I’ve spoken about imposter syndrome before, but it’s making a bit of a comeback around the place so I thought I’d touch on it again.
The self-help rhetoric would have you believe that you can achieve anything, be anything, do anything, and work as anything provided you have the right mindset and put the work in.
That message is a tightly packed tin of well-intentioned baloney.
Just to become a lawyer in the first place, you achieved grades in the top 1 percent or so of your secondary education, then had to survive the considerable attrition rate of law school (a collection of similarly bright people, many of whom drop out).
So let’s not pretend that “just anyone” could do that. It’s really hard.
But with that mild piece of encouragement out of the way, let’s embark on the more difficult stuff.
What’s the Problem with Imposters?
One of the considerable challenges of the legal profession, and (in my opinion) a significant contributor to the mental health issues we face, is that too many young people are getting into law who shouldn’t be.
They shouldn’t do a law degree. They shouldn’t do their training. And they shouldn’t be working as lawyers.
Some people are just not cut out for it, and they never will be. Persevering in these circumstances is potentially devastating for them, their family and their clients. It’s just bad all around.
I want to stress something – this doesn’t make you weak, this doesn’t mean you’re dumb, this doesn’t mean you are a failure. It just means you shouldn’t be a lawyer.
The challenge for us all is discerning between surmountable career difficulties, and insurmountable ones.
Wanting To Doesn’t Mean you Can
I don’t care what The Secret told you, desire does not result in outcomes.
If a young child genuinely believes they can fly off a building like Superman, the outcome is inevitable – a trip to the hospital.
Similarly, really really wanting to succeed in your career doesn’t by itself mean you will.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d rather you want to succeed than the opposite, but desire is a tiny piece of the puzzle and won’t get you very far. It’s like first gear in a truck with 39 more to go.
Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds
Perseverance and grit are important characteristics.
As a young lawyer, you are going to face a vast array of challenges that seem incredibly difficult. Later, those challenges could be child’s play to you. Not surprisingly, many things get easier as we do them more often.
But sometimes, perseverance in the face of problems actually leads to further damage.
This might include how you’re dealing with pressure. This might be growing levels of anxiety. This might be intellectual or emotional overload where you simply can’t process what’s going on around you. This might be hyper-workaholism which is affecting your health.
Left unchecked, some of these problems can lead to seriously bad outcomes.
We can’t just barrel on through our careers assuming that everything will get better if we give it enough time.
How to Tell the Difference
This is the hard part. Which issues, concerns or inadequacies will get better given the right kind of attention, and which won’t?
And once you know which won’t be getting better, are they serious enough that you should be looking at a career change?
There’s no one size fits all approach to this of course, and I’d be stretching reality if I tried to magically solve this dilemma in a blog post. Here are some general suggestions.
Take time to develop self-awareness about the issue. What is it exactly that seems to be the problem. Is it internal or external? Is it the kind of thing that requires more training, or is it an internal/emotional type of issue?
Find out and implement some strategies which might help. That might mean research, training, mentoring, professional help, or something else entirely. But dig in to the issue to try and mitigate it, or resolve it. This could take a little time.
Then do another check – are things getting better or not? If so, how much better? Fully or partially? Is it better “enough”? If not, can you try something else or have you exhausted the options? Have you asked somebody else about it or sought counsel from a trusted person?
Don’t Be Quick to Throw your Career In the Bin
You’ll notice that while I think many people should probably leave law, I’m not suggesting they should do it on a whim or as a triggered reaction to something. Be strategic. It was a large investment that got you here, so you want to try and make good decisions about it.
But here’s the thing with imposter syndrome – it can take two forms:
- the common trope, where you are wrongly convincing yourself that you can’t do the job when, in truth, you can;
- the less common discussion, when you’re trying to convince yourself that you can do a job which, in fact, you can’t.
I think if more people stopped to think about this rather than blindly sprinting forward in their careers towards a cliff edge, we’d see less personal destruction along the way.
Or everything could be fine. In which case… carry on.