Retreat Into Competence

One thing that was brought to my attention when going through the computer science / software development major, was that many of us suffer from what I was told was “impostor syndrome”; the persistent feeling that I do not know anywhere near enough, and that fear that your are a hack or a fake. While this persistent fear is definitely a symptom of inexperience, it nevertheless is a challenge to gaining confidence in our abilities.

Thankfully the authors of Apprenticeship Patterns have developed a pattern for dealing with this fear in the real world. Their advice is when you feel overwhelmed by the volume of information you don’t understand yet, you should temporarily “retreat into competence”. By taking a short time to work on some problem which you do know well, you can reset your perspective and freshen your resolve to tackle the new challenges, bounding back like “a rock in a catapult”, using the backwards momentum to launch yourself even further than you would have gone originally.

While this is definitely a helpful strategy for compartmentalizing our learning experience, too much reliance on this pattern will result in mediocrity, as you would hardly make any meaningful progress and your skill as a craftsman will stagnate. The authors acknowledge this, and definitely warn against it, suggesting that retreating into competence should only be done with set time restrictions before we move forward again. Time boxing in this way will ensure we can regain our confidence and composure while at the same time making sure that we are always driving forward.

I definitely appreciate this pattern though and will definitely be applying it in the future to keep myself on track. It is remarkably helpful to be able to, as the authors put it “overcome the fear of your own incompetence”. By taking one step back and two steps forward, we can continue the march of progress at a more comfortable pace, and hopefully alleviate some of the fears and overwhelming feeling when facing the vastly expanding world of software development. This is definitely a pattern I have subconsciously been applying previously, but I will definitely make a more conscious effort to use it and time box myself properly to ensure stable progress.

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