Recently I had the amazing honor of giving the wrap-up keynote at the 2015 SLA conference. The conference itself was a pretty intense several days, as SLA is currently undergoing some very difficult but important revisions to its structure, vision, core competencies, and identity. But conference discussions also provided a vibrant, real-life example of how we all need to be able to meet changing circumstances head-on, even if the choices we have aren’t the ones we’d hoped for.
My wrap-up keynote carried the same message. Titled “Improvising Your Career: How to Not Freak Out, Run for Cover, or Have to Move In With Your Folks (or Kids),” it focused on the necessity of having, to quote The Start-Up of You (Hoffman and Casnocha, 2012), a permanent beta mindset when it comes to your career. In other words, consider yourself always in start-up mode, and assume that your most important core competency is your ability to adapt. To improvise. To tap dance as fast as you can….
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Basically, imposter syndrome (IS) is the sense that you’ve been promoted beyond your abilities, that you’re in over your head, that through some combination of luck and others’ misperceptions, you’ve landed in a position for which your skills are wildly inadequate.
It’s the career version of performance anxiety, aggravated by a dread that you might be “found out” at any moment. It may not be rational, it may fly in the face of years’ worth of accomplishments, but it’s estimated that some 70 percent of successful men and women experience this chronic and often crippling self-doubt.
And that’s exactly what hit me when my boss gave me what he thought was terrific news about my promotion. His rationale was that he’d worked with me for 18 months, knew my strengths and weaknesses, and thought this was something I’d be good at. My reaction was that he’d completely overestimated my strengths, underestimated my weaknesses, and we were all about to find out in the most awful way possible…In essence I was going to be “found out.” Classic imposter syndrome.
Do Any of These Sound Familiar?
Imposter feelings, i.e., a sense of being in over your head, of feeling “undeserving” of success, may manifest as:
Feeling like a fraud who has somehow managed, intentionally or unintentionally, to deceive others as to your capabilities
Assuming that your career achievements are due to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or other external factors not based on your actual skills or value as a contributor
Dismissing, discounting, or downplaying your successes to yourself and others with statements like “anyone could have done it,” “it wasn’t that important,” or “I really got lucky on that one.”
Points out IS expert Valerie Young, “self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive…..”
IS is most prevalent among perfectionists, academics, and others whose careers are based on performing intellectually. This anxiety can be accompanied by fear of success, a pressure not to fail, or unrealistic expectations in yourself in new situations.
Coping – or masking – mechanisms may include being overly diligent (read: working really, really hard), figuring out what behavior influential people in your life want from you and “mirroring” that – no matter how inauthentic that behavior is to the real you, or studiously avoiding drawing any attention to your strengths or accomplishments to avoid being seen as overly confident.
The IS Checklist: Where Do You Fall?
Wondering if you’re suffering from IS? Some of the questions experts use when assessing the presence of IS include:
Do you secretly worry that people will discover you’re not as smart or competent as they thought you were?
Do you have a difficult time accepting praise?
Do you hesitate to take on challenging opportunities because you’re afraid your lack of ability will be exposed?
Do you avoid presenting your ideas or opinions in meetings in order to avoid exposing your self-perceived lack of knowledge?
Do you have a hard time taking credit for your accomplishments, instead attributing them to good luck or others’ efforts?
Do you see making mistakes as a personal failure, and not being perfect as a weakness?
Do you feel like everyone you compare yourself to is smarter, more capable, more deserving of success than you?
Do you worry with every new responsibility that this will be the one that unmasks you as a fraud?
If you’ve got mostly “yes” answers here, join the club! Almost every friend I spoke with (mostly librarians) who had achieved any level of career success as defined by status, salary, or title, felt exactly the same way.
Getting Beyond the Imposter Syndrome
If it causes you enough anxiety, IS can limit your life in many ways: it can stop you from taking a great new job, limit your earning power, constrain your ability to contribute all that your skills qualify you for, and quite frankly, make working much less fun than it might be.
So what are some ways to get beyond the self-doubts and anxiety that IS lands on (and in) our heads? Here are some tips from the experts, all of which I tried and am happy to report actually do work pretty well:
Recognize when IS may be driving your reactions, for example, when you’re feeling panic rather than elation at a job promotion, and work to short-circuit your emotions with a strong does of reality-check. Feeling incompetent does not equate to being incompetent.
