Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

You’re smart, ambitious, and eager to make your mark in the world. You’ve built a foundation for a long and fulfilling career, and even have “proof” in the form of accolades and positive feedback. Maybe you recently got promoted to “that dream job”.

Yet, on some days, you can’t shake the feeling that you’re not truly deserving of what you have. When you reflect on your career so far, you attribute your success (“if I can even call it that“) to a series of fortunate events strung together by a few key people you were lucky to meet. Secretly, you know you only got to where you are because “the role happened to become available at the right time“, or “I was lucky to be placed on a high visibility project that caught the eye of my CMO“. On bad days, you’re overwhelmed with anxiety that one day a thread will be unraveled, exposing what lies underneath: you got here by fluke and you’re not actually as awesome as others may think.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. As it turns out, 70% of people feel this way too, and their name for it is ‘Imposter Syndrome’. From personal experience, Imposter Syndrome typically comes and goes in waves. At times, when you’re riding the highs of landing a new client or launching a kick-ass new product, it lays dormant. At other times (we’ll discuss common triggers later), it can feel like a dead weight dragging you down, no matter how hard you try to rise above and recall your merits.

Paradoxically, Imposter Syndrome plagues some of the smartest, most accomplished people in the workplace. If you’re aware of the psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect – a cognitive bias where people tend to overestimate how smart they are, and where the inverse is also true – then Imposter Syndrome makes more sense. Smarter people are more aware of their shortcomings and gaps in knowledge and skill. In other words, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know!

Without a background in psychology, I’ll avoid making it seem like I understand the complex inner workings of our brains and why we feel Imposter Syndrome. Instead, I’ll discuss some likely triggers for Imposter Syndrome, and how you can prevent it from limiting your career potential.

Onboarding to an exciting new challenge

Getting that promotion or landing a new job should make you feel on top of the world. After all, it probably means you killed it in your last gig, or are heading for the proverbial greener pastures. But most people put so much effort on landing the new job, they lose sight of what they’re actually signing up for.

Especially in high performance cultures, but true of most workplaces, promotions are generally awarded based on a combination of historical performance and future potential. It’s not that your boss thinks you can kill it immediately in that step up – it’s that they’re fairly confident, based on what you’ve demonstrated in the past, you’ll be able to figure it out. But the more different your new job is from the old, the more like a fish out of water you will feel at first. Competency takes time to build. For everyone.

If you’re a self-proclaimed high achiever, going from the “top of your game” to uncertain terrains is extremely uncomfortable. You realize you don’t have all the answers, at least not right now. Asking dumb fundamental questions becomes the norm. While you rush to understand everything immediately, inevitable roadblocks will prevent you from getting there as quickly as you’d like.

What can you do?

The most important first step is to map out a specific and time-bound plan for your onboarding, and solicit alignment from your new manager. At my workplace, we call it the 30-60-90 (which represent tasks and outcomes for 30-, 60-, and 90-day milestones). This method works because you are cutting down a huge, daunting task of “become instantly awesome at new job” to bite-sized, manageable checkpoints. Aligning your manager to the plan minimizes miscommunication and clarifies what success looks like from the onset.

Another thing I like to do is to keep a “small wins” diary. Anytime you achieve a positive result, even a small one, write it down. Revisit that list from time to time to remind yourself just how much progress you’ve made.

Approaching mastery in your role

There’s another side of being at the “top of your game” that can lead to Imposter Syndrome. The Harvard Business Review famously coined this term the “Summit Syndrome” in a 2007 article that has perhaps become even more relevant with today’s majority millennial workforce.

Inside the mind of most high achievers, the gears need to be constantly spinning for them to feel stimulated. During the “climb” in learning a new job, the stimulation is constant. Each time they figure something out (especially those annoying, tangly bits of a knowledge-based job), they’re hit with an adrenaline rush. So on, and so forth, until they’ve essentially mastered the tasks of their current job. Unable to just relax and ride the inertia for any meaningful duration, they begin to fear complacency and loss of career momentum.

In other words: if i’m not moving, I must be standing still. And we all know there are fewer things scarier to a high achiever than standing still.

what can you do?

My advice is to zoom out and look at your work life more holistically. What is the long term vision for your career? If you don’t have one yet, that’s ok. Try to imagine the types of experiences that would be really exciting for you. Think about someone you really admire and ask them (or read up) about their career path. When you do this exercise, you will hopefully realize that a) there is not one path that gets you somewhere, and b) “somewhere” can look very different a few years from now. That’s all part of the fun. Enjoy the ride.

Returning from a hiatus

In today’s workplace, there are lots of reasons why someone might take an extended leave from work. Perhaps you just had a baby and home life looks a little different now. Or maybe you had to be a caregiver for a loved one. Or maybe you needed a critical surgery and months to recover. Regardless of the situation, you are not the same person you were before you left the workforce. Coming back from a long hiatus can make you forget what it feels like to perform at your best. Particularly with today’s rapid pace of change, even leaving for a few months (let alone years, for some) can really make you feel behind.

Re-learning how to work is a big part of integrating back into the workplace. Sure, there’s the getting back into routine, opening a laptop at a set time and communicating in slack or emails. But there’s a lot more than that. If you’ve landed at a new company, you’re probably working with new people, most or all of whom know nothing about you. Maybe you’re a little rusty at how to run an effective meeting. Add virtual meetings into the mix – which may be quite foreign to those who left the workforce before March 2020 – that’s a whole new skill to build! And then there’s the actual work itself. So many variables are probably different – new processes, new clients, maybe even new corporate jargon someone from strategy dreamed up.

Nothing will erode your professional confidence quite like the feeling of starting over again. No matter how good you used to be at your job, there will undoubtedly be a learning curve to climb as you re-integrate.

what can you do?

Beyond the onboarding plan and “small wins” diary that I suggested for starting a new role, people in this situation can also focus on building a network of allies and supporters. Talk to people who have gone through something similar, and ask about their experience. Proactively talk to your manager about special arrangements that you may need to adapt to your new circumstance. Last but certainly not least, give yourself some grace. Like I said before, it takes time to build (and re-build) competence.


In North American work culture, you learn to become your own loudest advocate. Being aware that you are experiencing Imposter Syndrome and finding ways to curb it will ultimately allow you to take charge of your career, and say yes to new opportunities.

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