Dealing with maybe impostor syndrome (?) in new job in new field
September 28, 2018 11:23 PM   Subscribe

I went from being the SME at my old job who knew how to do everything with my eyes closed and brain half-off to being a tiny baby at my new job in a completely different field. At 3 weeks in, I feel like I'm drowning. Is this normal?

They knew when they hired me that this was a field I'd never worked in before, and that I had very little experience with Access or Excel. They liked my resume and interview and expressed that they felt I could be trained. It feels like every task is incredibly complicated and I am taking copious notes, making step-by-step guides, and asking lots of questions, but I just feel like an idiot all day, every day. I'm thinking so much and working so hard that I am going to sleep at 9:30-10pm because I'm exhausted. How do I get past this stage of going out to my car to cry every day? Are there any good resources specific to the new-job adjustment period?

(To head this off, yes, I'm on psych meds and have a good relationship with my doctor, but am not in therapy right now. History of anxiety and bipolar disorder.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Three weeks into a brand-new job? It'd be weirder and more suspect if you weren't feeling overwhelmed. Remember that the path to getting good at anything leads through the land of sucking.
posted by praemunire at 11:50 PM on September 28, 2018 [26 favorites]

I think it is normal. 3 weeks into my current job I was still onboarding. My job at that point was taking training classes, filling out forms, collecting RSA tokens, getting my badges, and figuring out the best route for my commute. I think that time is the only thing that will get you past crying in the car. Just think, some day you will internalize all of your processes, and you'll only need your copious notes as occasional memory joggers.
posted by Rob Rockets at 12:09 AM on September 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yes it takes a while, I think most places assume you won't be that productive for the first month and will keep improving as you learn and refine procedures for at least six months or so. I never notice improving at the time but then after a while there's a point where I realise I can do it all now! Also helps when other people start so you're no longer the new guy. Good luck!
posted by JonB at 12:35 AM on September 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

This sounds within normal to me. Getting lots of sleep is helpful so your brain can consolidate knowledge. Also keep on top of your calories- you will need more food and stable blood sugar to fuel all this extra mental exertion. Make sure to eat extra protein and fat. Caffeine will help too, and drink lots of water. For me the first month of a new job feels like quicksand. By month two I'd expect things to even out more.

Mental health stuff can be exacerbated by stress- make sure to keep taking amy prescriptions and maybe keep a simple journal so you can track any mood changes or behavioural shifts that might point to a bipolar event (keep it simple so it's not overwhelming- maybe each day before you leave work, put a rating out of 10 or draw an emoji face on each day in your planner, or text yourself one or two words about that day's mood).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:50 AM on September 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

Be easy on yourself. Easier said than done, I know... . At my job, which is probably totally different from yours but also requires familiarity with field-specific software and lots of little fiddly moving pieces, we assume that it will take two or three months before anyone new (oh, and that was me five years ago) will be able to handle a project entirely on their own, and a year or more before they'll have solid professional judgment. If you're being told by your supervisor that you need to shape up, then talk to them about specific strategies, but from the information in your post it doesn't sound like the people working with you have a problem? Go easy on yourself and give yourself time.
And you're coming straight from Job A, where you were a rock star, to Job B, where you're a rookie, so you feel the difference a lot more because it's such a jarring switch. You don't have to expect yourself to be able to do at 3 weeks into Job B the same things you could do at 3 years into Job A.
posted by huimangm at 1:32 AM on September 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

At my job we assume that a qualified applicant won’t be able to truly shine until 6-9 months in because they have to learn so much about how we do things. We won’t even include ppl in the formal annual evaluation cycle with anything other than ‚meets expectations‘ if they’ve been there for less than three months. So go easy, you‘ve reached the point where you know how the photocopier works and hopefully have all the hardware and workstation setup you need, you‘ve now learned names and all the brain capacity taken up by learning those things is freed up to learn the‘ll get easier and things will start to fall into place!
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:56 AM on September 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

I once worked a job where for three full months, newbies were expected to shadow senior colleagues to learn as much as we could before actually doing anything. Learning curves are huge and tbh learning excel & access is a nightmare. Plus you're doing all the right things both at work & home which is more than a lot others in your shoes might do...this kind of self-discipline & focus is what you were hired for. The rest is just a matter of time.
posted by wheek wheek wheek at 4:20 AM on September 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh yes to what everyone else is saying, and please be kind to yourself! At my employer we literally don’t expect people to be at 100% until the 6 month mark. The first month new hires are still trying to understand what people are saying because with all the acronyms and code names floating around we pretty much speak our own language!!

