Dealing with an impostor like syndrome when you are an impostor
April 25, 2015 1:42 AM   Subscribe

I have worked in my current job for just over a year. I got it as a combination of luck and a misunderstanding. I am constantly given things to do that I only have very vague understanding of and then have to do a combination of googling and bluffing. How should I cope?

I was given this job because I worked in a team headed by a well known and respected person in my field. I didn't really know this but when I started everyone was constantly telling me "wow you worked with John Smith!!!" My boss would constantly make these comments about how I should contact John Smith and ask him to collaborate on our projects. The truth is that I had 2 meetings with John Smith in 2 years while working there. They were extremely uncomfortable ans awkward and he barely knew who I was.

Back to my present situation. I am given all these projects that I don't fully understand. I spend most of my evenings googling and doing things kind of adhoc way. Nobody really catches on (as far as I know) because I am the only one on my team that's working in this particular field. My boss is busy with million other projects so he doesn't notice the details. I live in this constant fear of being caught out in how little I really know. I try to act calm and confident but I don't think I have enough experience or knowledge for this role. Still I get paid well and people respect me or at least their image of me - I don't really want to let go of that. When I first started this job, there was this collegue that is generally extremely smart and sharp and he took a lot of interest in my work. I thought that he will catch on about how little I know but our personalities meshed so well that he became one of my best friends. I was lucky again.

I spend a lot of time either thinking of quitting or thinking of what I would do if I got fired.

Any suggestions?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Look for another job.
posted by tel3path at 1:45 AM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Is the new knowledge of interest to you or simply barriers to your own flow and area of specialization?

Are you growing in your job as a result of this scrambling to learn?

Have you developed new understanding and knowledge in this past year? Will you do so in the coming years?

OR

Is it a case of not having accountancy training and learning to create P&L statements ?

What kind of "impostership" is this?
posted by infini at 1:53 AM on April 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


You'd probably be surprised about how many people are in situations similar to yours. Many, many people are not as knowledgeable as one would expect about their areas of professional "expertise" and they have lots of ways of covering it up. One way is to bang on about a few precise details whenever anyone tries to discuss things. Another is to nod knowingly and say very little, then change the subject when topics come up that they should know about but don't. It's very common. And I've never seen anyone get sacked because of it.

There are different ways to be good at one's job. One way is to be extremely knowledgeable. Another way (and a better way) is to know what you don't know and figure out how to learn it as needed. Communication skills also go a very long way. Without them, knowledge means little, and you'd be surprised how many people have poor communication skills in the workplace as well.

You've been there over a year now, so you're pretty much part of the furniture. Your knowledgeable colleague likes you, your boss hasn't complained or noticed anything's wrong, and you're getting on with the job. You're fine.
posted by hazyjane at 2:39 AM on April 25, 2015 [63 favorites]


It sounds like this is your own personal hell. Try to get out while you're still ahead and they don't know. Use their respect and ignorance to get great recommendations and a position you are comfortable with somewhere else. Pat yourself on the back for keeping them in the dark this long. Don't feel too bad. They sound as if they are all as clueless as you!
posted by skwint at 3:14 AM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


It sounds to me like you're doing fine and while you do seem to have impostor syndrome you don't seem to be an actual impostor. It's quite normal to be given a project that you don't fully understand. If something were fully understood in advance, it would just be automated away. Figuring things out is what professional people get paid to do.
posted by richb at 3:16 AM on April 25, 2015 [12 favorites]


Yeah, I get the impression that this is pretty much what every executive is doing most of the time, from interacting with them, being involved in sales pitches to executives, and from reading premium top-dollar research and analysis documents concerning my technical field written for an executive audience, stuff which in most cases wasn't much better than the results of some Googling and a few not-necessarily-accurate guesses.

So by all means get a new job if you don't like what you're doing but don't consider yourself an impostor or otherwise stress yourself out or sell yourself short over job performance that is satisfying everyone around you. You are probably performing above the competence level of most of the best-paid people in society, they're just better at exuding confidence and authority to back up their guesses and at asserting that any missteps are the eggs you've got to break to make omelets.
posted by XMLicious at 3:17 AM on April 25, 2015 [16 favorites]


Reading between the lines (if I may), it kiiiinda sounds like you enjoy your work and position, and that it's mainly the not-in-the-groove feeling that's causing anxiety. I may be wrong. If it weren't for the impostorship, would you enjoy your job? Would you want to continue doing it?

