senior programmers said, “I was working on this problem and I got stuck and Dave came over and helped me and we knocked it out. And so, Dave was really indispensable in this.” And I could have floated away. I felt so great, being recognized in front of the team, by one of the authorities on the team. And in retrospect, I realized that was part of his personality that he was very, very good at dishing out praise about people in front of other people. And I’ve tried to adopt that habit as a team thing. When I’m in standup, I try to recognize who helped me and how did I get where I was. And I don’t know if it works, but it certainly worked for me.
AVDI: People that do that are the best. It’s such a wonderful, wonderful skill to have. It’s one when people put your ego aside and just say, “So and so helped me out so much. I wouldn’t have gotten through the problem without them.” It’s wonderful.
TIM: There’s something Simon Peyton Jones said, which is that credit is not a limited resource. It’s not scarce. You can always give people credit and there will always be more credit to give. You don’t have to worry about if this is something small, you could still give someone credit for it. And I think it’s always helpful.
CHUCK: That’s so interesting because if two people co-write a book, you don’t give each of them half the esteem you would have given somebody who wrote the entire book. They’re both authors, right?
CHUCK: Are there any other things? Maybe somebody in another department or something?
TIM: Thinking about the last couple of comments, something worth saying explicitly, at least to me, is that Impostor Syndrome is a lot about isolation because when you’re isolated, you get lost in these cognitive distortions where you’re not sure where you stand with other people. And when you’re more connected to other people, I think it’s easier to not get lost in those internal cognitive distortions because you have external confirmations. So, if you’re in a group and you see someone who’s more isolated, you might assume that they don’t want to be involved, that they prefer to do things on their own. And some people do prefer that, but they might also just be waiting to be invited in. And some people need a stronger invitation than others. So, it can be like if you’re at work and there is someone having lunch alone, maybe ask them if they want to join you. A little thing like that can make them feel like they’re more part of the group and that can lead to the kinds of interactions like the rest of you were just talking about. So, I think actively trying to include people is really important for potentially fighting Impostor Syndrome and others.
KATRINA: One more thing. I think that some people might have the idea that Impostor Syndrome is something that you have strongly and then you fight it and it goes away. And that hasn’t been my experience. My experience is that the intensity of the Impostor Syndrome varies greatly from moment to moment and day to day. And even though I’ve found strategies that do help fight it, I guess, there are moments when it just takes over my life again, for a little while.
TIM: Yeah. I totally agree with that, too. There’s this narrative that’s really dominant that if you have any kind of mental or physical illness, it’s something that you conquer, that you triumph over, you get over it and then it’s over, you’re cured. And in my experience, it’s not like that. I also have depression. I have for most of my life. And I really wanted to believe that narrative that at some point, you get over it, but I’ve realized it’s more like a disability. You live with it. You make accommodations for yourself. You help other people make accommodations for you. And with Impostor Syndrome, I agree with Katrina in that it doesn’t go away, but I think you can get better at becoming more consciously aware of when it’s happening and talking back to it. There’s something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that’s based on this idea of talking back to a thought or feeling and you can do it with a therapist or you can do it on your own. But the key insight is just because you feel a certain way, it doesn’t mean you have to form a particular thought about it. You can learn to notice your thoughts and start forming different thoughts even though you can’t control what you feel.
DAVID: There was a, boy, this is a really autobiographical episode for me, but I had a manager who was brilliant at managing Impostor Syndrome, I guess, in retrospect. We had some big meeting that I had to present it and I was freaking out. And I was freaking out at people, like loudly projectile freaking. And the first time I freaked out at him, he’s like, “Calm down. It’ll be fine.” And when you tell somebody to toughen up, you’re negating their experience. You’re saying don’t be you, be me. And so, the second time I freaked out at him, he was like, “You’ll be fine. Everything will be fine.” The third time I freaked out at him, he said, “Okay.” I’m like, “What?” He says, “Look, you’re going to get through this and you’re going to be fine. And however you need to do, if you need to freak out in order to get through this, go for it. Freak out all you want.” And it ended the freak out, like instantly.
