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When I was 25, the editor-in-chief of a national newspaper in Romania put me in charge of two sections. I thought it was pure luck. Not much qualified me for the job, and I figured I just happened to be there at the right time. For years, when people asked me what I did for a living, saying I was a journalist made me feel like a fraud, so I’d always respond, I work at a newspaper. You couldn’t call me a bad journalist if I never said I was one.
Fast-forward 10 years: I left that job, moved to the U.S., but was hardly making a living, working as a server in restaurants while studying on my own to start a new career in PR and marketing.
In my first two years here, I got turned down for so many jobs that it became clear to me: You’re not good enough and they can see it. You’re not going to fool anyone.
This voice even managed to sabotage opportunities that came my way. When a friend suggested that I apply for a writing job at an email validation company called ZeroBounce, the first thing I told her was that I wasn’t sure I was a good fit. They were looking for someone to write three articles a week for their blog.
But I somehow managed to apply anyway. To my surprise, a couple of days after I’d sent a sample, the CEO, Liviu Tanase, wrote back: “We loved the article. When can you send another one?”
I thought I hit the jackpot. Leaving the restaurant wasn’t an option, but that was OK as long as I could write, gain experience, and make some money. That worked great for about three weeks, when Liviu emailed me with a mind-blowing offer: he wanted to hire me as their full-time PR Manager. Since I was already writing their blog, wasn’t it natural that I would want to do more?
No. In fact, the idea paralyzed me.
On the surface, it seemed simple: Of course I could leave my low-paying job, become better at what I do, and help a company grow. But that little voice came back into my head. Are you really up to it? Do you deserve this?
PR had been something I’d done in Romania for six years as a side hustle. I had some success, but again, I rationalized it as a matter of circumstance. I worked at the newspaper for so long and all my friends in the press supported me. But in America, nobody knew me. A week into the job, the CEO would realize he’d made a horrible mistake and fire me — and rightly so!
Your own voice can be deceiving.
I asked for time to consider his offer. Never have I experienced more fear and self-doubt. I was tortured. Night after night, I stayed up until 5 a.m. trying to decide what to do. At one point, I almost got angry for getting the job offer — I was fine selling fried rice and writing three articles a week, why did this have to ruin it?
I was feeling what so many people often feel when faced with a new obstacle or challenge. Impostor syndrome can be the root of many irrational thoughts. All the signs were there, but I was so panicked that I wasn’t aware of it.
Ironically, during one of those sleepless days, this quote from Richard Branson showed up in my LinkedIn feed: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” My first reaction was…What?! No way, first I have to be ready, and then I can say yes.
As my own thoughts were sabotaging me, I began gathering advice. My mother helped the most. She told me about all the things she did in life, in spite of her fear, and how they turned out to be some of the best things she’s done. Silencing my own voice and listening to hers brought me clarity and peace.
What if fear only wants you to succeed?
Next, I remembered this quote from J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar, which has been imprinted in my brain since I first read it.
“You must do everything that frightens you…Everything. I’m not talking about risking your life, but everything else. Think about fear, decide right now how you’re doing to deal with fear, because fear is going to be the great issue of your life, I promise you. Fear will be the fuel for all your success, and the root cause of all your failures, and the underlying dilemma in every story you tell yourself about yourself. And the only chance you’ll have against fear? Follow it. Steer by it. Don’t think of fear as the villain. Think of fear as your guide, your pathfinder.”
Remembering this helped me to look at fear not as something I was supposed to run and hide from, but perhaps at something to run towards. What if my fear of this job wasn’t there for me to conquer, but to take me by the hand and show me what was beyond? Would I be curious enough to see what was on the other side?
Still nervous but more willing to take the leap, I decided to share some of my doubts with Liviu, the CEO. By this point, anyone else would have probably picked another candidate. Instead, his response was kind and reassuring. “You’re not going to be alone,” he said. “I’ll teach you everything, and I’ll be here whenever you need help.” It turns out that being honest about my doubts gave me even more information about the job and the company. As much as I had wanted to turn down the position immediately, leaning into the discomfort paid off.
Impostor syndrome gets easier as your skills improve
It’s been two years since I signed the contract, and I’ve never had a better job.
Has it been hard? Oh, yes. In my first year with the company, there were no days off. I worked every single weekend, sometimes 14-hour days. When I wasn’t working, I was devouring articles, books, courses — anything I could get my hands on to make myself a better PR and marketer. And the CEO did keep his promise to me, every day.
I know now that impostor syndrome doesn’t simply go away, but as you become stronger and better in your profession, that irrational voice in your head gets quieter. You begin to recognize it when you hear it, and instead of believing it, you can point to your experience as a way to tame it.