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How Impostor Syndrome Is My Career Superpower

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The women laughed, chatting away in Russian and nodding encouragingly at me. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. This wasn’t a good sign — I had just arrived for my first day on the job as a Russian translator.

I was in a tiny cabin deep in the bowels of a Soviet trawler. Water slopped rhythmically against the hull. The ship’s three cooks were wedged in knee-to-knee beside me. They handed me a gallon-sized tub of clotted paste, along with a spoon.

The women stared at me as expectantly as linebackers. What to do? I scooped up a spoonful of the paste and stirred it into my coffee. Amidst the laughter, I finally caught what was being said: “No, no — don’t put it in your coffee, silly — you’re supposed to just eat it.” Ah — it was smetana — sour cream. Apparently, a staple of the women’s diet. And thus, teetering at the edge of incomprehensibility, I was welcomed into the world of work as a Russian translator. I felt like a total impostor.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but being an impostor was my secret weapon.

I’d learned Russian at the Defense Language Institute after enlisting in the U.S. Army right out of high school. I’d done so well in my studies that the Army had given me a scholarship that allowed me to get my first degree in Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Washington.

The translator job came along soon after I’d gotten out of the Army. It seemed like an exciting opportunity — I’d live with the Soviets on their trawlers and translate between the American and Russian fishermen who were working together to catch fish in the Bering Sea.

Theoretically, given my extensive training in the language, I was in good shape to work as a translator. Except, fact was, I’d never spent much time conversing casually with native Russian speakers. The Russian I was supposed to translate on the trawlers hurtled along at the speed of a bottle rocket, loaded with colloquialisms I’d never heard before. Beyond all that, there was the engine noise of the ship. It was exhausting, like spending 14 hours a day trying to grasp intimate, heavily accented conversations in a noisy restaurant.

For my first few weeks on the job, I woke every morning filled with dread, wondering where I’d go off target that day. “What does that word mean?” I’d ask. Wait minute, did I just ask if the bread was coming out of the soul? My self-doubt was sometimes overwhelming. What had ever made me think I could do a job like this?

I persisted through feeling like an impostor. In fact, every day, precisely because I lacked confidence, I listened. Really listened, in the open way you listen when you’re lost and trying to find your bearings. Every day I worked hard at my Russian, trying to improve my understanding, acquiring new vocabulary faster than I’d ever dreamed possible.

There’s a popular term for that uneasy feeling that you’re not as good as the other people around you — that feeling like you’re a fake. It’s called “the impostor syndrome.” You’re supposed to tackle the feelings of fakery at every turn, working to boost your self-confidence. But I don’t believe this. Impostor syndrome is a good thing.

The reality was that I was an impostor. I didn’t speak Russian nearly as well as the native Russian speakers I was surrounded by, or even as well as a decently experienced translator. But I didn’t try to pump up my self-confidence by telling myself that I already had extensive training in Russian and that it would somehow magically make me good enough. Instead, those feelings of being an impostor helped me to dig in and learn — and ultimately, to become a successful translator.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve gone through more than my fair share of careers — Captain in the Army, Russian translator, radio operator at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, electrical engineer, professor of engineering. Every single new job has started with me feeling like an impostor. I’ve worked through it — embracing it. That feeling has kept me open, listening and learning with a beginner’s mind.

One of the biggest problems I’ve observed in people starting new jobs and making substantive changes in their careers is not the lack of confidence that comes with feeling like an impostor. It’s overconfidence. Time after time, I’ve noticed that the uncertain ones who watch, listen and grow with the job are the ones who succeed. But the people who land with confident self-certitude? Not so much. They’re too convinced of their own abilities to be open to learning and adjusting.

After a lifetime of career change, if I’ve discovered one important tool for success, it’s this: Embrace your inner impostor, so you can waltz toward new challenges that, in the beginning, feel beyond your abilities. You’ll be glad you did.

Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., is the Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning, McMaster University, the author of the new book Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential (Tarcher-Perigee, 2017), and creator of Learning How to Learn, from Coursera-UCSD.

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