DAVID: I suddenly realized, is freaking out helping me at all? No. And the secret to it was, he had led with, “You’re going to get through this just fine either way. And if you want to freak out about it, go for it.” And so, I wonder sometimes, if you find somebody who’s doing Impostor Syndrome, if you can just look at him and say, “You’re going to do fine at this. If you want to freak out, if you want to feel like an impostor, go for it.” There’s a subtle neurolinguistic programming hack in that phrase. There’s a brain hack in there. You’re insinuating that they are choosing this. And it’s not so much that you’re accusing them of the choice so much as you are hinting that they have a choice. And if you combine that with, “You are enough,” I wonder if that’s a good one-two punch. I’m not saying it’s going to work in all the cases. And again, it’s certainly not a cure. It’s just a coping technique that worked for me in that one particular instance. But that was a real surprise to me.
KATRINA: The “you’re choosing” thing tends to piss me off something fierce.
DAVID: Well, yeah. The accusation of, “Why do you choose to do this to yourself?” Yeah. The way he said it was, “That’s okay. If you need to do that, go for it.” And in that particular time and place, it was not, “Why do you keep impostoring yourself?” It wasn’t like, “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” It was more like, “Hey, if you need to do that, great. What can I do to support you?”
AVDI: I want to build on that a little bit. When I got started programming professionally, I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I was 18 and I was in a great big defense contractor company. And I was a kid, I had long hair, and I was surrounded by people in suits and business casual who had mastered, as far as I can tell, had mastered the art of being grownups. They wore the right clothes, and they knew all the right words. I spent years there and I felt like I never figured out half the stuff they were talking about. They knew all these acronyms. The number of acronyms in that environment is just unbelievable. And they were always talking about deliverables and shelves and different types of contracts and I don’t even remember most of the terms that they would use back then. But it was a whole another language. And that was an environment where it was easy to feel like an impostor, because I didn’t even speak the language. I had no idea. Half the time, I was just nodding my head along with what they were saying and not really being sure what they were saying. Yet clearly, everybody else understood what was going on. But the weird thing was, I would have these annual performance reviews and they’d tell me I was doing great. They’d tell me I was doing above my pay grade, they just couldn’t promote me because I didn’t have a degree. [Laughter]
AVDI: And that would piss off people who did have degrees. Still, I would go back to feeling like an impostor, feeling like they had gotten a course, not just in being like business professionals, but in being grownups, that I had never gotten. And here’s my perspective on that, from where I’m sitting today. I believe we’re all impostors, every single one of us. I think we look around and we think that other people got the special course when we were out sick or something, on how to be a grownup, on how to be a professional. And the truth is, we all are kids putting on grownup clothes and playing games. I believe that very strongly about just life in general. And we’re all figuring it out as we go along. And sometimes, we realize that, wow, other people had figured out a part of the game long before we did. I figured out at some point in my career that I had been buying my pants with the hemline a couple of inches too high and was showing my socks. And I suddenly got incredibly embarrassed about that. I was doing that for years, completely oblivious, nerd. Just stupid little things like that. But I think that we’re all impostors. We’re all play-acting. We’re all kids playing these games. And the thing that you fundamentally have to realize about that is that they are games. All these protocols that we have, whether they’re how we act, how we talk, what we wear, they are games that we play. And we figure out the rules as we go along. But in the end, they’re games. They’re not like a pass/fail at life.
KATRINA: I’d like to build on that, for a moment. Realizing or accepting that they’re games makes it a lot easier to try to hack them, which actually means you’re doing them better.
CHUCK: Well, the other thing, too, is that I think we tend to, when we look at other people, we definitely only see the parts that they are willing to show us, most of the time. And everybody puts their best face on. And that’s part of the game, which we’re talking about here. So ,it’s way easy to say, “Well, these neighbors obviously have it all together. They have a great marriage. Their kids are perfect.” They’re whatever it is that you wish that you had that they apparently have in their life. And then every once in a while, you get reminded that nobody’s life’s perfect and that they’re winging it just like you are.
AVDI: Yeah. Somebody has to sleep on your couch for a while because things aren’t so great at home. And for a long time, I believed that everybody else’s house was immaculate. Until one day, it occurred to me that those people were spending a day cleaning before they had guests over.
