When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I would do next. Many of my friends had jobs or graduate school lined up, while I—the chronic procrastinator —had nothing. After a few months of working odd internships and relying on a service job to keep the bills paid, I finally landed a copywriting job—and then soon after used that experience as leverage for a position more relevant to my interests (job hopping pays off!).
I was less than one week into my new job, and imposter syndrome took over—and constant thoughts of, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I do know that I should not be here, on repeat. I kept my head down at meetings, let my supervisor respond to any questions asked of our department, and took twice the amount of recommended time on projects. The thing is, I knew I had all of the experience and skills to check off the boxes needed for the position, but it all felt like a fluke. Maybe I didn’t really know half of what I claimed to and had just been lucky to make it as far as I had. You know that scene in The Office when Creed is somehow made regional manager, then spends most of his time in charge getting the rest of the office to make up gibberish acronyms? It feels a lot like that, except I wish I had half of the confidence of Creed.
In reality, I know I’m being dramatic. I know that the people who have supported me haven’t been lying the entire time. I also know people always say that I’m not alone, and few people ever really know what they’re doing—but when you’re the one hearing that advice and not giving it, it can be pretty isolating. But as cliche as it may be, it’s true, and a bit of perspective goes a long way.
Imposter syndrome is real—and tons of people have it
Based on a study from the International Journal of Behavioral Science, around 70 percent of people have experienced imposter syndrome—although some research suggests that women are more prone to these feelings than men are, along with first-generation college students, students studying in STEM fields, and millennials. Those that suffer often refrain from participating in meetings, hesitate to apply for jobs that they aren’t 100 percent qualified for, and think asking for help on tasks makes them look weak or inexperienced.
Think you might have imposter syndrome? Here’s a test that can offer some clarity.
What should I do if I don’t know what I’m doing?
In my experience, the last thing you want to do when you don’t know what you’re doing is admit it—both to others and yourself. Luckily, you can start with the less intimidating of the two options. Whenever you start to spiral into thoughts of inadequacy, hit the pause button. What’s at the root of this feeling? Maybe you received some constructive criticism that felt less constructive and more like pure criticism. Or you put too much work on your plate and think asking for help will mean admitting defeat.
Whatever the reason, don’t let it lead to frozen, anxiety-induced blank stares as the text cursor blinks on your laptop screen (been there). Is this the worst thing anyone has ever said? Will you get fired if you ask for help? In both cases, the answer is probably—almost certainly—no. Give yourself a little credit, a little self-awareness, and a lot of perspective. Recognize what you’re feeling, stop yourself before you plunge into a panic spiral, and don’t let this challenge get the best of you.
If you still feel yourself struggling with not knowing what you’re doing, consider bringing it up to your supervisor or a mentor. Odds are, they have your best interests in mind and want to ensure that you’re equipped with everything you need to succeed. It is, of course, a nerve-wracking conversation to have—and flip-flopping over whether or not to bring it up will just make you feel worse in the end. Asking for help won’t make you seem weak—in fact, your boss will probably appreciate the initiative.
Sending an email instead of asking face-to-face can reduce the intimidation factor; reserving a private room frees up the conversation to be more open, away from the ears of eavesdroppers. Finally, think over what you’ll say in advance. You don’t have to come out and say, I have no idea what I’m doing, but admit that you’re struggling to nail down certain skills, and plan where the conversation will go from there.
Picking things up takes time. Developing new skills takes time. No one expects you to be perfect on your first try, and no one—not even the star of the office—has all of the answers. When in doubt, take a note from Creed, and fake it’til you make it