when is it time to admit that you can’t do a job?

A reader writes:

When is it time to admit you can’t do a job? I’m 24 and I graduated a year and a half ago. After six months of job searching and freelancing, I started a position far more senior than I expected (think Assistant Director of a particular area of my organization’s work).

I’d interned for a company as a student and they later asked me to work as short-term holiday cover. They then offered me a full-time position in the role that I covered, which was a fantastic opportunity for me. It’s a very competitive industry, especially when you’re starting out.

It’s not directly managing anyone, but I direct and organize contractors to deliver projects, often working on the design myself. It requires creativity, tact, good judgment, and a level of autonomy that frankly I’m not capable of (yet). All my projects have to be double-checked, with frequent corrections. Some big projects have had to be reworked almost entirely.

I feel stressed and stupid almost constantly. I have zero self-esteem; I know I’m OK at handling most of the job, but there’s always something that isn’t right. Most of the other people at my level have years more experience, and it shows.

Now, because I’ve interned for the company and did holiday cover, I’ve been telling myself that they knew what they were getting when they hired me: someone enthusiastic, bright, and with pretty much zero industry experience.

But the manager who hired me moved on about three months after I started. My new manager – while a very nice person – did not sign up for a direct report who needs as much direction and correction as I do. My feeling is that she’s becoming more and more frustrated.

My manager and I have talked about my mistakes or weak areas, and we’ve implemented some processes so I get more supervision at key points of projects. I’ve talked to her about feeling overwhelmed and she’s been fairly positive about my capacity for progress. But it’s been a year; I don’t feel like I’m making meaningful progress and the stress is killing me.

My actual question is this: when is it OK to look for a more junior/less responsible role? Can you explain to future employers in a positive light? Is it better to look for something tangentially related, so it’s less obvious as a backward move? Should I just continue to suck it up as part of the learning process?

For what it’s worth, this is still a field that I very much want to work in, which is why I feel like I’m nuts to throw away this opportunity. Please advise!

Before you decide anything, talk to someone who knows your work.

Because the thing is, while it’s possible that your self-assessment is accurate and you really aren’t the right match for the role, it’s also possible that you’re far more critical of your own performance than anyone else is. You wouldn’t be the first person to have serious impostor syndrome upon finding yourself in a position that’s more senior than you expected to be in. In fact, it’s super common as a conscientious person — and particularly as a conscientious woman — to feel like your skills can’t possibly warrant the responsibilities you’ve been given, even when everyone around you thinks you’re doing fine.

On the other hand, of course, it’s also possible that your assessment of how you’re doing is accurate and that this isn’t the ideal job for you right now. That happens, and it could be what’s happening to you — and if so, it’s good that you’re taking a clear-eyed look at it. But especially because you report that your boss seems positive about your capacity for progress, it’s worth getting a reality check before you make any big decisions.

As for how to get that reality check … What’s your relationship with your boss like? If you have pretty good rapport with her, you might be able to just sit down with her and say something like this: “I wanted to step back and talk about how I’m doing in my job overall. I know that I was hired with less experience than other people in this role. And I know I’ve needed more direction and coaching and I’ve made some mistakes. What I don’t have a good sense of is whether you genuinely think that I’m moving toward being able to excel at the work, or whether it might be a fundamental mismatch in the long term.”

If your boss does think it’s a fundamental mismatch, she’ll likely be relieved that you’re making it easy for her to tell you. (To be clear, if that’s the case, she should have already told you, but not every manager is forthright about that kind of thing.) But you might end up surprised by her answer.

However, this is important: If you think your boss might take this conversation as an opportunity to say, “Yeah, it’s not working out so let’s figure out an ending date,” then skip this. If you leave, it’s better for it to be on your terms and under your control. So if that’s a worry, I’d instead think about who else knows your work and would be able to give you an honest assessment. For example, if you have a good relationship with one of those more experienced people on your team, they might have a good perspective on the question. Pick someone who knows your work, has good judgment, and who you trust not to pull any punches.