If yes, then the answer's easy: ask for training. Tell your boss, "it's great that you've entrusted me with Doodad. As you may know, I came into it without much direct experience. As I've progressed, I've noticed areas A, B, and C where I could use some improvement. I looked at training courses available, and there's one from Fubar that focuses not only on A, B, and C, but also D and E. Is this something I could take as part of our company's training programme?" (hopefully your company has one...)

If your answer is no, you wouldn't want to continue doing this even if you felt more comfortable at it, then yeah, look for work elsewhere.

Otherwise, other commenters have it too – we all feel like impostors at some point or another, because you always come up against something new and/or unfamiliar. It's easier to handle if you are with other people who know your job, because then you can reach out and go, "hey, I've read specs for the last 10 years and yet these have me stumped, I can't figure out what this app is supposed to do, what do you think?" then they respond "lol we were hoping you'd say that, none of us understood them either, and now we have an expert saying the same thing." Always feels weird to be called an expert when you don't understand what you've just read, ha. Anyway. After a while, with enough mingling with others in your field, you start to get a better overall picture of skills and how people use them. I get why I'm considered an expert now, so it doesn't weird me out as much, and I have much fewer "impostor" times. I also came into my career field by chance. I didn't know it existed until a manager said, "you might be good at this, try it," and I did because I wanted to change careers at the time.

We all start out as beginners.
posted by fraula at 3:53 AM on April 25, 2015 [19 favorites]


Assuming you like the work you are doing and want to stay what is stopping you from getting the training in the areas you don't know about. I kicked into a bookkeeping job because I knew how to use a computer and spreadsheets, this was back in the day before most people had computers. I did the job for five years got promoted several times and ended up in charge of the department in a huge resort complex. I only then went and got training at some evening classes. If the only thing bothering you about you job is your lack of knowledge, knowledge is easy to get in this age of online class for everything.
posted by wwax at 5:59 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've never had a job where I went in knowing what I was doing. Writing about performing arts? I told my boss I thought "aria" was spelled wrong. (I was 18, okay...) Selling fine jewelry to people? I didn't even know what costume jewelry was. Being a paralegal? WTF is subrogation and how do I read 1,000 pages of medical records?!?!?! Doing IT at that law firm? Uh, I made Websites and designed graphics when I was 12, so, uh, okay. Spearheading huge software projects at that law firm? UH....GOOGLE. HELP. GOOGLE. FML. GOOGLE!!!! Managing 200+ associates in various areas of a huge store? Yeah, I asked my employees a lot of questions and then said "look, I'm developing people! My people have LATITUDE! *slides on awesome glasses*" Thing is: I became very proficient, at worst, at all of those jobs. Because I was willing to learn and ask questions (when I absolutely had to). Usually, and especially at the manager job, I only ever had a vague idea of what to do or how to do it; I was paid to figure it out, have excellent judgment, and make solid decisions.

I think it's a hallmark of a competent, resourceful, dedicated employee who can look up how to do something, execute, and execute well. I've worked with a lot of people over the years, and it's not as common an ability as one may think. It kinda drives me nuts when I work with people who just flail, give up without trying, and look at me like I know everything. It's not about knowing everything; it's about knowing where to look for the answers. And it puts hearts in my eyes when one of employees (or even peers) would say "no one told me; I looked it up myself. Is that okay?"

Even still, I think infini has it. I wouldn't walk into an accountant job and pretend I could google everything and own it. But if it's a softer skill and not rocket science (accounting is rocket science to me)? Hell yeah. If you've been there a year and you've never been sat down about performance, then I'm thinking you're better at your job than you give yourself credit for. And unless you misrepresented yourself in your resume, cover letter, or interview, then you've done nothing wrong. By all means, look for other work (spending every evening googling how to do a project is sort of a red flag for me, but I don't know your hours) but leverage what you've accomplished into another good job. Don't discount your work.
posted by coast99 at 6:08 AM on April 25, 2015 [26 favorites]


when I started everyone was constantly telling me "wow you worked with John Smith!!!" My boss would constantly make these comments about how I should contact John Smith and ask him to collaborate on our projects.

