Every New Year, we resolve to improve our lives. We’ll eat better, work out more, read a book a month, quit smoking, cut back on drinking. Everything will be different. But it’s a somewhat rare New Year’s resolution that focuses on career improvement. That’s astounding, considering most of us spend the majority of our waking hours working, and most of us are unhappy doing it.
Why not make 2017 the year you ask for a raise or promotion, find a new job, or even start a new business? There are always reasons not to: family obligations, tight finances, poor timing. But, for many people, the real reason for putting it off resides even deeper, in the belief that they’re not good enough.
I’m not that great at my job, we think. I don’t work as hard as my colleagues. I don’t have the right education or training. A new position will mean networking or public speaking, and will anyone actually care what I have to say? The feeling that you’re a fraud and don’t deserve success has a name — impostor syndrome — and it’s incredibly common. But it doesn’t have to stop you from taking on new challenges.
I struggled with low confidence when I began my academic career and questioned myself when I first stepped into a classroom 15 years ago to teach undergraduates. Even now, as I work with managers and executives in addition to undergrads, I still feel pangs of doubt when I present to a room of 50 accomplished professionals. Will what I have to say be valuable to experienced businesspeople? However, over time, I’ve learned that almost everyone else shares the same concerns, and I’ve taught myself to recognize these fears and then move past them.
If you look beyond co-workers and friends to the cultural figures you admire, you’ll find they, too, wonder if their success is just a fluke. As chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is one of the most powerful executives in America. Yet she still faces “situations that I fear are beyond my qualifications,” she wrote in her bestseller Lean In . “I still have days when I feel like a fraud.”
At Apple, executive Alan Dye, charged with helping to make products easy to use, has admitted “I’m scared to death that at some point I’m going to get found out.” He feels like CEO Tim Cook is one day “going to realize the truth about me, which is I’m terrible.” And when actress Natalie Portman gave the 2015 commencement speech at Harvard, she described the near-paralyzing self-doubt she felt arriving on campus as a student in 1999: “I felt like there had been some mistake.”
What can you do to overcome these feelings of inadequacy that so many of us experience? A first step is to recognize that being a novice actually has some important benefits. When you are new to something, you see it with fresh eyes. You’re not steeped in the conventional wisdom of a field. I’ve gotten many of my very best research ideas from undergraduate students, for example, who know little about my field but can think creatively about problems without the burden of industry platitudes. Eli Lilly and other companies actually call on outside innovators to help provide fresh insight into vexing problems with the help of the Waltham-based crowdsourcing platform InnoCentive.
A second tip for combating impostor syndrome is to do what you can to adopt what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “learning mindset.” The mistakes you make are an inevitable part of the learning process, not evidence of your inner failings. Of course, that’s sometimes hard to do for the self-critical perfectionists among us. A related piece of advice would be to have the same type of empathy and compassion for yourself that you would have for a good friend. If you wouldn’t beat them up over a mistake, don’t beat yourself up, either.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember you’re not alone. According to a 2014 survey by Vantage Hill Partners, the number one fear among executives worldwide is that others will discover how incompetent and unprepared they really are. As The New York Times’s “Sketch Guy” Carl Richards wrote about his own impostor syndrome: It “has not gone away, but I’ve learned to think of it as a friend. So now when I start to hear that voice in my head, I take a deep breath, pause for a minute, put a smile on my face and say, ‘Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get to work.’ ”
So get to work this year, even if it’s scary, even if you feel unworthy. Because, look around: We’re all scared, too.