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Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Derail Your Career!

Britnai Nunley, Accelerate Leadership Coach at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, discusses five mindsets that can hold you back in your career and offers strategies to boost your confidence in your qualifications.
Don’t let imposter syndrome derail your career! -

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As an engineer, you’ve already proven your willingness to forge a new path and acquire difficult skills. Hopefully you feel confident, capable, and ready to take on new challenges. But what if you don’t?

Many women, especially those in positions or fields where women are underrepresented, find themselves fighting secret doubts about their ability to do their job, even as the evidence says otherwise. Known as imposter syndrome, these persistent fears of being exposed as a fraud or incompetent are common, with up to 70 percent of people feeling them at some time.

But common doesn’t mean harmless. Constantly doubting yourself can lead to overwork and burnout. It can make you hesitant to apply for graduate programs or higher positions as you ask yourself, “Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes to succeed?”

Five Mindsets That Can Hold You Back

In The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Dr. Valerie Young identifies five mindsets that can feed your imposter feelings, and suggests ways to shift your thinking. The characterizing quotes below are from her book.

The Perfectionist

The quote: “I should have done better. Mistakes are unacceptable.”

The flaw: No one is perfect, and it’s not productive to expect that from yourself or your coworkers.

The fix: See errors as lessons learned or opportunities for adjustment. Try getting things 85 percent done, then reaching out for and incorporating feedback. Accept that sometimes good-but-not-perfect is enough.

The Expert

The quote: “If I were actually smart, I’d already know this.”

The flaw: You can’t acquire every skill and know every fact before you start a project.

The fix: Just because you don’t know everything doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. Draw on your own strengths, reach out to team members for their expertise, and make note of future learning opportunities.

The Soloist

The quote: “The only achievements that really matter are the ones I got myself.”

The flaw: It’s wildly inefficient to struggle alone instead of asking for help when you need it.

The fix: Realize that you can show your own good judgment by knowing when to ask for resources or advice. Confident people don’t hesitate to reach out and include the talents of others.

The Superhero

The quote: “If I were really competent, I’d be able to do it all.”

The flaw: No one can do everything all of the time. Trying to do so can only lead to burnout.

The fix: Know when to delegate. Practice saying no. Prioritize. Seek balance in work and life and allow others to support you.

The Natural Genius

The quote: “If I were really smart this would be effortless.”

The flaw: If you only take on things you can easily achieve, you’ve shut down opportunities to grow and attain new skills.

The fix: See struggles as learning opportunities. If you are working hard to achieve something, that likely means you are learning and expanding your capabilities. Many new roles or challenges require us to grow into them.

Move Forward by Recalling Past Success

As you push ahead into new challenges, don’t let your internal doubts sabotage your efforts. Recognize your accomplishments, large and small — and make a list, including personal and professional deeds.

When you doubt yourself, review your lists. A quick reality check can remind you that you are an accomplished, capable person with proven successes at work and at school.


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