If this is a worry, drop it. Your boss may be saying this as kind of a verbal tic. When people don't know you they pick up on the one thing they do know about you. And the thing they knew was that you worked with someone prestigious, so it got brought up a lot. If John Smith is all that, there's no real expectation that you have ready access to him.

It sounds like you are learning a job by being thrown in to the deep end. In a couple of years you will start becoming the expert. For most jobs there is no school that actually teaches you the exact skills. Most of us learn as we go.
posted by readery at 6:20 AM on April 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


You've doing this for over a year. People aren't stupid and just not seeing that you're barely hanging on. You're doing the job. Hell, even doctors Google a lot of stuff, they just don't tell anyone.

Ask for more training, and customize the training to how it will help you best.

But in general, feel good about this: You're better than you think you are.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:34 AM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


When I was teaching, I spent the first few years waiting for a student or an admin to turn to me and say, "You're really making this up as you go along aren't you?" and not only did that never happen but I got nominated as Teacher of the Year. I was an absolute Teacher Impostor but I did it well.

I think what made the difference for me was that I did get advanced degrees in education before I became a teacher, and I love what I do, so spending hours every night looking things up because I had little direction in my work was okay because I wanted to learn more. And not sound like an idiot during meetings.

If the research you're doing is all in an area where you have no interest or desire to learn more because you don't care about building your knowledge, then maybe this isn't a job for you. If you're stressed about being completely out of your element, I would consider looking for work that's in an area where you have more interest.

But it seems like you're kind of good at the work. It could be that you're better than you think?
posted by kinetic at 6:34 AM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you feel like you are an impostor who needs to build up your skills... keep doing so.

Reminds me of what Neil Gaiman advised, frankly.
posted by markkraft at 7:24 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is imposter syndrome.

You're not messing anything up. You've figured out how to teach yourself what you need to know. You're a cordial and friendly co-worker. This is literally 99% of what all employers look for. Someone who doesn't royally mess anything up, who can teach themselves, and who isn't a pain to interact with.

The only problem I see is that you're working a lot on your own time. That stinks and isn't tenable.

I love the idea of asking for training! This will formalize your learning and will shift it so that maybe it happens more on company time.

You're fine. Really. This is what imposter syndrome feels like.

Signed,
A professor who has spent the last week on Google re-learning something she took multiple courses in grad school on, because - like everyone - she often has NO IDEA what she is doing, despite nearly ten years of training.
posted by sockermom at 8:14 AM on April 25, 2015 [19 favorites]


Honestly, what you describe sounds like normal working life most of the time. Saying "Sure, we can do that" and then googling or looking in how-to manuals that evening is something I do all the time, and so do most of the people I work with in professional positions. Unless you are constantly searching for the same information (which would indicate you aren't learning anything), this is how you grow and develop as a professional.

One way to think about it is that you aren't so much getting paid for what you already know, as for your ability to know where to find information and to learn new things quickly, without handholding or support. There might be better positions and places that will support and reward you better, but I would expect to continue some version of this for as long as you are growing professionally.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:21 AM on April 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


Unless your job is the sort of thing where people's lives are on the line if you fail (airline pilot, surgeon, police officer, etc.), you should be fine. If you're too embarrassed to ask the company for training, can you take some night classes? Working above your experience is stressful, but I think it's the quickest way to learn and progress. Imagine if you were working significantly below your level of expertise ("You want fries with that?"), like so many people still are. Most companies are prepared to deal with an expensive failure or two, so if you're well liked that can work better for you than being fantastic at your job.
posted by rikschell at 8:46 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you're putting members of the public in danger, consider changing jobs. Otherwise welcome to work: everyone has jobs like this, at least sometimes.
posted by ead at 8:51 AM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Exponentially nthing hazyjane and fraula. People used to learn on the job with a mentor all the time -- they called it "apprenticeship." Now, few companies want to spend the time and money to train people, so they wind up taking care of themselves in that department. I certainly did that at my old job and, you know what? I wound up getting a great new job because I trained myself. But... guess what ... I have some impostor syndrome going on myself. It is extremely common.

