Imposter Syndrome

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I recently accepted a new position at work as an IT Program Manager.  I have two days in the office, a vacation to Maine, a niece’s birthday party, and then it’s game-on in the new role.  When you get a new position, you barely wipe the chocolate cake off your face from your celebratory dinner before your inbox is full of emails from strangers who are soon-to-be the people you sit next to for ten hours a day and the ones you text early in the morning when you’re stuck in traffic.  As someone who is moving into their fifth position in nine years, and someone with a psychology degree, this ones for you my fellow corporate friends. . .

I’ve had this message on my mind for quite some time, but now that I’ll be working through it again myself — it felt timely.  I’m talking about the immense fear that stops people from moving into new jobs; and the fears that keep people up at night that did go for the new jobs.

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“Imposter Syndrome:  (also known as imposter phenomenon or fraud syndrome or the imposter experience) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”” – Wikipedia

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Imposter Syndrome is something I’ve suffered from with every job change or even personal accomplishment (e.g. publishing a book).  I have a few theories of how we breed this syndrome that leave us having sleepless nights in the first month of a new job. . .

Step 1:  When we find out that a position is opening that we’d be interested in and we know there’s ten qualifications listed in the job posting, we know from research that if a woman has nine out of the ten skills — she will not apply; if a man has one out of the ten qualifications — he will apply.  This is one of many factors that largely contribute to the shrinking number of women we see as we move up the corporate ladder, but aside from that fun fact, we (as women) or we (as men) jump into the candidate pool nervous that we do not have all the qualifications listed on that little piece of paper we’ve been toting around in our portfolios while we study it in more detail than the person who created it in the first place. . .

Step 2:  So if we decide we’re going to actually go for the job, we may get lucky enough to land an interview which may turn into a week filled with buying new suits and meeting the next business partner that you didn’t even know you’d be meeting with.  You put on your best jewelry, you actually wear lipstick and perfume and that one cami that you bought years ago that your mom said would look great under a suit jacket, and you find yourself having these out of body experiences in an interview where you get in some sort of flow and pull out words like “strategy,” “multi-year roadmap,” “technology trends,” “financial forecasting,” and “law of diminishing returns.”  You actually impress yourself.  It’s like those words were just swirling around in your brain from 1,000 hours of meetings and they were waiting for the perfect moment to fly out of your mouth.  You tell yourself if you were the boss you’d hire you and you wonder where this inner CEO-talk came from.  You can’t wait to get home and get your uncomfortable shoes off and tell your mom you wore the cami. . .

Step 3:  You get the job!  The announcement comes out and people send you congrats notes and they catch you in the hallway and say “couldn’t think of a more perfect person for the job” or “I know you’ll do great” or they say the phrase that really sends you over the imposter syndrome deep end: “your expertise is really needed over there.”  What?!  Expertise?!  Everyone says how perfect of a move it is, and then you make your quiet and brief retreat into imposter syndrome land. . .

Step 4:  You wake up at 2 a.m, 3 a.m., 4 a.m, and wonder if it’s just worth staying up at that point since you have to wake up in two hours anyway.  You wake up thinking about how they all think you know what you’re talking about but you have never felt more unprepared.  You’ve never felt more exposed.  You’ve never felt more like you’re going to show up to a meeting and someone is going to be waiting for you to go “Ah ha!  We KNEW it!  You AREN’T the best fit, you DIDN’T know what you were talking about, you DON’T even know what a multi-year roadmap means, and your cami DIDN’T match your suit jacket like we thought.  Oh, and your hair ISN’T naturally blonde.”. . .

Step 5:  Three months goes by and you are the expert you tried to convince yourself you weren’t and you catch up on all the sleep you lost in step 4 — you may even go on a vacation.  You do the job well and even start exceeding your own expectations.  You sleep through the night.  You even consider buying the cami in other colors.  You send a congratulations note to your coworker who just got a new job — you tell them they’re perfect for the job and how their expertise is needed in the area they’re moving into.  People ask you to mentor them.  You never discuss this syndrome with anyone.

In the last few years I’ve talked to coworkers about said syndrome, so I know it to be true.  I know we all do it.  I just know that sometimes it stops people from going for jobs because they suffer from it earlier in the cycle.  They don’t even let themselves get to the celebratory chocolate cake because they’re too afraid to apply.  They’re afraid someone at some point will come up to them and tell them they don’t know what they’re doing and they will be caught as the fraud that they are, dark roots in their hair and all.

As someone who is starting a new job in a week, I’m here to say. . . go for the job.  Buy the cami.  Wear the perfume.  Have the out of body interview experience.  Wear the shoes that hurt your feet.  Get fresh highlights to at least buy yourself some time in that respect.  But just know we all do it.  We’re all afraid that we’re not smart enough.  We’re all secretly terrified someone will think we’re an idiot.  We’re all expecting we should know everything about the job on day 1 when that is unreasonable.  Be real about what you know and what you don’t, but don’t you for one second not apply because you weren’t a 10 for 10 on the qualifications list.  And then. . . you go rock that job like nobody’s rocked that job before!