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Help me fake it until I make it.
December 27, 2012 4:13 PM   Subscribe

I want to be better, faster, smarter and stronger, but I'm behind the eight ball. Help?

For the past year or so, I've been anxious and ambitious, in an aimless sort of way. This knocked me back on my heels and reminded me too much of how I did in college, and for the first time, helped me figure out why I might not have done well. (I always just assumed I was a colossal failure.) It forced me to do quite a bit of self-evaluation.

I will try to be as brief as possible about the background : Very young mother, alcoholic father with severe psychosis. Living well below the poverty line. Every flavor of abuse, mostly physical. Easy access to guns. A role-reversal between my mother and myself, wherein I protected her against my father. Social services involvement, foster homes, halfway houses and finally, residential psychiatric care for myself. Barely managed to graduate high school, got involved in drugs, became the long-term caretaker of my then-boyfriend through many dangerous situations. Worked up to three minimum-wage jobs to financially support us and our habits. He killed himself after we had an argument. I got pregnant. I was working full-time and attending community college. When a family situation escalated, I had my first nervous breakdown and dropped out of college (after four disastrous semesters) to work another job so I could afford to leave quickly for our safety. I effectively divorced my family by moving very far away. I lucked into a very solid, loving relationship. I slowly paid off my student loans and worked a string of office/clerical jobs. When I felt "safe" in that situation, I began to unravel on another level: Two horrible years and a second nervous breakdown followed, almost leading to divorce. I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and those symptoms are, more or less, stabilized for the moment. We're stronger for having weathered it, but I know the work isn't "done."

As a result of all this catching-up and breaking-down, I am now in my mid-30s with little to show for it professionally. It was only through a mixture of hard work, luck, and networking that I have the job (the first to qualify as a "career") I have now. For the first year of my adulthood, I feel like things are looking up, rather than just about to shake apart. Personally, I feel like I'm doing well "considering", but I know that's not enough. On paper, I'm a high school graduate without honors, academic clubs or respectable extracurricular activities, "some college", with a series of lackluster or middling positions in vaguely-related fields, with a couple of glowing recommendations from instrumental people whose attention I caught at the right time.

My colleagues, by contrast, are all from privileged backgrounds. They went to good schools and have distinguished themselves with graduate degrees with honors and PhD programs, as well as through important internships and past projects. They have deep social and family connections to this same network. They learned all their professional and social skills at the "correct" time, and they are more confident than me without even trying. They speak of cultural experiences and opportunities that make any of my hard work pale in comparison. As such, I feel it's only a matter of time before someone takes a hard look at me and my background and realizes they've made a mistake by letting me in. I'd like to get out in front of that if I can. I am more than willing to work, and to work hard, and to even get the college education at some point after I have taken care of my son and any of his needs for college. I feel right now that it is his time for college and not mine. (I had my chance, after all. I have the privilege of maybe getting him through, but certainly not both of us at once.)

At the same time, I also feel like this is a tenuous position that is relying too much on the goodwill of two or three others holding the strings. If something were to happen within this network or their respective business enterprises, I am not a good prospect on paper by any stretch of the imagination. They know I don't have a degree or professional certification; most of my coworkers do not. I'm told not to sweat it, but I don't know how much of that advice is driven by my potential salary expectations in the future. (Could I even argue to make a higher salary with a straight face, given my background?)

I guess I'm looking for things I could put into play quickly: I'm in a computer/software-related field in California. I have the day-to-day skills for the job in hand and do not feel overwhelmed by my current job requirements, but I also feel like there are situations or potential opportunities where I go limp or panicky because I feel stupid, thinking a smarter person would have the answer.

I have been reading most of the books on reading lists for a "classical" college education. I am currently learning a second language that would be prudent to speak in this region. I attend free or low-cost classes whenever possible that are encouraged to brush up one's skills, but many of those classes assume one already has a sturdy college foundation.

TL;DR: I feel like I've been given a tremendous opportunity for someone with my background, but I need to work on closing this class gap quickly while the expectations are controllable, before those above me wise up or start promoting others in positions I could reasonably obtain. What can MeFi suggest in the way of certifications and professional memberships? Vertical certifications that would bolster my position (say in business or management)? Non-fiction technical books on theory or strategy or business that most college graduates would have read long ago? Cosmetic as well as substantial improvements?

Thank you for reading this far, and for any advice you can offer.
posted by dean winchester to Education (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
You can't change your past, but you don't have to. I think maybe you want to reframe this a little - how about just working hard and doing a good job? You sound like you are working on psyching yourself out through hopeless comparisons with people who aren't your problem - psych yourself up by doing an outstanding job at everything that's actually on your plate.
posted by facetious at 4:39 PM on December 27, 2012


Everyone has "imposter syndrome" whether or not they have a fancy degree or extensive background. Some just hide it better than others. I know this doesn't sound like concrete help, but really, the best advice I could give you is to stop worry about it. You can't change the past, so you have to do the best with what you have, and it seems like you have more than you realize. The most important thing you have is drive, and many bosses who are fed up with the occasional complacency of the elite-degreed really value what you have.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:48 PM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I am sure the hive mind will have reading recommendations and certifications galore, but I am not in a related industry, so all I have is this thing, which I learned a couple years back to tremendous relief:

Nobody cares about your social/class/educational background if you can do your job. Truth fact.

I don't have the foggiest idea where or if any of my coworkers/bosses went to college, and they haven't the foggiest idea where or if I did. I know that some of them are great at their jobs, and some of them are horrible at their jobs, and some are in the middle. And that's about the sum total of what I know about them.