You keep talking about "luck." Your own resourcefulness, social skills, and tenacity have a lot to do with your continued tenure at your job. I guess you could see your possession of those traits as being luck, but... give yourself some credit here.

The Ada Initiative does training on preventing and mitigating impostor syndrome. It's primarily aimed at women: you didn't mention your gender but I think you'll find it helpful no matter what.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:06 AM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Nobody really catches on (as far as I know) because I am the only one on my team that's working in this particular field.
How should I cope?


In my experience, impostor syndrome is largely fostered by having only social feedback that you do not feel you can rely upon as evidence of your competence. There are two things that help: 1) social feedback you feel you can reply upon and 2) some kind of objective measurement of actual performance. I think a big part of your problem is that you are the only person doing this at your place of employment and that is convincing you that other people are just too clueless to see how bad you are. I don't think you have a good measure here of your actual performance.

Metaphorically, you are saying "I run faster than everyone else in my office -- except that is meaningless because everyone else in the office walks with a cane or is a giant cephalopod who doesn't even have human legs. I think I suck as a runner!" But, if you measure yourself against other runners, you get a better idea of whether or not you are any good at this. Or you can do things like time yourself and look up stats to have some kind of objective measurement of performance.

You can get more social feedback that you can rely upon by networking with other people in this particular field. Join a discussion forum or three for people in this field. Attend a conference. Talking (or even just listening) to other people who do the same kind of work you do will give you a clearer idea of whether or not your experiences are truly an indication that you are totally clueless or an indication that you are relatively normal for a competent professional doing this kind of work.

You can also look for some means to make objective measurements of your performance. You can either look for existing measurements they use at work, or you can make up your own if your employer isn't providing you with anything you find meaningful, or you can find articles on industry standards and see how you measure up against those.

So, step one: Find some means to get a meaningful measure of your performance. If that measurement shows you are competent and doing fine, then stop freaking out. You are fine. If it shows that, no, really, you are surrounded by fools and the company is about to melt through the floor like Chernobyl and it will be all your fault because you suck, then start looking for different work.
posted by Michele in California at 12:01 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


FWIW, I recently took a web development course taught by a software engineer who repeatedly, explicitly, confidently, and laughingly told us this is exactly how her job works: someone asks her to do something, she says 'uh sure', and then she goes and googles it to find out how that thing is done.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:36 PM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


I want to definitely reinforce that this is common, and the ability to handle this and produce work that meets your organization's needs is one of the most valuable work skills you can have.

If you aren't in a field that could create liability for your employer (accounting, legal, compliance, etc.) or where people's lives or safety are on the line (engineering, medicine), but rather something that contributes value without generating a lot of risk, then keep going if you like it.

When I started out making online courses, I really had no idea what I was doing. I did tons of googling (typically at work rather than at home in the evenings) and read books and attended webinars and made lots of not-that-great courses early on. But I got better and better, and quickly became the go-to person in my organization. That wasn't because I was a world-class online course designer - I was pretty clearly not world-class, and a lot of people out in the world were making way better online courses than I was. But my organization didn't need world-class courses. They needed courses that were clear, effective, and produced in a timely manner.

I had the opportunity to take a somewhat introductory instructional design class. Having that foundation was very helpful. It was only a few days of training, but it did give me a framework to hang the rest of the work on. I also found conferences very helpful, and googling helped me come across a few well-maintained blogs that were helpful and dependable sources of information. I also accumulated a lot of relevant books. Everybody I have ever worked with that had a ton of books in their workspace knew their stuff.
posted by jeoc at 12:51 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or it could be that you really are in over your head. Really, your choices are to stay gainfully employed and live with the physic pain that creates, or leave in an attempt to find happiness and risk not being able to find a reasonably good paying job.

I've been there and don't like either solution. Good luck.
posted by cccorlew at 1:03 PM on April 25, 2015


Nthing everyone here, and super-favouriting soccermom. This is a great thread- everyone's been there! It really depends on if you think you'd enjoy the work if you felt more secure, and if you're not googling "Which tube is the aorta".

