These days, there are a lot of jobs that require very little skill, or that displace responsibility for mistakes to a big corporate policy rather than individual workers. Working tedious jobs can be boring at times, but rarely does one think, I am not good at this yet; I’m going to have to work a long time in order to be good at this. It’s not exactly a perk, but it is one less stressful thought running through your head about work.
I have heard lots of people discuss stresses at work like bad bosses or coworkers, long hours, or low pay, but I rarely hear folks talk about the acute sensation that you are bad at your job.
I’ll back up. A year and a half ago, I landed a dream job in my field right out of graduate school — a teaching gig with some cool administrative components that, in most circumstances, would go to someone with a Ph.D., but happened to only pay what someone with a Master’s would generally be willing to take. To me, it was too good to be true, a wonderful chance to have fulfilling full-time work when I’d been told part-time teaching was one of my only options. The job was at least two or three levels higher than any of my previous jobs and had virtually no red tape or people telling me what to do. It also, as I found out later, had a lot of responsibility and expectations.
This was, in most ways, wonderful. I felt some combination of proud and lucky to get the job at all, but as I spent a day shadowing my predecessor in the job, I began to feel that nagging feeling that this would push the limits of my abilities, especially with things like multi-tasking, clarity in communication, and detail-oriented work. I didn’t feel impostor syndrome, the term given to people who think they’ve gotten somewhere without deserving it; I knew I had the qualifications for the job. I just worried that I wouldn’t be very good at it.
Actually being bad at your job, to the point of serious problems, is a problem in and of itself, because you will probably be noticed and have to improve or move into a new role. This, however, was just feeling bad at my job, and it didn’t really go away — while I got my work done, there were little things where I dropped the ball, or couldn’t have anticipated but still felt bad for not filling that need. It might be just another way to frame perfectionism, but I also think it has to do with applying for and taking jobs just at the edge of your ability and experience.
With teaching in particular, I meet people who say they were “terrible” at teaching at first who now have 20 years under their belt. I find this interesting, because few early-career teachers will acknowledge how much they feel they’re terrible at teaching, the fact that they don’t know why certain lessons don’t work, or that some of their grading feels arbitrary or unhelpful. I don’t think, objectively, I am really bad at my teaching job — I fulfill the goals and objectives. I do, however, sense thoroughly the lack of spark in my classes when compared with the classes of those who have truly had time to become stellar teachers. I know what stand-out teaching looks like, but I’ve had to accept that I’m just not there yet.
I think that part of this has to do with having jumped a couple rungs on the ladder, avoiding administrative roles with more reporting to higher-ups or more part-time teaching, and not having those years of experience. Many people I know don’t question when their ambition takes them farther faster, but I have to assume other people like me exist, who know their work is acceptable but wish that it was great, and great now.
I’m grateful for the gift of this second year. I am busier than in my first year, but with the experience of it under my belt, I get a lot more moments where I feel good at my job, and (perhaps more importantly) I’m too busy moving on to the latest task to dwell when I do something in a mediocre way. A fast paced job may be only one way to combat feelings of inadequacy, but the feelings are definitely part of the equation, and I don’t think you have to be a super insecure person to acknowledge that tough jobs leave you feeling this way frequently.
The Financial Diet has featured a few essays that discuss reasons to take or not take jobs, whether to apply or not apply for a new one, and ways to know when you need to move on. I’m posing a question you should always ask yourself when moving into a new position: How will this new gig make me feel inadequate? Am I prepared to process those feelings and keep working hard, or will they make me produce lower quality work? I know people who become super defensive when they feel bad at their jobs, which makes it harder to work with them in a team. I also know people like me who just feel unmotivated when they don’t think they are capable of a great performance, even if the job itself is really exciting and interesting. In order to keep at it and do your job well, you have to know your own personal reaction to feeling bad at your job. It’s imperative to helping you start to combat your feelings and how you intend to get better.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs about the stories behind family recipes at Recipe In A Bottle.
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