Here’s the bad news about imposter syndrome: it doesn’t get better the older you get. In fact, it can get worse.
My first professional job was as a policy analyst on transnational financial institutions for a think tank on Capitol Hill. I was fresh out of college and I had no background in macro-economics. But with the hubris and naivete of youth, I figured I would figure it out. I did.
Afterwards, I moved to New York, where I was hired as the membership director of a global non-profit at the United Nations. I was responsible for coordinating 15 national chapters around the world, with a combined membership of 9,000. Again, I had no background in non-profit management, event planning, or communications. Still, I did the work.
Rinse, repeat for my various positions over the years:
- Head of communications for an international activist network
- Activist coordinator at several UN meetings, conferences and summits around the world
- Assistant director of educational programs for at-risk teens using virtual worlds, live video streams, and social media
- Senior manager of digital learning programs at a major science museum
- Instructional designer of online courses for science educators serving 10K youth nationwide
For all of these positions, I didn’t have any formal education or experience. All the preparation was on the job and self-taught. For years, I suffered from self-doubt, fear of being discovered as a fraud, and insecurity about my job position.
Only recently have I been starting to realize that for the large majority of us, we are all just making it up as we go along.
The bad news is that is doesn’t necessarily get better as you get older. Despite my years of diverse work accomplishments, I still experience moments of imposter syndrome. In fact, they can feel worse, since they are colored by the fact that I’m so much older than a lot of my colleagues, and yet still have a lot to learn and get up to speed on.
The Negative Nelly part of my brain feeds me all sorts of self-sabotaging thoughts: People your age have achieved so much more than you. Your friends earn so much more than you. You aren’t as far along as you should be.
But then I remember that while I’m older as a human, I’m a relatively newcomer to this particular industry. So in practical work years, I’m still coming up and learning the ropes, while my colleagues have been in the trenches doing this work for much longer than me. So it makes sense that I’m where I am.
I think I’m not alone in feeling this way. As industries rapidly change and job needs shift, people are going to be shifting jobs, careers and even industries more and more. In effect, they will continually be starting over in some field at least 3-4 times over their lives. A 40-year old software engineer might find their position is no longer relevant and they need to change to a new field and start over.
So I am practicing going easier on myself. I remind myself that I’m in my first year working for a public media organization, instead of freaking out that I’m “out of my depth.” I’m exactly where I need to be. And like all my other jobs, whatever skills and knowledge I lack I can acquire in due time.