As an example, i just switched into a new role at my current employer a month ago. I’ve been with the company for 8 years, been promoted a few times, know more than most around me about how things work and am the SME for a lot of things — all of which is the reason I’m now in the role I’m in. And even my first 3 weeks were completely overwhelming and full of a lot of WTFs. And my bosses expect nothing less :).

So my advice is to just try and relax and get some sleep. You’re doing everything right. Go slow, don’t rush (better to go slow than make mistakes) and soon it will all be fine and make sense and feel more natural. Just gotta accept that you’re still in the noobie stage but at some point you’ll realize ah, wait — i do know how to do that, got it! Just gotta give it some time and be easy on yourself!
posted by cgg at 7:04 AM on September 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a senior person in a technical field who has been involved in hiring and management. Literally every place I've ever worked has assumed that new hires, no matter how experienced, take 1-3 months to become even remotely productive. Even if you have the basic skills, there's always a ton of organization-specific knowledge that's needed to do more than the simplest of tasks. On top of that, new hires have to figure out how they fit into teams, how collaboration functions here, etc.

Don't be so hard on yourself. You need time to adapt, and that's normal.
posted by tocts at 7:19 AM on September 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's really hard to learn a whole new job, and if you're like me it's also hard on the ego to go from SME to noob. Things that have helped me include:

* taking tons of notes
* documenting any new processes I'm being taught if there's no existing documentation (that way I can produce something, hand it over to my trainer and ask for feedback and they can tell me if I've correctly captured X process)
* giving myself permission to ask all the questions I feel I need to ask
* lots of positive self-talk and patience
* asking for things that will help me learn. If someone is showing me how to do X and I think I've got it I might ask to attempt it while they observe, because something I did sticks with me a lot better than something I watched.
posted by bunderful at 8:16 AM on September 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a manager I’ve always figured three months before someone was useful and six before they were fully cooked.

The question for you right now shouldn’t be "am I competent to do this job", it should be "am I more competent than I was yesterday to do this job?"

Feel free to get feedback from your manager on that point too.

And yeah feeling overwhelmed is COMPLETELY normal at this stage.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:17 AM on September 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

documenting any new processes I'm being taught if there's no existing documentation (that way I can produce something, hand it over to my trainer and ask for feedback and they can tell me if I've correctly captured X process)

This. At several companies I’ve either created or updated the onboarding documentation. It’s useful for both you and the next person and no one ever thinks about updating it unless they are in the middle of the process. Gives you something useful to do too.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:23 AM on September 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

At a training I went to about managing change, the instructor talked about the four stages of competence:

1. Unconscious incompetence -- you have no clue about anything at all, it's generally totally outside your field or interests and probably something you've never even really thought about.

2. Conscious incompetence -- you know what you don't know, and you can see the gap between your current skills/knowledge and what's needed

3. Conscious competence -- you know how to do things, but you have to really concentrate on them to do them right. Think about being a beginning driver.

4. Unconscious competence -- you know how to do things without really having to think about them. Think about being an experienced driver on your daily commute.

Change, he said, generally means moving from unconscious competence to conscious incompetence, which is the most uncomfortable stage because you can see how much you don't know and how much you're messing up but you're still in the process of developing the skills to stop messing up and it's just overall really frustrating.