CHUCK: Oh, my wife does that. I didn’t tell you that.
DAVID: It’s okay. There’s nobody here but us four.
CHUCK: But yeah, it’s so true. And that’s her manifestation of her Impostor Syndrome. She feels like she has to have everything perfectly the way that her mom did things or that people expect her to be. I think that’s really profound. And I think there’s a lot there that we can take away from it. I also think we’re toward the end of our time. So, is there anything else that we need to discuss on Impostor Syndrome? Other than just encourage people to take a hard look and figure out how to make things better?
TIM: I guess I wanted to just add to the list of what to do about it. In the [inaudible] is about maybe just acknowledging it and accepting it can be useful. I often think just naming it as Impostor Syndrome can be useful in and of itself. You can say to yourself, or maybe if you could encourage someone else to say, “I’m experiencing some Impostor Syndrome right now. Ha!” And maybe just naming it can mean that what otherwise would have been this moment of self-sabotaging could because neutralized a little just because you acknowledged to yourself that that’s what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be some heavy-duty process of telling yourself that you’re not going to think this way. It can just be like, “Ha. Okay. I’m having this reaction. Maybe it’s because blah,” and then you realize why it’s happening and you realize it doesn’t mean you have to do anything differently. You can just keep going.
KATRINA: One last thing that I think might be helpful sometimes, maybe not all the time, is to realize the most ridiculous situations with Impostor Syndrome and tell them as a joke to other people. As in, this really happened. I got this job and I had a three-month trial period. And every single day of that trial period, I expected someone to take me aside and say, “You know what? We really like you, but this isn’t working out. You’re not smart enough.” And then, on the 90-day mark, I actually went and told them, “It’s the last day.” Like, if you want to do this, you have to do it now.
KATRINA: And in retrospect, I think it’s hilarious that I so seriously thought that they weren’t going to keep me on. And I felt this obligation of letting them know so that I didn’t have this permanent contract that they couldn’t get out of easily. And it’s ridiculous. But it’s also a good joke.
DAVID: Yeah. It’s very real in the time, but crisis + time = humor, right?
CHUCK: Yeah. The flipside though is that if you don’t recognize Impostor Syndrome, you may wind up doing or not doing things out of fear and ruining your chance at something good. And so, almost every time that you experience it, it’s probably unfounded. But at the same time, be aware because the only person that Impostor Syndrome is going to hurt is you. And you need to be aware of it so that you don’t let it get in the way of your ultimate success. Because that’s what this show’s about. Heck. It’s about succeeding in whatever you’re doing and we talk about some of the tools of the trade in Ruby and stuff, and we talk about some of the other things that are involved like communicating and Impostor Syndrome. But go out and succeed and don’t let this get in your way.
DAVID: Go out and try. Go out and work hard.
CHUCK: Prove it wrong.
DAVID: The success will follow. Or lessons will follow. But go out and try.
CHUCK: And if you recognize that you have Impostor Syndrome, seriously, go out and prove yourself wrong.
DAVID: There’s a quote that I read last week that has really, really helped me with a little bit. We’ve all heard that quote about, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” And that honestly hasn’t been a very particularly useful quote for me. And the revision of it that I heard recently was, “What would be worth doing even if I did fail?” I love that because that has made me, I am saddling up the horse and I’m lining up against some windmills now. Even if I fail tilting at this windmill, it’s going to be worth it. Now, all of a sudden, it’s about the process and about playing and about having fun. And it’s about working hard rather than guaranteeing success and getting credit and winning and all that stuff.
KATRINA: One of the hilarious versions of that that I heard a few years ago was, “What would you do if you knew that you would never ever gain or lose any weight ever again?”
DAVID: I’ll be right back. There’s a wonderful little ice cream shack down the street.
CHUCK: I’ll meet you there, Dave.
TIM: One more lesson that along those lines, something I learned from my therapist is to see whatever you do as an experiment. And if I decide to move to San Jose and I see that as an experiment, it’s like “Well, if I don’t like it, I learn that I don’t want to live in San Jose. If I do like it, I learn that I want to live in San Jose.” Either way, I’ve gained some knowledge and there was something positive about that. So, if you see things as experiments, then I think it’s easier to not worry about, “Am I going to fail at this or am I going to succeed?”
