Biggest Career Mistake You Can Make: Faking It

Imposter syndrome — once the subject of academic conferences – is now at epidemic levels. Apparently, many of us sit at our desks feeling inherently ill-equipped, ill-prepared, illegitimate. Waiting to be found out.

In this era of “fake news”, we apparently all feel like fakes. I get it. Sadly, I’ve lived it.

For a significant period of my life I was known as Mrs. Reilly. Long before there was a Mr. Anybody, long before I’d ever even considered becoming Mrs. Somebody, my colleagues referred to my as Mrs. Reilly. OK, obviously this is a long story, but the shorthand version is that I arrived in Zimbabwe as a 27-year old single woman in charge of multi-million dollar HIV/AIDS program. I was a novice, a neophyte, a young woman who felt incredibly lucky to have found herself in this position of Director.

And a young woman who felt like a fake. Who spent her days waiting to be found out.

Your life becomes a sort of pantomime.

In simple terms, Ms. Reilly longed to be Mrs. Reilly. Because Mrs Reilly – in my imagination and that of my expectant Zimbabwean colleagues — was wise.   Seasoned. (Such a good word!) She knew project management, sexually transmitted epidemics, and countries being willfully and cunningly destroyed by their own President like the back of her hand. Yes she did! In simple terms, Mrs. Reilly kicked butt.

Ms. Reilly, meanwhile, was too busy hiding in the shadows to kick much of anything.   She just hoped she wouldn’t get kicked out of the country.

Oh how I longed to be Mrs. Reilly. The fiercely independent, empathetic-to-a-fault, definitely-smart-enough and oftentimes-very-scared young woman. Who had a whole lot to offer to Zimbabwe and development and HIV/AIDS. If only she’d been confident enough – comfortable enough in her own young skin – to share her wholly imperfect offering.

Instead Ms. Reilly spent most days hoping nobody found me out, and desperately wishing someone would.

It was a lonely time in my life. Because the thing is, when you’re wearing such a heavy mask, nobody can see in. And it’s hard for you to see out, too. You’re wrapped in this impervious, invisible film that obviates any real kind of connection.

Your life becomes a sort of pantomime.

We all have personas we adopt, roles we play. But some feel like an extension of ourselves and others like an imposition on ourselves.

After a few years in Zimbabwe I left. Turns out there was no life in Mrs. Reilly in Zimbabwe or anywhere else; she was more a husk than a mask. She was no good to anybody. I returned to the US to find out who Jill Reilly really was, and I’ve been searching ever since.

We’re all trying to figure out who we are in these most extraordinary times: when trust in authority is historically low, and when young people claiming authority in technology and business in historically high. When workplace success is no longer measured in loyalty or the size of your office. When flat hierarchies and Facebook require a kind of “showing up” that feels at once like a golden opportunity and a curse.

Who’s good enough anyway? And if I take the risk to bring my real self to work, will it end in a promotion or a lawsuit?

Our theme this month at BraveShift is masks — how we hide, why we hide, and how we can begin to let our real selves peak between the cracks.

“Seasoned Director”. That was one of my heavy masks. What have yours been over the course of your career? And have those masks ever been comfortable? Or have they itched? Have you sweat behind them? Longed for the fresh air on your face?

We all have personas we adopt, roles we play. But some feel like an extension of ourselves and others like an imposition on ourselves. Only you know the difference; your colleagues will never be able to judge. Nobody in Zimbabwe was every going to take my mask off for me. Just as nobody else obligated me to put it on.

Hiding behind our masks may for a while make us feel secure in a fake-it-til-you-make sort of way. But eventually that mask will chafe to the point we tear it off. Or it will crack and fall when we least expect it. We’ll be exposed, and the circumstances surrounding the tearing and cracking probably won’t be pretty. The other alternative is to deliberately and courageously remove it, setting our Self free.

Written by Jillian Reilly