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Careers Café

Imposter syndrome and holiday parties


It turns out that a lot of people relate to the imposter syndrome. Great! We can all enjoy one another’s company at our self-deprecation party, all the while being plagued by our private thoughts that we don’t deserve to be at the party.

That was my attempt at a segue to parties. Holidays bring parties, which bring lots of opportunities to talk about what you’re doing with your life. Those opportunities, in turn, bring lots of chances to feel…like an imposter.

One of the main reasons why I continue to love the work of Herminia Ibarra is her understanding of the importance of stories, how they contribute to others’ responses to us, and how they shape our view of ourselves.

Of course, others have their own stories about us, and those stories tend to get shared at moments of togetherness – like holiday family gatherings and Skype calls. Maybe one of the career stories you anticipate goes like this: “You’re wasting your time and your degree. Plus, you have no idea what you’re going to do with your life. Shouldn’t you know by now? Why haven’t you gotten a tenure track job?” If you anticipate stories that bother you – whether they come from you or from others – have some counter stories at the ready.

The trick is that the stories need to be true. But they don’t need to be the most pessimistic version of the truth. In fact, before you get to that gathering or Skype call, play around with the options. What are the most seemingly outlandishly positive career stories that you could tell that are also true?

For example, what story can you create from the fact that people with advanced degrees do well in the labour market, that one of the best ways not to waste your degree is to look for ways to contribute through different kinds of work – not just the tenure track?

For that matter, what are the best career stories that aren’t yet true – and that you can make true by your next family gathering or Skype call? Can you add a plot twist, by having accessed career services at your university, because you don’t want to be dependent on sessional teaching; by having a few careers you’re finding out more about; by having started pursuing a small project or time-limited volunteering gig on the side – one that genuinely interests you – because you’ve seen (in career stories like the ones in VersatilePhD, FromPhDtoLife and elsewhere) how valuable those “side experiences” are?

Finally, you can throw in a surprise ending. What could you ask of your audience that will help to focus their energy in a useful direction? Are there people you’d like them to introduce you to? If they were to set aside, for a moment, their current career ambitions for you, could they share what they see as your core strengths and positive character traits?

Everyone has multiple stories – some demoralizing, some motivating. Before accepting and spreading the self-deprecating ones, explore the other possibilities. Don’t automatically edit out the stories that make you sound good; you owe yourself the chance to explore all your truths and to get your audience on your side.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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