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Job Changes and Imposter Syndrome

Over the last few weeks I had a number of discussions about changing jobs and careers.  Some have been related to my own upcoming change, while others have been related to people interested in a new opportunity.  One thing I’ve noticed in either case is a tendency when encountering a new position to get very nervous.  Essentially such a mid to late career change seemed to incite the same Imposter Syndrome you notice with folks younger in their careers.

What is Imposter Syndrome

So let’s back the truck up a bit and first fill you in on what Imposter Syndrome is.  You hear about it a lot in the younger bloggers among us.  Imposter Syndrome is essentially a tendency for individuals to doubt their own competency and fear  they are truly a fraud or imposter.    It’s a very real and studied phenomenon, no doubt.  But over the last few years as I’ve read others posts on the Imposter Syndrome I just scratched my head and didn’t get it.

I Didn’t Understand Imposter Syndrome

Don’t get me wrong,  I experienced imposter syndrome in years past.  Starting my career and my current company was quite nerve wracking for a while as I worried they would “find me out” and let me go.  But that is all in the far past.    For at least the last 3 years I’ve been at the very top of my current career path.   Eyes wide open I had moved into a job where I was already the expert, I had no expert competition in my chosen area, and was looking to just enjoy it.  There was no imposter syndrome, because I knew I was the expert.    So like any person susceptible to recency bias, I forgot all about that feeling.  

Starting a New Job with Relative Proficiency but Many Experts

Fast forward to my latest job change.  The reality is I did not go in blind to this change.  I took on a program leadership role for M&A.   I have experience in this area having been a project manager in M&A working with many of the same people (including the individual I am supplementing/eventually replacing) almost a decade ago.  In some ways I’m still one of the experts.  The difference is, not everything in the role do I have experience with.  Furthermore, unlike my current job where I was expected to be the one true expert, in my new job I’m surrounded by co-experts that are easily my technical equal or even superior.    In other words I have competition as an expert and I have some gaps.  Perfectly normal for any new job. 

Imposter Syndrome Reappears

 The thing is for the first time in nearly 4 years I actually was nervous about starting the new job.  I worried would I make a fool of myself in front of my peers that I had such respect for.  How could I ever expect to live up to my predecessor who did his job diligently for decades?  I had full on imposter syndrome.   I’d thought previously that the further on in your career you got the more this disappeared but apparently not.

Imposter Syndrome is Common 

Lest I thought it was just me I saw something similar in those who were looking to replace me in my old job.  Some of the folks I talked to as potential candidates I would consider again my equal or better.  To the point where some of them questioned whether they were qualified, while myself as someone looking to ensure my replacement is a quality fill was secretly jumping for joy at the quality and breadth of replacement candidates.  (Yes I really have a vested interest in my old groups continued success.  Some of the roadmap I’ve laid out for my successor will truly revolutionize our company if implemented smartly).  

Imposter Syndrome can be a Positive

The common thread, in each case it was that fear of taking on something slightly different where you might be compared to a similarly high caliber individual in the field.  Now before I go any further let me state, Imposter syndrome on the whole is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can spur you to great things as a motivator to avoid being found out.  Likely if you feel like an imposter you’ll be more open to constructive criticism, training, and advice.  Those three things can theoretically make you a bigger success, not a worse one.

How to Manage

 Like anything else you must turn and face that fear to succeed.  Use the fear to drive you to learn more about your tasks and master them.    Take and seek out constructive criticism.    If things get a little to worrisome feel free too discuss those concerns with a mentor or peer.   In fact use the imposter syndrome as a driver to ask more questions.  The more questions you ask the more you’ll learn and the better your results.

Extreme Imposter Syndrome May Require Help

Now of course like anything too much of imposter syndrome can be a bad thing.  In extreme cases it can be debilitating.  In those situations you may want to talk to a professional, but I suspect such extreme cases are rare.  However imposter syndrome causing anxiety like I described earlier in this post is common and you likely can overcome it on your own.  The key is to recognize it, and then address it.

Have you ever experienced mid to late career imposter syndrome?

8 Comments

  1. Mr. 39 Months
    Mr. 39 Months September 12, 2018

    I think another aspect of this is for folks who are “rising” in their field (i.e. more responsibility, job duties, more pay, promotion, etc.) In each of these, you are entering unknown territory and aren’t sure of your skills (as you note above).

    If you are moving laterally or down, I don’t think it is as evident (i.e. “I’ve got this” syndrome).

    Mr. 39 Months

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 12, 2018

      Very true. I’m technically moving laterally in this case, but in some ways I’m also changing career paths so your point still applies.

  2. Mrs. Groovy
    Mrs. Groovy September 12, 2018

    How quickly success comes to you plays a role too. Sometimes when you get something without feeling as if you worked hard for it, you think you don’t deserve it. Then again, I’ve heard actors with long, illustrious careers say they worry that every job might be their last job. They think they’ll be found out as a fraud.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 12, 2018

      Very true, some people are just naturally quick learners.

  3. Dan
    Dan September 12, 2018

    Most people spell that Impostor not Imposter.

    I have suffered from a form of Impostor Syndrome. It’s not that I think I’m a fraud but I doubt my ability to learn new jobs. When I was younger, I was able to change jobs such that my previous experience had little to do with my new jobs. For the past 11 years, my job progression has been more incremental; each new job drew heavily from the cumulative experiences of my previous jobs. I was quite confident going into each of those jobs that I could handle the new job requirements.

    I’ve been in the professional workforce for 26 years but I’ve been immune from impostor syndrome for the past 11 years as I mentioned previously.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 12, 2018

      I knee jerk almost changed it to impostor with your comment then changed it back to imposter. Apparently both versions are in the dictionary, who knew?

      I had that immunity for a while, but not with this latest change.

  4. Avery Melliere
    Avery Melliere January 31, 2019

    I read through your article. If you don’t mind I wondered if you might answer a question I have. How should I handle imposter syndrome? My wife thinks that I might have it. Any advice at all would be greatly appreciated.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 2, 2019

      In general, I try to focus on what I have been successful at. I also remind myself that most people new to a job have no clue what they are doing. Combined it reminds me that at minimal I’m an acceptable level of competent. Then I go focus on something else to get my mind off it.

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