KATRINA: That is so crucial.
DAVID: It takes the catastrophe out of it. It’s like, there are two outcomes here, either we can have smashing success and win and be wonderful people or we can learn some things.
CHUCK: And the other thing is, and this is the other part of it that really nails me, is that it’s like, “Well, if I fail then well, I fail.”
DAVID: I’m a failure.
CHUCK: And instead of looking at it and going what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? Like going freelance. It was, “If I fail at it then we could lose the house and we could blah…blah.” And then it’s like, “No, then I just go get another job.” What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? Well I’m in a little more debt and I’m right back where I was. And generally, that’s the case with most of this stuff, is the worst thing that could happen is you wind up back where you were with a little bit more experience and maybe a ding on the head.
DAVID: I’m going to use Katrina’s advice about telling the joke. Chuck and I finished up a contract together about a month ago, maybe more. And I’ve got some stuff in the works, so I haven’t been job hunting. I haven’t been looking for other contract. And this has been preying on my need to have cash flow. And I don’t have any because I’m working on this other thing. And we were out driving around and Liz said, “Can we run to the bank and do this deposit?” And I’m like, “No, no we can’t.” And she’s like, “Why?” And I said, “Because every minute I spend away from the computer is a minute I spend not working on the thing that I have in the works which brings us one step closer to financial ruin, which brings us one step closer to losing the house, which brings us one step closer to you divorcing me because I’m an absolutely horrible person. I cannot go to the bank because it will end our marriage.”
DAVID: And I actually said all of that to her. By the time I got to the end of it, she was laughing. So, it was nice that we could find humor actually in the moment. But we did not go to the bank. No, we did not.
CHUCK: But we create these scenarios in our head, that that’s what’s going to happen. The world will end.
CHUCK: Anyway, I hate to cut this off, but we really do need to get to the picks. And I have to get off this call in 10 minutes. But thanks for coming, Tim. It’s been really, really helpful.
DAVID: I knew going in, this was going to be kind of an uncomfortable episode for me. And you did not fail to deliver. I want to thank you for that.
DAVID: This has been an important episode and it was really, really good having you on.
CHUCK: I have to admit that I thought I’d be saying something like, “Well, I’ve experienced this one or twice. And I sure hope this helps people.” But it’s really struck a deep chord for me. [Chuckles]
DAVID: Impostor Syndrome isn’t something you experience once or twice. It’s a cloud that hangs over your life every freaking day.
CHUCK: Alright. Avdi, what are your picks?
AVDI: CrashPlan. CrashPlan is my pick. I’ve been using it as my backup strategy for a while now, on several machines. And I like the fact that it’s the same tool across multiple operating systems. And it also supports backing up to the cloud and backing up to local drives and backing up to other people’s computers and pretty much backing up anywhere you want. The other day, I worked a Git repo in the process of trying to rewrite some commits. And I hunted it down the backup from a few hours ago on CrashPlan, downloaded it and fixed it and all is well. There’ve been a few other incidents like that. I haven’t had to restore a completely hosed machine, but there’ve been a few things where it’s like, “Oh, I screwed that up. Well, go get the backup.”
CHUCK: I worked for a backup company for almost two years. I ran their tech support department, their customer support and I can tell you horror stories. So it’s a good idea to back up your machine.
CHUCK: Katrina, what are your picks?
KATRINA: I’ve got two today. The first is Hyperbole and a Half. It’s a comic and blog and her latest entry is about depression. And it’s just really honest and funny and sad at the same time. So, Depression Part Two. And I’m not sure what part one was. That was really cool. The other pick is a talk by Sandi Metz at La Conf. That was about working really hard and achieving things not through any sort of talent but through grit. And I don’t have a link to the video yet because I don’t think it’s out. So, I’m going to link to a reference that Sandi had and that’s a TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth called ‘The Key to Success? Grit’. It’s a really interesting talk so I’m just going to leave the link to that.