Realize that what you are experiencing is not a sign of weakness or incompetence, but rather an indicator of a conscientious nature, and a sense of seriousness about responsibility – any idiot can be overconfident, so pat yourself on the back for your thoughtfulness.
Accept that just about everyone else you know, in a similar circumstance, would probably experience the exact same self-doubt reaction (based on the fact that almost every librarian I know is an over-achiever); what’s important is whether you allow that anxiety to hold you back.
Be willing to discuss your feelings with trusted friends and colleagues, to get them out of your head and into the reality light of day.
Learn to recognize when you are discounting yourself and your accomplishments with statements like “I was just lucky,” and try instead statements like “I worked really hard/was really on top of my game/did some great writing, etc.” Let yourself – or rather insist – that you OWN your accomplishments.
Check your self-doubt against reality by revisiting those accomplishments; my guess is you have, in fact, faced unfamiliar situations or roles or responsibilities and managed to figure them out just fine.
Develop a healthy respect for the limits of your abilities, knowing that these aren’t weaknesses, these are simply areas that you haven’t yet chosen to develop into strengths. Then be honest about those areas when a promotion possibility is under discussion so you won’t feel like you have to “hide” those areas; instead, you can ask questions openly and learn from those who have those strengths.
Lighten up, and unload the burden of perfectionism. Any new opportunity involves a certain amount of tap-dancing, and that necessarily entails learning new things, making mistakes, and having to ask lots of questions. This is called growth, not incompetence.
Trust that the people who’ve worked with you and promoted you are not idiots – in my case, my CEO (whom, as already stated, is one of the smartest guys I know) had seen me work for 18 months and decided that I would do a good job coordinating strategy for the company. I may doubt myself, but I don’t doubt him, so his confidence in me boosts my confidence in me.
Pay attention to whether you’re feeling IS anxiety or a true mismatch between a job and your real self. If the latter, then make a change to a position that aligns more closely with who you are and what you enjoy. But be sure this change is based on positive growth rather than damaging fear.
In my case, I resorted to a large glass of wine, an evening of soul searching, and finally a determination that I really wanted to take on the strategy role to help drive the company’s impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Then I took out my laptop, and started making my to-do list….
Well, for starters, it shouldn’t really be a speech, but rather a brief exchange between two people momentarily sharing a connection in passing. But essentially, your piece of this exchange should be a roughly 30-second explanation of what you do (or what you would do amazingly well if given the opportunity) in language that’s clear, concise, and conversational. It’s an essential part of your professional brand, and yet often it’s one of the toughest things to come up with.
Based on the idea that you’re in an elevator with someone who asks you what you do and you’ve got the length of the elevator ride to dazzle them (or at least pique their interest), your description should focus not so much on what you do, but on the benefits of what you do for your employer, customers, or perhaps clients. If possible, you want to tailor this information to resonate with your listener; as Mary Ellen Bates has pointed out, this is much easier to do if you can first find out a bit about your fellow elevator rider.
As noted, you want your self-description to explain not just what you do, but also the benefits those skills provide. So, for example, you might start out with a statement similar to one of these:
“I’m a librarian at the Castlewood Public Library, and I use my information skills to work with job-seekers who are unfamiliar with online job-hunting to help them increase their confidence and success rate.”
“I’m a programmer with a company that develops websites for online retailers, and I help clients translate their ideas into terrific purchase experiences for their customers.”
“I manage a great team of information specialists who manage and analyze data for a business consulting firm that places in the top five customer satisfaction rankings every year.”
“I’m an HR specialist and I get to work with all of our new hires to make sure they’re successful in their new careers with our college library.”
“I’m studying to get my master’s degree in information science so I can get my dream job working with a law firm that specializes in environmental law.”
“I recently graduated with a degree in instructional design, and I’m currently volunteering with the local community college while pursuing job openings with all of the different types of companies that need instructional design.”
Creating a Conversation
Notice how each of these statements positions you to your fellow elevator rider: you’ve expressed enthusiasm for what you do, you’ve indicated that you’re an engaged professional, and you’ve demonstrated that you’re sufficiently confident to be able to talk to a stranger.
