Impostor 2/4/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

…he yelled, and grabbing my hand with one hand, he picked up the sword in the other and prepared to cut off my hand. My brothers recognize this as part of a ritual, but many more of us recognize the little voice in our head that calls us an impostor when we feel like we’ve reached a level higher than we should be.

Called the “impostor syndrome”, it’s something that those of us who reach high levels professionally, academically or even in other disciplines of our lives. This is a matter of self-confidence being lower than the level we reached. For a time, I was the director of a forensic lab, and in that position, I always wondered if I was up for the task. Now, on reflection, I realize that I was. The fact is I wasn’t given the chance I deserved, but looking at my accomplishments, there is no doubt I was where I needed to be. What I lacked in experience I made up for with intelligence and adaptability, but every day I went I still felt woefully unprepared. Even after these accomplishments.

I’m not entirely sure the impostor syndrome is all bad. The reality is that I’ve earned every position I’ve had, paid for in full with my sweat, tears and sometimes even blood, and the proof that I belonged in those positions are the successes I’ve had while in them. And yet, part of the success I’ve had in those positions is due, at least in part, to the impostor syndrome.

I worked my proverbial derriere off, mainly because I was trying to prove that I belonged. I wanted to prove that they made the right decision in hiring me and I worked to prove it. My education and background gave me the foundation to be successful in those positions, but hard work was at least as important.

If you find yourself in this situation, where you are suddenly working at a level above your comfort level, there are a couple of things that can help. First of all, don’t let them see your doubt. You can do it, you’re ready. I often open my courses by telling my students a simple truth, that they are smart enough, they are talented enough and that they have the background they need to be successful in the course. You can do it, and you have to believe it, at the very least in your head even if you’re having trouble convincing your heart. Trust in the people who hired you. If you are not ready for the position, you wouldn’t be in it.

That’s not to say that you can’t learn more about the job. It’s been suggested that our nation is filled with people incompetent at their job. The theory is that when we do well in our job, we get promoted until, finally, we reach a point where our incompetence shines through. At that point, we stop climbing the corporate ladder and we settle in for the long haul in a position where our incompetence is just enough to keep us from being fired. Okay, that’s kind of antithetical to the point of this post, but the reality is that you’re ready for the job, whatever it is. Trust in their judgment, and trust in your foundation to perform the job. If you can do just that long enough to get started, there will be a day that you realize just how good you really are.

Second, don’t worry about messing up early on. Every job has nuances and details that we are not ready for, even if we’ve seen somebody else doing the job for years. Part of these nuances are personal, as each person that holds that position puts their own personality and spin into it. Yours will be different. Some will improve the position, and some, frankly, will be rejected by the higher-ups even if they do improve the way things are going. That’s okay; it’s only temporary. You’ll get better.

Third, use that angst. If you feel as if you’re above your level, that’s just concern that you’re not talented enough to do the job, but lack of talent can be made up with humility and effort. Take the time to learn, don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit that you don’t know something, and put in the effort to prove your worth. When I was first hired into that position, the captain to whom I reported was an incredible leader. He was kind, wise, and patient. Early on, we had a situation (I can’t recall the details) where I was afraid our mistake resulted in a lost conviction. His response? Calmly, forgivingly, he simply said, “don’t worry about it; we’ll get him the next time.”

Great advice from a great man. So, if you mess up, don’t worry about it. You’ll get it next time. You can do this. You’re better than your heart believes.

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