CHUCK: Those sound good. Dave, what are your picks?
CHUCK: Awesome. I’ll go ahead and go next. I have a couple of picks. So, I’ve gone through some stuff lately. I went through the burnout and the burnout’s burnout that I went through after that contract that Dave and I were talking about. After I got through that, I was a little bit, I hate to use the word ‘depressed’ because it has so many connotations and I don’t know what it means to everybody. But I really just didn’t feel like myself. And I really had a hard time just working, getting stuff done. On top of that, I was going through a little bit of Impostor Syndrome because I was pulled into a project that didn’t play to the core technological strengths that I have. So, I was dealing with that as well. And so, I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go with things. So, the first thing that I want to encourage people to do is to get a piece of paper, or I did it on my whiteboard, but I just wrote down all the stuff that I have going on. And then, I wrote down all of the stuff that I want to do, where I want to go, what I want to accomplish. And when I did that, I started to realize that a lot of the things that I want to do and want to accomplish, I can. And so, just thinking about it. The next thing that I did, and this is my first official pick other than just writing this stuff down, is I put it all into OmniFocus, which is the program that I use for managing all of my to-do’s and stuff. And I know I’ve picked it before, but I’m going to pick it again. So, I put next actions and the things that I need to get done for it and stuff like that. And then, I’m starting to form really specific goals for the year and put that all into place. And then do it again, break it down, decide which ones are the priorities to get done this year. And I’m hoping to set enough hard goals to not be able to accomplish all of them. And that way, I feel like I really pushed myself and worked hard to get stuff done. Anyway, I’m going to pick some and I’m going to do my best to get them done. So, OmniFocus and then just setting goals and writing stuff down. The other pick that I have is an iPhone app that I found on iPhreaks. We were talking about Git. We were talking to somebody from GitHub, Josh Abernathy. And he mentioned that he had worked on the iPhone app for GitHub and that it wasn’t terrific. Well, there is a terrific GitHub app for iPhone and it’s called iOctocat. I don’t know that you can do code on your phone or on your iPad very well and then commit it to Git. And I don’t know if I’d want to, because I don’t have a lot of the feedback systems that I have on a regular system. But other than that, browsing through my projects on GitHub and seeing what issues are filed against my projects and all of my organizations and stuff, it’s got all of that stuff in there. And it’s super. So, it’s iOctocat. And I’ll put a link to iOctocat and to the source code. The source code is actually open source on GitHub. So, you can see it if you’re interested. Tim, what are your picks?
TIM: So, one of them is ‘The UNIX-HATERS Handbook’, which is a classic but I just found out, it’s online now, the full text.
TIM: And the reason I’m recommending this is that I think snark can be a really powerful anti-Impostor Syndrome tool, which is to say there’s a lot of monoculture and a lot of hero-worship in the geek community. But I think that if you can see that people hate Unix, you can accept that there’s not one right way to do software or one right way to be a hacker. So, I don’t mean the kind of snark that’s aimed at putting people down who are already marginalized. I just mean the kind that’s aimed at institutions or people or projects that do have power and that are entrenched. So, it’s not that you have to agree, but I think the kind of humor in the book is useful for seeing, “Oh, people actually disagree.” And that means there’s not one right way to do it. And the other one that I have is a blog post. I’m going to paste it. It’s from James Sheldon called ‘It’s okay for someone else to be wrong’. The blog post has a really good real-life scenario about seeing that someone else is saying something that’s wrong, but allowing them to be wrong and not having the need to correct them.
CHUCK: Okay, cool. Alright. Well, thanks for coming on the show again, Tim. It was wonderful, thank you.
TIM: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.
CHUCK: It really struck a deep chord and I didn’t expect that.
CHUCK: I appreciate it all the more for that. A few things. We are in the top 50 in iTunes under Technology, I believe. But if you could go and leave us a review, it’ll help us move up in the ratings and that would be awesome. Other than that, go sign up for Ruby Rogues Parley. That’s at Parley.RubyRogues.com. And we’re going to do a rogues only episode next week about something that we will discuss after the show. And we’ll catch you all next week.
KATRINA: Thanks. Bye.