Now, I mean, without the deep connections and internships that are so much the province of the wealthy, *finding* jobs will be somewhat more of a challenge at the outset--but here's the thing: you've already surmounted that problem. You just need in the door, and then it's down to you and luck.

Congrats, you're in the door.

So just keep on doing the *shit* out of your job. Keep your fingers crossed for continued good luck, knowing that each day you spend improving in your professional ability and your mental health makes you ever more capable of bouncing back from the bad luck.
posted by like_a_friend at 4:54 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some people just get dealt a really shitty hand. Sounds like you're one of them.

The hand you were dealt says nothing about your worth as a person or an employee. What you do with it absolutely does.

They speak of cultural experiences and opportunities that make any of my hard work pale in comparison.

Nothing pales in comparison to hard work, especially from an employer's point of view.

As such, I feel it's only a matter of time before someone takes a hard look at me and my background and realizes they've made a mistake by letting me in.

Anybody who takes that view is nobody you want to be working for anyway. If an employer doesn't value your skills and your drive to improve them, you need a better employer.

That rather entitled attitude, by the way, comes much more naturally to those of us from privileged backgrounds than to those who have genuinely got everything they have by dint of determination and hard work - which is a perfect example of irony. In truth, gumption such as you've displayed is the only thing that justifies such an attitude.

For the first year of my adulthood, I feel like things are looking up, rather than just about to shake apart.

You're probably right. Try to hang onto that.

Personally, I feel like I'm doing well "considering", but I know that's not enough.

It bloody well is, and don't let anybody (including yourself) tell you different.

On paper, I'm a high school graduate without honors, academic clubs or respectable extracurricular activities, "some college", with a series of lackluster or middling positions in vaguely-related fields, with a couple of glowing recommendations from instrumental people whose attention I caught at the right time.

My own background is far more privileged and far less unstable than what you've described, and yet on paper this is just how I look as well. Many paths to top of mountain, etc.

If you're good at what you do, and you care about it, that's enough; so many people just aren't and don't. Competence is valuable. Competence coupled with a demonstrable willingness to learn is doubly valuable and rare.

they are more confident than me without even trying

That's because none of them have been through experiences sufficiently traumatic to bring on PTSD.

Try to replace the habit of measuring yourself against other people with the habit of measuring yourself against how you were doing this time last year.

Also, give yourself credit for the life skills you have that your colleagues just don't.

Any fool can win (confidently!) when dealt four aces.
posted by flabdablet at 6:26 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I had a bunch of recommendations for the OP that I'm not sure I want to post on here. If anyone else is in a similar situation, feel free to memail me, and if a lot of people write, I'll post them here as well to help everyone. :)
posted by 3491again at 1:05 AM on December 28, 2012


Take a look around and see if other people are actually making the judgments that you mention, or are you just thinking that they are? If it's just you, then you need to figure out a way to get over that (it's hard, I know). Just reading your post makes me feel very lazy and unworthy - you are working hard and accomplishing a lot more than most people do. I'm not saying more "considering your past", but flat out more. When I get off work I go home and watch tv all night - I'm not reading classics and learning languages and taking classes and getting certs.

Could I even argue to make a higher salary with a straight face, given my background? You don't get higher salary because of your background, you get it because of the work that you are doing in your current position, and you are doing it.

Hang in there!! We are all on your side!
posted by CathyG at 8:03 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was going to mention imposter syndrome too.

It was only through a mixture of hard work, luck, and networking that I have the job (the first to qualify as a "career") I have now.

The word "only" has no place in this sentence. If you have worked hard, networked and made the most of the chance ("lucky") opportunities that came your way, you deserve to be there more than any of those people who landed there by dint of their backgrounds.

Somewhere in the AskMe archives, I'm certain there will be many questions along the lines of: "I got my job through family connections and by bluffing and sounding endlessly confident even when I'm not. There are other people in my workplace who I know have worked their asses off to be there, and I feel like I don't deserve my place alongside them."

You deserve it - you sound awesome.

In terms of practical solutions: Would a mentor help? Someone to advise you what things would be worth doing to secure/improve your future in your field; to help you extend your network beyond those two or three key people you have at the moment; and to reassure you that you are talented and worthwhile, and not just there by fluke.
posted by penguin pie at 10:39 AM on December 28, 2012


I agree with the "mentor" idea - I was going to say that you're doing a great job of learning things that most college grads let slide (I didn't read most of the great books because they weren't assigned - heck, I didn't read books I Was assigned in college). Also work on your networks. Know somebody great who needs a job? Try to pay it forward for them by referring them to someone in your network who needs their skills. Network more with people who are in the sorts of positions that you'd like to be in - especially if you truly like them.

You don't have schmooze. Just catch coffee, introduce people, Listen. That said, your resilience thus far is Tremendous and Hard Won, and you obviously have more self-reliance than 99% of your colleagues - so I'll join the chorus telling you to give yourself a lot more credit. If you do, maybe you'll get better at tooting your own horn (you're the only one who will, reliably). And you deserve some horn-tooting!
posted by ldthomps at 11:04 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm really not clear what are the specific problems you are trying to overcome, and why, but I can say you should be darn proud of yourself for achieving so much in the face of so much adversity. That right there is a much bigger and more admirable accomplishment than a lot of the other "accomplishments" you are observing around you. You clearly are a smart, hard-working, and level-headed person, and if you keep playing to those strengths, you should continue to have increasing "success".
posted by Dansaman at 10:31 PM on December 30, 2012


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