Anecdotal: I'm a professional with 15 years experience in a technicalish field. Recently I was in a meeting with a crew of top-level people being where they explained a new tool to do a Thing- a Thing that I had NO IDEA what it was, nor that I was supposed to be doing this Thing. So I raised my hand and asked the question that would expose me as a total fraud to all my peers. Well guess what-- not ONE person in the crew had ever heard of Thing either! We all assumed everyone else knew and were planning on scooting back to our desks and googling it.

Definitely seek out some work-specific training, but also the Ada Initiative has some great resources on dealing with impostor syndrome- you might enjoy this video: https://adainitiative.org/what-we-do/impostor-syndrome-training/#writing
posted by Erasmouse at 2:48 PM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


You say you're a "real impostor" and you're not asking us to tell you otherwise. That's impostor syndrome.

From your post, it appears you're getting your job done. You find effective ways to handle the work you're given. You're not an impostor, "real" or otherwise.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:03 PM on April 25, 2015


Let's face it, anonymous: you're an imposter imposter. You'll twist any piece of evidence to support your claims:

When I first started this job, there was this collegue that is generally extremely smart and sharp and he took a lot of interest in my work. I thought that he will catch on about how little I know but our personalities meshed so well that he became one of my best friends. I was lucky again.

Imposter fail. Um, but have you considered cognitive therapy? Because your filtering and disqualifying skills are impressive.
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:27 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Metaphorically, you are saying "I run faster than everyone else in my office -- except that is meaningless because everyone else in the office walks with a cane or is a giant cephalopod who doesn't even have human legs. I think I suck as a runner!" But, if you measure yourself against other runners, you get a better idea of whether or not you are any good at this. Or you can do things like time yourself and look up stats to have some kind of objective measurement of performance.

You could do all that measurement, or you could just accept that nobody else there can run, and you can run well enough that you're getting done whatever running they need done, and they're happy to pay you for it.
posted by aubilenon at 4:24 PM on April 25, 2015


Yeah, you can relax. This is very common.

I've spent years in recruitment and years in management. I've seen a lot of CVs and honestly, people generally have much lower expectations than you think.

I'm hoping it makes you feel better than I had a department head working under me who used to do some big IT job at NASA but couldn't work out to use our simple database. I also had another one who had done communications for the UN and was consistently flaky; not meeting deadlines, not turning up, giving me nothing I couldn't have googled myself.

Just chill. If they're happy with you, you're doing fine. In the meantime, do some stuff to brush up on your industry's best practices for the sake of your own confidence.

And I have felt like a fraud lots of times too. At my last job they let me oversee 2000 people...job before, as a manager, I had four minions. It was because I was delivering the goods. I think you must be too.
posted by stellathon at 5:13 PM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just quit a job like that! I lasted a little over a year, largely pretending I knew what to do. Eventually when I got a new supervisor, she noticed, and the jig was up, so I pretended even harder.

That landed me with a severance package and unemployment benefits, so, it might work out for you. Just roll with it. Work is bullshit anyway.
posted by meeeese at 12:52 AM on April 26, 2015


There is actually a worse problem to have, one related to your problem but one that your problem negates: thinking you know everything about your field. When you think you know everything about your field, THAT's when you're dangerous enough and in a position to really mess up, and nobody's going to cut you any slack when it happens. Ask me how I know....

You don't think you know everything, so you will be thoughtful and careful in your work; in short, a good employee.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:09 AM on April 26, 2015


FWIW, I recently took a web development course taught by a software engineer who repeatedly, explicitly, confidently, and laughingly told us this is exactly how her job works: someone asks her to do something, she says 'uh sure', and then she goes and googles it to find out how that thing is done.

I work with lots of freelancers and this is a common joke, that someone calls with a project and you say 'uh yeah sure I can do that' and then google what you just signed up for as soon as you hang up. This is basically how I have learned every professional skill related to my job. Really when clients call I deflect any questions about specifics even if I think I know the answer (and generally, I don't) I just want a general idea of what the project is... so I can google it in more detail and think about it before I say anything that makes me look stupid.

Being able to do this, so I have heard, is what makes you A Total Pro to work with.
posted by bradbane at 3:12 PM on April 26, 2015


Go to some training seminars and social meetings for people in your field. You'll likely realize, as I did, that you know a lot more than you thought, and are fine.
posted by xammerboy at 3:18 PM on April 26, 2015


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