impostor syndrome: when you might be a fraud

A reader writes:

I’m about to start a full-time, permanent position with a small non-profit in a marketing role that’s a tangent from my background but which I think I’ll enjoy. I’m excited, but I also have a case of new-job nerves and impostor syndrome.

This is my first full-time role after completing a PhD (loads of part time customer service and admin work on the way) and a few related internships, and I’m worried about how to be the “expert” rather than the student/intern. I know, logically, that I wouldn’t have been hired if they didn’t think I could do the job, but do you have any practical tips on how to settle my nerves, address these doubts and get off to a solid start? What would you (or your readers) love a new marketing officer to do/ask in the first few weeks?

Oh, impostor syndrome! I think you’d be surprised by how many people have it. I had an awful case of it when this blog started taking off — it was one thing to write it when no one was reading it, but when it started getting an audience, I was constantly thinking, “Who am I to be presenting myself as an authority?” (Weirdly, no one has ever asked me that but me.)  For a while, it felt like a house of cards that might come tumbling down at any minute.

The same thing happened when I quit my job and started consulting. Having people pay me just to sit there and give my opinion?!  I felt like a complete fraud at first, like it was only a matter of time before I was found out.

Then I started talking to people who I admire and discovered they all knew that feeling too. It’s normal, apparently. And it’s especially true if you’re conscientious and an over-thinker. It’s just incredibly common, even among — maybe especially among — people you’d never imagine: Sheryl Sandberg has said she’s struggled with it! Tina Fey too!  Lots of other awesome people too. (In fact, research says that the higher the standards you tend to set for yourself and the more self-critical you are, the higher the likelihood that you’ll feel impostor syndrome at some point.)

Anyway. Three things help:

1. Fake it. Act like you feel confident. Not cocky or crazily smug, obviously. Just act like you imagine you’d act if you did in fact deserve your position. Eventually it will start becoming real.

2. Don’t be shy about admitting when you don’t know something or that you made a mistake. Here’s the counterintuitive thing about this:  It makes you look more confident and in control. If you can’t do this, you signal that you’re insecure and battling to protect your standing — because you don’t really trust it and feel it’s precarious. People who are truly confident in what they have to offer have no problem admitting they don’t know something or that they made a mistake. And it makes them a lot more credible.

Think about experts who you really respect. I bet they have no problem announcing when they don’t know something, or asking for other’s input. Real experts know they don’t need to have all the answers; people don’t expect them to. Model yourself after them.

3. Just stop thinking about it. Seriously, just push this feeling out of your mind and focus on your work. At some point, you’ll look around and the evidence will have piled up that you are in fact not a fraud, and that’ll make it easier to accept it.

Now, as for your question about what to do in your first few weeks as a new marketing officer: Tons of information gathering. I would be alarmed if a new marketing person came in and immediately had all the answers — they need to put in some serious time getting to know the organization and its challenges first. So an early priority should be to collect information — what’s been tried, what’s working, what isn’t working, what baselines are you working from, etc. And you also need to talk with your boss to get really clear on your goals — both for the near-term and the longer-term. Once you start diving into all that, your path is going to become pretty clear.

Anyway, who else feels like or has felt like an impostor?  I bet it’s a lot of people.

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