Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

I contracted at Google for nearly a year. The first couple of weeks were some of the most intimidating I’ve ever experienced. Everywhere I looked there were skilled people good enough to be full-time employees with a white badge. (Contractors wear a red badge). Just on my way to the bathroom I’d see someone with two PhD’s, an engineer who worked on “machine learning” or a product manager who launched a program used everyday by hundreds-of-millions of people.

And then there was me—a program manager with startup experience who was somehow supposed to lead a team of 12 with a 3.3 GPA, cursory knowledge of what “code” was, and a real knack for asking, “So uh…is that hard to like…code?”

After the year, it was time to interview for a full-time position, and I doubted myself. There’s likely no worse sensation than when you  feel like you don’t deserve to be somewhere; this can occur in our romantic relationships, friend groups, and especially in our workplaces. This psychological phenomenon is known as impostor syndrome, and reflects a belief that you are inadequate or a failure, despite actually being successful with a strong skill set. It, essentially, means you’re afraid of being exposed as a fraud.

Despite my concerns, the interview went well and I’ve been working at Google full time with some of the brightest, most adept people in the world ever since. However, I still feel that wavering apprehension from time to time; and it turns out that it’s not uncommon—there is an ever present pressure to achieve, to be more, and better that’s instilled from our parents and culture. The goal is to constantly get ahead, so to have fraudulent feelings amid high achievers is a very natural thing. However, it can lead to anxiety and even depression, and if left alone, can cause major setbacks. According to Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, there are five subgroups:

  1. The Perfectionist: this person has excessively high goals and feels like they have to do things themselves to get it right.
  2. The Superwoman/man: the ultimate overachiever.
  3. The Natural Genius: this person believes that if they have to work hard at something, they assume they aren’t good at it.
  4. The Rugged Individualist: this person refuses to ask questions, refusing assistance to prove their worth.
  5. The Expert: this person feels as if they may have tricked their employer into hiring them.

Any of these sound familiar? Luckily, there are a number of ways to combat these feelings of insecurity and stress. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Understand what you shouldn’t know.

Whether you’re an artist, cashier, or analyst, every organization is going to have a certain set of tools that their employees use. Sometimes you’ll be really familiar with these, and sometimes they’ll feel entirely novel. Be fair to yourself. Why should you know anything about an inventory tool? Trello? A custom-made tool?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s likely that everyone else who started was at some point as well. Or maybe they still are! (I’ve learned that it’s really easy for people to fake expertise without actually knowing anything.) The point is that every place you work will have specific learnings that you will only gain through time. Don’t sweat it.

Listen. Wait. Then ask questions.

Being quiet sucks. You’ll wonder, “Why aren’t I contributing? Should I try? Should I ask a question or offer an opinion? Is anyone noticing that I’m basically a potato in every meeting?” Try not to. Instead, set expectations in meetings by saying that you’re new and going to listen for a bit while you ramp up. You’ll find that active listening is actually, truly, exhausting. I recently switched teams at Google and just listening in meetings would lead to me napping on the shuttle home. Doing nothing is actually doing quite a bit.

Here’s a challenge: in your 1:1 with your boss, try to re-explain what you think you know. Don’t be afraid of “looking stupid.” This is your mentor and he/she is there to help you. From 1:1 to 1:1, you’ll begin to understand just how quickly you’re picking up on things—even if you feel like you haven’t been. This prevents you from accidentally asking a “dumb question” (sorry, they do exist) in a meeting and becoming a distraction.

Make the extra effort.

This may sound contrary to the last few hundred words I’ve spent trying to assure you that you’re fine and to not worry; but here you are thinking that isn’t enough. Well, we’re both right—and I’m like you, so I cheat a little. When I go home, after my nap, I read. If there was a product feature I wasn’t totally sure about, I’ll review the product requirements document. If I’m working in a field I’m not familiar with, I’ll research online or read the news. You’d be surprised how little contextual data there may at your job; it’s going to be up to you to become an expert.

Know that you’ve already been validated.

Whenever you feel like you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be, just remember that someone thinks that you’re exactly where you should be. You’ve passed the interviews. You’ve worked hard before this. You’ve literally earned your stripes, and now it’s time to earn some more. Whether you’ve passed your interviews or been asked to take on a new project, always remind yourself that you’ve proven yourself. A little positive affirmation during a stressful day is going to do you wonders.

Remember, everyone holds these feelings in one way or another. It’s that sense of questioning that propels us forward. Whether it’s a job, your first child, a woodworking project, or a career shift, you’re always going to feel like an imposter at first. Everyone starts out the same way; and you won’t feel that way forever. Listen. Learn. Read. Affirm. And you’ll be just fine. 

Feature photo by: Drew Graham