By also graciously asking about the other person, you’ve demonstrated your social skills and emotional intelligence. In fact, this approach provides you with two benefits: 1) you don’t come across as a self-absorbed, boring jerk, and 2) it tells you whether the conversation might develop into a valuable professional connection for you both.
In addition, each one of these possible introductions gives your companion an opening to ask you more about what you do. It’s almost as if you’re providing the opening line of an interesting story. If you’ve expressed enthusiasm for your work (or potential work), people are likely to want to hear more, which gives you an opportunity to talk a bit more about your career and/or career aspirations (with the goal of demonstrating your value and contribution). If asked, you can give an example of something your skills enabled you to do that you’re really proud of, or think especially interesting. Or you can ask the other person to share the same about himself or herself.
While doing research for a client recently I came across the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions – basically, you’re building on your existing positive emotions to broaden your positive experience of the world, and then continuing to build out from there. It dawned on me that this is a terrific analogy for what most of us are ending up doing with our careers.
We start with a basic “platform” of LIS skills, then broaden and build out from there, usually either to create new opportunities or in response to new job responsibilities. The question is, in what direction does it make sense for us to broaden and build? If you commit to ongoing professional development, you want to make sure the new skills you’re mastering open up the opportunities that pique your interest.
A Build-and-Broaden Career
I spoke with an amazing information professional today, Michele Lucero, who is the Director of Client Development for LAC Group. Her career began with ten years of public library work. But between then and now, she’s worked
– in law librarianship (first legal research then management),
– for a vendor (client relationships, market development, training),
– as a Communications Director for another law library (public relations, social media, events planning, branding),
– as an adjunct professor for an MLIS program as well as for another university in a non-MLIS program (instructional design, teaching, mentoring), and
– as a local coordinator for a remotely-delivered MLIS program (outreach, communication, marketing, recruitment).
During this period Michele also completed an MBA to boost her business skills, a master’s degree in Dispute Resolution to enhance her ability to work with individuals and groups (including clients), and is currently completing her doctorate in Organizational Leadership. In addition, during her less than three years with LAC, Michele has progressed from Director of Business Development & Recruiting to Director of Business Development & Client Services to Director of Client Development.
The “Broaden” Part
Among all the interesting aspects of Michele’s professional trajectory, one of the most fascinating to me was all of the “broadening and building” she has done throughout her career. When asked what additional skills she felt had been important to pick up along the way, she mentioned sales, project management, instructional design, team management and leadership, conflict management, customer service, public presentation skills, relationship management, and recruitment, which is a combination of almost all these skills.
Needless to say, Michele is an exceptionally high achiever, and if she weren’t such a delightful, caring, and warm human being we could almost get away with tagging her as a fluke of nature. But the reality is that she’s a perfect example of how far – and in how many diverse directions – you can take your career if you adopt a “broaden-and-build” mindset.
Where Will You Build?
Although I’m not at Michele’s level of amazing breadth of skills, my own career has broadened beyond my initial MLIS skill set to include instructional design, business writing, online content development, client relations, marketing, public relations, personal coaching, project management, and team leadership, among other skills. Some were developed in response to career opportunities, others to new responsibilities. But regardless, each eventually ended up being part of my core skill set for which clients would hire me.
When you think about broadening and building your own career, think about what kinds of opportunities you want to open up in your future, even if those are at your current employer. What additional skills will enable you to contribute in a new way or at a higher level? You probably don’t need another master’s degree, but it’s just good “career insurance” to be regularly adding new elements to what you know and can do with that knowledge.
The alternative is to stay right where you are…while the world, and the profession, passes you by.
The SLA Core Competencies Revision Task Force has completed its initial revision work, and would like to ask all interested parties (including MLIS students interested in a special library-related career path) to weigh in with their comments. (The document draft is included below; the final document will be graphically designed.)
The SURVEY is brief (perhaps 5-10 minutes) and if you’d like to participate, please complete it by Friday, May 9. On behalf of the Task Force Members (Kim Dority, Kate Arnold, Anne Caputo, Susan Fifer-Canby, Cindy Hill, Deb Hunt, Carolyn Sosnowski, Jan Sykes), thank you in advance for your review and feedback.