By Perminus Wainaina
What is the biggest hindrance between you and your dream job?
We’re always looking for ways to advance in our careers and get to the top of our professions. We take short courses, grow our soft skills, network with managers and other professionals, all in a bid to climb the corporate ladder.
For Caroline, she always wanted to be the best in everything she did. From her time in school, to when she joined the job market, she always gave her best. However, she had an enemy pulling her away from success. An enemy stronger than any force –herself.
Caroline suffered from imposter syndrome, which greatly affected her life and career. I interviewed Caroline on her journey and struggle. Most importantly, I wanted to know how she overcame the condition and what you and I can learn from her experience.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Before we start, I’d like to expound on imposter syndrome.
Have you ever had an accomplishment that you felt there was luck involved? While we mostly own the successes in life, there are situations where we feel there was luck or some external power involved.
For people suffering from imposter syndrome, this is what they feel about any achievement in their lives. They feel as though they had nothing to do with it, and it was just a lucky outcome. On top of this, people who suffer from the syndrome often feel like they are frauds, and will soon be discovered.
In most cases, someone with imposter syndrome will not know they suffer from the condition.
Here’s the interview with Caroline.
Who is Caroline?
“Carol is a very quiet but dedicated person. I believe that I should give my best in everything I try. I am comfortable operating from the background, away from the attention and limelight.
I come from a family of high achievers. This put pressure on me to not only do my best but to surpass the achievements of those around me.
I have to admit, I haven’t always been a confident person –which is why I believe I enjoy operating from the background.
I studied a Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmacy from a leading university in Kenya.”
Would you say you were a bright student?
“Not to blow my own trumpet, but yes, I was a brilliant student. I was good in class, and always among the top of my class.
You have to understand, both my parents and siblings were brilliant. I refused to be the one who didn’t perform. In my academics, I gave my very best.
Also, I went to a national high school. Everyone would get A’s, to be at the top, you had to work hard. Looking back, I believe this helped me nurture my work ethic.”
After finishing your undergraduate, did you immediately join the job market?
“Yes, I worked in a few governmental organizations. However, my dream was to work for a leading international pharmaceutical firm.
I found it rather difficult making the transition from government institutions to the private sector. Most companies felt I didn’t have the experience needed to work for them.”
What did you do to gain the experience?
“I knew one of the effective ways to get to where I wanted would be to upgrade my education from a reputable institution, then work with a top pharmaceutical firm. This would help me get my foot in the leading firms in my industry.
As a result, I left for the United States to pursue my MBA.”
What was your experience studying in the USA
“After I had applied, I didn’t believe I would get a position in the school. I knew there are thousands of other applicants who were more qualified and deserving than me. I was surprised when I was among the selected few.
When I started my Master’s, I met with students from all over the world. I felt insignificant, and like I did not belong. I feared that one day; they just might notice they made a mistake and send me packing.
The lecturers were impressed with my work, this, however, did little to convince me that I was meant to be in the school.”
After you finished school, did you come back to Kenya immediately?
“I wanted to come back home. But first, I needed to gain some experience working with pharmaceutical companies abroad. Towards the end of my MBA, a leading biotech company offered 4 positions to the students.
More than a hundred students applied for four positions.
I was very excited about the opportunity to work for the biotech company. However, I knew out of the hundred applicants, there was no chance I would get selected.”
We’re you selected for the position?
“I was in the initial shortlist, and there were several interviews that followed.
All through the process, I felt the company had made a mistake. That they hadn’t meant to include me in the shortlist, and they would soon realize this.
In the end, I was among the 4 selected to work for the company.
In the company, I was one of three Africans. I felt this made me stand out. I wanted to hide behind everyone else, and go unnoticed, but my skin color didn’t help the situation.
During presentations, I would look at the audience and feel they just realized I was unworthy of the position and I was just about to get fired.
After a year working with the biotech company, my contract was over. The pressure had gotten to me, and I chose not to renew the contract.
This is when I decided to come back to Kenya.”
Did you get a job in Kenya immediately?
“I had a few Skype interviews. One of the interviews was with one of the biggest pharma companies in the region. I never thought I would get the position, but I decide to apply nonetheless.
I was shocked when I learned I had gotten the position.
I had just resigned from the biotech company and I was headed back to Kenya.
I was glad I wouldn’t stand out anymore, my skin color wouldn’t shine a spotlight on me.
When I left the biotech company, the vice president of the organization personally wrote my recommendation letter. I couldn’t believe the nice attributes he spoke about. To date, I still look at the letter and wonder how he saw my true potential despite my efforts to hide from being recognized.”
How different was the job in Kenya from the one in the USA?
“In the States, they’re very accommodating. They understood I was from a different culture and background. They assigned me what they called a ‘professional buddy’. Essentially, this is someone to help you learn the ropes, someone to walk with you and guide you at work. The professional buddy system went on for about six months. By then, you’d be well versed in your duties.
In Kenya, there was just an induction, and about a week to learn your roles. After that, you’re on your own.
This did not help my self-doubt, I felt like everything I did was a mistake.”
How senior was your position in the Kenyan company?
“I was overseeing six countries. You can imagine the pressure that came along with the position. When you add the self-doubt, the job felt like torture.
Since I was in a management position, I had to make a lot of decisions. But every decision I made felt like a mistake.
With the position, I had to be in meetings with the senior managers. Every time I contributed, I felt like they would realize that I was a pretender, that I wasn’t suited for the position.
