This past summer, swaths of bright college students armed with alacrity sauntered into corporate headquarters and satellite offices, hoping to assert themselves in prestigious and difficult internships. For many of us, this time period was nerve wracking and intense. Investment banking summer analysts fought tooth and nail to secure the coveted return offer. Software engineering interns struggled to keep up with the rapid innovations that Silicon Valley dumps onto the market. In other industries, others were similarly bringing what they perceived to be their A-game to the table… only to see their performances barely, if at all, meet the bar. In my case, I started my internship at a challenging firm, one that is known for high burnout rates, and immediately found myself playing ball in an entirely different league.
The feeling of professional insecurity is discomforting – it feels wrong, and its presence lingers like the aftermath of a flu. At best, insecurity is trivial. Perhaps you are worried about the contents of your recent networking email. Maybe, you are concerned that the restaurant you chose for your team had too few Michelin stars. These lighthearted issues fade away quickly, as they are easily answerable. In my case, the email to my manager was a bit too winded and he made fun of me for a maximum of a minute. The restaurant I chose was actually a fantastic pick because it was my Engagement Director’s “happy place”. Unsurprisingly, the team stayed for three hours. Fortunately, these anecdotes are manageable. I freaked out a little bit, but took the victory or loss in stride and moved on in seconds. But, when insecurity decides to worm its way out of your subconscious and weave itself into more serious issues, it becomes monstrous. Professionally, you may be asking: Am I contributing value to my company? Am I good enough to be where I am? Do I deserve this? These questions – questions I asked and still ask frequently during my internships, projects, and even extra curricular activities – are tougher to answer. The powerful feelings undergirding said questions are the direct result of a complex web of emotions, thoughts, and interconnected experiences.
Yet, despite its surface representation, this complex web of insecurity is critical for achieving success. The impacts are two-fold. First, unpacking and understanding what your web is composed of is necessary in order for you to understand where your shortcomings lie, thus, giving you a chance to formulate specific developmental goals with actionable steps. In my case, I spent hours meditating and then diagramming my thoughts, finally reaching a level of comprehension that let me harness my fears. Second, the output of the web is a great measuring stick for growth. Interpreting the level of insecurity you are at in the context of everything else you do enables you to understand your progress as an individual. People tend to feel comfortable when they stick to what they’re good at and what they know. If you don’t feel uncomfortable with what you’re doing, are you really learning new things? This is a call to action – to operate at your best, harness your insecurities as tools as opposed to drowning in them.
Untangling the web
First and foremost, your insecurities are generally overblown – most people exaggerate their own faults – but many also contain veins of useful truth. As such, an invaluable exercise is to methodically trace your feelings of insecurity back to the source of the problem. The untangling process is much simpler than one might think. As long as you are honest and swallow your pride, the impending self-diagnoses will be speedy and sound. You have to be able to tell yourself, with concrete examples, that you are too arrogant, or maybe too aggressive, or even not detail-oriented enough. If you’ve ever conceded a heated argument, the introspection required for growth feels strikingly similar; it’s like pushing down the lid of a steaming pot.
Once in the right mindset, the next step is enabling yourself to deeply reflect on the conflict at hand. While the method of meditation is modifiable, the important takeaway is that you absolutely need to set apart some time to think about yourself and how you fit into your various working environments. Ask yourself difficult questions and arrive at more detailed responses with each iteration. Why do I feel insecure at work? Because everyone seems smarter than I am. Why does everyone seem smarter than I am? Because when I compare my work output to everyone else’s work output, my work output seems inferior. Why is my work output inferior? Because my work output lacks proper quantitative analysis (and so forth). Eventually, you will arrive at the main issue. In the example above, the main issue would have been that you were not using enough data to support your work output. From there, you can brainstorm solutions and choose the most feasible and powerful ones to pursue, therefore leading you to iron out a professional flaw. At the end of the process, you walk away with a road map for personal growth.
As a sidenote: if you are having trouble honestly evaluating yourself, it can be useful to have an open feedback conversation with a close friend—this might be just enough to lead you towards a positively self-critical mindset.
Eradicating insecurities is a fantastic task, but not having any insecurities is a red flag. To understand this assertion, it’s key to understand what, exactly, an insecurity is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an insecurity is a deficiency in confidence and certainty. Where does this deficiency come from? In professional settings, this deficiency comes from assessing the skill gap between where you are and where you want to be. For instance, consider a management consulting intern. This intern has just been brought on as a new team member for a Fortune 500 client, and she is nervous. For the first few days, the slides she makes don’t appear to be up to standard and her contributions to team problem solving meetings are meager. Every night, she goes home feeling overwhelmed and unsure as to whether or not she belongs at the firm. The root cause of her concerns is clear: she believes she lacks the necessary skills to succeed in her field. From here, the intern can either continue to feel out of her league as she reluctantly heads to work every day, or she can re-frame the situation to achieve a completely new result. How does the framing work? Well, the intern can view the causes of her insecurity as windows of opportunity. Having trouble with problem solving? There is room to expand by talking to the manager for strategies and best practices to improve critical thinking skills. Bad at research? Ask for more research-oriented tasks to gain more exposure. Sleepy at work when no one else seems to be? Be honest and talk to a coworker about it. Ultimately, these insecurities can be reversed to represent tangible professional targets. Because of this, maintaining a healthy level of insecurity is incredibly important—if you are in a working environment where you feel confident about everything, there is little room for you to grow. Insecurity is a barometer for growth. When thought about in the proper way, the level of insecurity one feels at a workplace is equivalent to the level of growth one is able to attain. A challenging workplace leads to notable growth, but a challenging workplace will also include an environment which employees feel the least prepared for and the most insecure about on a daily basis.
Insecurity is a double-edged sword. Depending on how you view it, you can either cripple or launch your career. Moreover, the extremes—too much insecurity and too little insecurity—will harm your professional performance in the long-term. Like everything else in life, develop a sufficient enough understanding and then strive to find a fine balance.