So, as others have said, it sounds like you're right where you should be, and it's just that you're at a frustrating point in the learning curve right now. Be nice to yourself and hang in there.
posted by lazuli at 9:12 AM on September 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

I agree it is totally normal, and may not actually be your fault. A lot of companies are really poor at onboarding + have unrealistic expectations of new employees. I would actually say that is the norm, nowadays.
posted by saucysault at 9:52 AM on September 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

The nature of the free market is that even if everyone's idea of their own value in a job were accurate, half of the people would be doing worse than average. They are the bottom half of the bell curve, and perceptions of them are bound to be unfairly formed. When we talk about "Imposter Syndrome", there is a red herring solution like "you really are qualified. you just think you aren't." Consider that there is always a bottom half of people, and all other things being equal, a 50/50 chance that you are in the bottom. And if you think you are in the Losing Half, there's a fair chance you actually are! And if so, can you really be happy by building a false story in your mind that you're in the Winning Half?

People talk about workers as "qualified" as if it's an objective standard written in stone somewhere. But it's just a measure of what an employer can reasonably expect to hire at one point in time. And suppose that everybody in your profession stepped up their game to reach what currently counts as "qualified". That "qualified" bar would raise up higher to reflect a new median level of effort from y'all busting your ass a bit harder.

So for example, when the Internet got started, a worker that knew how to write code in HTML was a qualified web developer. And then a bunch of people figured out how to do that, and the job pool expanded globally to include large numbers of workers from India, China, and elsewhere. It became necessary to combine the HTML-coding skill with something else, e.g. graphic design, marketing, programming, in order to be considered "qualified". The inherent value of the first skill (HTML coding) never changed - the economics around it did.

It's hard to imagine there is some inherent value to a thing like writing HTML code. But what if it were something more tangible like building a fire? If you build a fire, you get warmth, an ability to cook food, a way to signal people far away, and a deterrent to wolves eating you. There is something solid and unwavering about the value of your being able to build that fire. That same quality can be found in other capabilities that the market assigns a more arbitrary value to. It's worth considering what you can do through this inherent value lens.

Being qualified is a game nobody can win in a permanent way - don't let it claim your soul! Show up to work, put in an honest effort, keep abreast of industry trends that affect your competitiveness. But see it as a game you must play - not an expression of your true worth. Protect your self-value and define it by something other than the brutal whims of the marketplace.
posted by ErikH2000 at 11:51 AM on September 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

My most recent question on the green was related to mentoring a newer coworker. Trying to be a mentor has made me realize just how much more leeway I give others in their learning curve than I give myself.

Try coming up with a list of every task that you'd expect someone else to know how to do in your role. Include things that might seem silly or basic, like "calling coworkers by their names", "opening Excel", or "dressing appropriately for work". Also include things you know how to do from your previous job that you'll use but might seem like second nature at this point.

Give each item on the list a score from 0-5 based on how well you know how to do it. If you know even the slightest amount about how to do it, even if you know where to look but haven't memorized it yet, don't give yourself a zero.

This will probably seem overwhelming and like there's so much you don't know how to do. Here's the trick - if you get a 1 on a majority of items, you're doing amazing for 3 weeks in. If you get a 0 on most items, this is either a failure of onboarding or your list includes tasks you won't need to do in the near future (i.e. in the next month or so). Also, being able to even come up with a list means you're on the right track.

Ask for your coworkers' feedback on how you're doing on these items compared to how they expect you to be doing, or how they were doing when they were 3 weeks in. I'm 99% certain that your expectations of yourself are higher than their expectations of you.

Revisit the list in a couple weeks. If you've improved on a few items, congrats! You're totally on the right track! Don't rush yourself.

Pick a couple things you haven't improved on that are most valuable to your job and come up with a strategy for improvement. This might just mean asking a coworker how they learned to do it.

Finally - and this is easier said than done - try to focus on how great it is that you have this opportunity to learn. Jobs I can do in my sleep are great for my self-esteem, but having room for improvement and seeing that improvement is so much more rewarding for me long-term.
posted by ersatzhuman at 8:44 AM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

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