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The Secret That Helped Me Overcome Self-Doubt in My Career

Do you ever feel like a fraud? You need to read this.
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Photo Credit: Belathee Photography

It has been a great year for women owning their success. Case in point: Katy Perry, beaming on the latest Forbes cover for being the highest-paid entertainer in the world during the past year. Perry is no stranger to rocking the boat. From her provocative hit songs to any number of her concert or award ceremony outfits (seriously, pick one), Perry appears to be the height of empowered confidence. Perhaps most notable about the feature on Perry’s success is the boldness with which she owns it, going so far as to say, “I am proud of my position as a boss, as a person that runs my own company . . . I don’t want to shy away from it.”

For the rest of us mere mortals, that kind of brazen confidence can seem just as difficult to come by as Perry’s raw talent. Who are these women, the ones who seem to command a room, take on new job responsibilities outside their expertise, and try new ventures with seeming ease and aplomb? What’s their secret?

I can’t speak for Katy Perry, but I think I know the secret. It’s one that I’ve learned painstakingly slowly. For the past fifteen years I’ve gathered little shards of truth in my hands, lesson by lesson, examining them through squinty, skeptical eyes. I often find them too flawed to keep. Some lessons, however, have been straightforward enough to quiet my skepticism and profound enough to warrant holding on to. Despite myself, I’ve assembled them moment by moment, ever so slowly accumulating a collection. All together, these little lessons have become heavy in my arms, forcing me to acknowledge the truth that they tell.

No one really knows what they’re doing.

Time and time again in my career, I’ve been the youngest or least experienced person in the room, staying quiet about my question or my idea only to have someone far more tenured speak the very words I was thinking. For years I thought that there must be a magic formula, a certification of expertise, an actual secret that the powerful people knew that I didn’t. In every job I’ve had—from a Fortune 500 company, to a scrappy start-up, and even my stint as a stay-at-home mom—I’ve wondered at times if I was a bit of a fraud. Did I really know what I was doing? Did my bosses (or peers) realize that I was making it up as I went along? Did everyone else know something that I didn’t?

It turns out that this type of self-doubt, described as “impostor syndrome,” is actually really common among high-achieving women. Rather than internalize our successes and attribute them to our actual abilities, we chalk them up as a series of lucky breaks. Rather than think of ourselves as qualified, we feel like we’re faking it. Rather than view ourselves as having earned our success, we sheepishly wonder how long we’ll be able to pull it off before the house of cards comes crashing down.

Maybe it was this very impostor syndrome phenomenon that led comedy host Roseanne Barr to declare that “the thing women have yet to learn is that no one gives you power, you just take it.”

I can’t even guess how many hours of sleep I’ve lost in my lifetime fretting over my perceived lack of qualification to tackle whatever task was at hand. How many emails I’ve written only to delete before sending, sure that somewhere in those sentences I was revealing my lack of knowledge. How many times I’ve asked for advice, only to be told what I already knew. How many times I allowed myself to slide under the radar instead of rising to the occasion.

Enough! Enough of the self-doubt, of the nonsense about questioning our qualification, of the certainty that someone else could do it better and that everyone’s going to figure that out soon enough.

Questioning yourself every once in a while doesn’t mean that you don’t know what you’re doing. It means you’re human. It means that you care about doing your best, and the simple fact that you care probably means you’re doing a better job than most. We can “What if?” ourselves to death. What if it doesn’t go as planned? What if it flops? What if people hate it? What if I fail?

I would challenge you to ask a different set of questions. What if it all goes just fine? What if it’s a raging success? What if instead of waiting for someone to give you the power—to show up, to make the choice, to call the shot—you just took it, just this once? Would you feel, if only for a moment, that you may actually know what you’re doing?

There’s only one way to find out.