According to the top managers, I was excelling at my job. I felt like the success was just luck or some supernatural power and soon, I would be exposed as a fraud.”
How long did you work for the Kenyan company?
“I joined in January, the contract stipulated I would be on probation for six months, and afterward, I’d have a performance review, which would decide my future in the company.
The performance review was to happen in June. A week before, I wrote my resignation letter.
The day before my review, I handed in the resignation letter. I felt it was better if I left than for them to discover I wasn’t supposed to be in the position.
You see, self-doubt disregards any logic. All you can see is how unworthy you are. And that’s all I saw.
Around this time, I started experiencing panic attacks. I could not handle the performance review.”
How did the company take your resignation?
“I handed my resignation to the HR one day before being confirmed and left.
Later on, my immediate boss called. She was on a business trip in Europe; she didn’t understand why I left while my work was exceptional.
I didn’t know what to tell her, so I told her the workload was too much for me to handle.
The boss convinced me to continue working. At first, I refused, she persisted for a while and eventually, I agreed to continue working.
Soon after this, I was hospitalized, much of the reason was psychological.”
You mentioned the workload was overwhelming, what was the working environment like?
“The workload was overwhelming, but it was manageable. However, I don’t think the work environment was conducive, especially for me and all the self-doubt I had.
There were perks to working there; I earned a great salary, car allowance, admirable medical schemes. I also received an iPhone upon joining, and, anytime I had a trip outside the country, I’d fly business class.”
Now that you’d gone back to work, how long did you stay at the organization?
“From the moment I went back, the feeling that I was inadequate came back. I questioned every decision I made.
I approached the HR severally, I requested a deeper induction. I wanted to be assigned a mentor or someone I could professionally walk with.
The HR dismissed my request, calling the current system the ‘Kenyan way’
In December that year, I decided to resign again. This time, I followed through with it.”
What do you think was the biggest factor that led you to resign, was it your feeling of not being worthy, or the job environment?
“I believe these two reasons played a part in my resignation. The job environment was not tolerable –especially not for a person with imposter syndrome. However, my lack of confidence and self-doubt played a significant role, too.”
What was your plan after resigning?
“When self-doubt and lack of confidence are constantly in your mind, you don’t think about the future. All my efforts were towards the doubting of my abilities, the feeling of being unworthy of the position and responsibilities, and the fear of being discovered.
Dealing with all these, I did not have a plan after quitting the job.”
What was the reaction from your friends and family?
“In Africa, we rarely understand any condition that doesn’t manifest physically. Mental illnesses, for example, are rarely understood and people always come up with reasons for why someone acts a certain way.
In my case, some of the managers from the company called my behavior ‘millennial irresponsibility’ (I am not a millennial)
My friends, colleagues, and some of my family members thought I was either soft or spoilt.”
Throughout this whole time, did you suspect you had imposter syndrome?
“I suspected I might have been suffering from a condition, but I didn’t know what it was. Most of the times, I thought I just lacked confidence.
It’s after I quit my job that I started researching. I finally found out I had imposter syndrome. I started reading up on it and realized it was quite common. I read books from top CEO’s who at one point had suffered from the condition.”
After you learned about the condition, what steps did you take to combat it?
“The first –and most important, step was admitting I had the condition. I believe many suffer in silence, they refuse to admit to themselves or otherwise, about the condition. I knew the first step was acceptance.
Second, I started speaking out and seeking help. Imposter syndrome separates you from those around you. You are stuck in your head with all the negative thoughts and feelings of self-doubt.
Finally, I started looking at my accomplishments as just that –mine! I went through my career and listed various achievements. Then, I started owning them. They were no longer the result of luck or some external factor outside my control; they were the result of my hard work, the fruits of my labor.”
Do you still experience self-doubt?
“Yes, there are instances where I reach a milestone and consider it luck. However, I am more conscious now. If I notice self-doubt crippling in, I very quickly own the achievement and look at the journey, effort, and hard work I put in to reach the milestone.”
What advice would you give someone going through what you have?
“I believe the first step is to acknowledge there’s something wrong. It is a hard step, but once you do, that’s when you can objectively ask ‘Why I’m I feeling this?’
I also believe the best way to overcome imposter syndrome is to face it. Most people would rather run from it. I was in denial for a long time.”
How long did it take you to realize and overcome the self-doubt in you?
“When I quit my job was when I believe I started looking into the condition. For me, it took around 8 months. Through this time, I decided not to look for a job, not until I was sure I had overcome the syndrome.
However, it’s important to realize we’re all different, it doesn’t have to take someone else the time I took. That was my journey, and I believe someone else will have their unique experience while working towards overcoming the syndrome.”
Did you get another job, and what was the experience?
“After the eight months, I started job hunting and got a position. It was lower than the previous job and had fewer benefits too. Through refusing to admit I had a problem, and not seeking help, I resigned from a great job. And while I am working on getting back to where I was, my career isn’t what it should have been.”
What can organizations do to ensure this doesn’t happen to another professional?
“We need to get into a space where we recognize the different conditions that can affect a professional. I also believe having a mentor would greatly help, as they would walk with you and motivate you when you doubt yourself.”
Perminus Wainaina is the C.E.O and Managing Partner at Corporate Staffing Services, a leading HR & Recruitment consultancy firm based in Westlands. Through personalized career coaching he assists mid-level and senior professionals get solutions to complex and challenging career issues that they are facing. Click here for more on career coaching.