April 1, 2014
Your career path: a virtuous cycle of doubt, anxiety and learning

Sometimes, different ideas from different sources combine in your brain at the same time. Suddenly you have a clearer understanding of a concept  than you ever have had before. This happened to me recently. Three different pieces of research came together for me and helped me understand my relationship to my job and how to best craft a career path for myself.


The first concept is the clear importance of learning. I’ve spent many hours over the last months interviewing young professionals about their jobs, their career paths and generally their feelings about their work.

Two interview subjects were most at peace with their work. They had one thing clearly in common: their focus on creating a professional lifestyle of continuous learning. The two interview subjects are different people in many senses. One is quite introverted. The other is extroverted. Each focus on different functions professionally. But both were relatively young and both had held a series of gradually ‘better’ jobs so far in their career. And when talking about their career paths, both put definitive focus on continuous learning and mastering their current craft, not on pushing constantly for promotions. They said things like “I’m obsessed with progress: personally and professionally … I always want to be learning new things” or “I leave my job when I am no longer learning a new skill.”Learning is central to their management of their career path.

The two of them were satisfied in their career path because they controlled it through learning. But why is this?


The next idea that has really resonated with me is the Impostor Syndrome. Oliver Burkham’s blog turned me onto the concept. In short, there is psychological research that estimates “70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.”

As Burkham wrote in the post, “it’s a classic case of ‘comparing your insides with other people’s outsides’: you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it’s more justified than anyone else’s.”

As a former introvert, this concept of being the only one that has access to your self-doubt resonated with me in a very visceral way. People say nice things about me, and I just can’t believe it. I constantly have a feeling that I don’t really belong where I am, professionally. This is is especially acute when I’m embarking on a new challenge. I’m simply waiting for the rest of the world to catch on to what I know about myself. The tap on the shoulder is surely coming.

I work as a product manager and I’ve helped to create beautiful applications that work very well for their customers. But when I was given my first crack at it, I couldn’t believe it. What startup would really want to trust me to do data visualization and to ensure an intuitive end-user experience? I was a back-end guy. An big company guy. An IBM guy. Funny, the rest of the world didn’t see me as negatively. The reality was somewhere in the middle. Why was reality different than my own perception?

Because only I had access to my self-doubts about executing the job at hand.


The last piece of research I stumbled across is the idea of “flow” and the paradox between anxiety and boredom. The core idea, based on research originally done by Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, frames your work as follows:


Key for me here is the comparison between challenges and skills. The degree of challenge presented by a problem versus your personal skill levels. This simple framework can help to predict your mindset and your relationship with your work. Are you bored and comfortable, or are you anxious about the position you’ve placed yourself in?

With this framework in mind, a great Quora answer helps to crystallize how to use this framework for your own career development. The advice:

Take on a challenge before you have the skills to meet the challenge. This creates anxiety, and the anxiety drives you to develop the skills you need to meet the challenge.


Make yourself feel like an impostor. Create a situation for yourself that brings out your self-doubts. And in the workplace, your self-doubts will center on your skills. By creating that sense of anxiety – that sense that you do not possess the hard skills needed for the challenge — you will be in a position to force yourself to learn. And by learning, you will develop. You will develop and gain greater mastery over your professional craft. And by gaining greater mastery over your craft, others will take notice. And they will give you opportunity to pursue a greater challenge. And your self-doubts will crop up again in the face of a different challenge. And the sense of anxiety. And the learning. Your career path will be a virtuous cycle of doubt, anxiety and learning.

So yes, you should learn. Read books, go to classes, work outside your job to improve yourself.

But the best way to develop is to become an impostor. Create that situation for yourself in your professional endeavors with a clear problem to solve. By creating those challenges for yourself, you will learn. And by learning you’ll develop the skills you need to blaze a career path forward, full of accomplishment, achievement and satisfaction.

Josh Payne is the Founder of Fulfilled.  You can find this blog post, as well as additional content on the Fulfilled blog located here.  You can also follow Josh on Twitter (@joshpayne) by clicking here.