And who knows, it’s possible that you’ll hear something that will change the way you’re looking at your situation. For example, you might hear that everyone in your role has projects reworked on occasion, or that you’re making a normal level of mistakes for your tenure in the job, or that the things that you thought were serious issues read as fairly minor ones to everyone else.

Or … not. You might hear that your concerns are well-grounded, and that you haven’t mastered the role to the extent that they need, and that it’s unlikely to happen at your current experience level.

No matter what you hear, though, you’re going to come out of this with more data, and that’s going to help you make a better decision about what to do next.

Of course, it’s worth saying that none of this matters if you’re miserable all the time at work. Chronic stress and plummeting self-esteem are perfectly good reasons to leave a job, no matter how satisfied other people might be with your work. But it’s possible that those feelings will be influenced by what you find out in this process.

Now, to your actual question (finally): If you do decide that you want to leave and look for something more junior with fewer responsibilities, there’s no shame in that. People do that! And you’re in the early stages of your career, which makes it even easier — it’s incredibly common not to have totally linear job progression in your 20s. You are normal.

And you can frame it to prospective future employers by saying something like this: “I learned a huge amount from taking on those responsibilities so early in my career. But I realized there was a downside to moving into that type of role so quickly; at times I struggled with not having more experience in X or Y, and it made me want to shore up my skills in those areas. That’s why I’m excited about the job with you.” By addressing it head-on like that, you should end up looking humble and self-aware, which are both good traits.

So if you do want to leave and take a step backward, it should be absolutely fine. Just get yourself that reality check first to make sure that your internal assessment really does reflect what’s happening.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. soupmonger*

    I think you’re showing great maturity in asking this question, and considering the different aspects of your match to this role. I can’t suggest anything that Alison hasn’t but wanted to point out that this level of maturity and self-reflection is unusual (in a good way!) and it’ll stand you in very good stead through your working life. Best of luck with your current situation.

  2. Amber Rose*

    I’d say also look at the mistakes you’re making, and the stuff that needs to be redone. Is it often for the same reasons, or is it new and different things every time? If it’s the first one, you can be proactive about making lists of things you need to firmly double check. If it’s the second one, you can look for patterns and see if you can be proactive about asking questions or learning new processes.

    If it’s always different stuff and the pattern boils down to “it’s an unwritten rule, someone more experienced would’ve just known” then yeah, you may be a little too junior for the work you’ve been handed. And that’s totally, 100% normal and fine. Not every job works out, and it’s not something that automatically speaks negatively towards you or your work. Sometimes a bad fit is just that, for reasons outside your control.

    1. ArtK*

      This is key! OP, you definitely need to review your issues and categorize them. The repeatable ones can be fixed by any number of techniques. As for the unique ones, do what we engineers call a “root cause analysis.” Look at *why* the mistake happened. Missing information? Lack of familiarity with the process? After that, look at your “shoulds.” I suspect that you’re holding yourself to the standard of “I *should* be able to do all of these things without error” and that is causing you a lot of stress. I’m dealing with this with my elder son right now. He keeps feeling that he *should* be doing things easily and when they don’t happen that way, he gets stressed and even stops trying, making the problems worse. It’s a hard habit to break.

    2. embees*

      I want to amplify the suggestions here about identifying any patterns/learning new processes. This is absolutely a skill in and of itself that isn’t often taught; it’s also a skill that very well make you successful for the rest of your life. Same thing with making your own “job aids” – checklists, reminders, to-do-list strategies, whatever.

      Beyond the obvious benefits of improving your performance on a particular task (or in particular situations, or whatever), seeing that you *can* get better at things, even incrementally, may go a long ways towards assuaging some of that existential dread.

    3. PX*

      Would also add re:unwritten rules, are they things someone new to the company would know or not? I’ve seen a lot of errors which are caused by poor documentation/only one person knew how it worked/etc, so in that case, regardless of experience – no-one would have known up front what the issues are. So dont blame yourself (but do start documenting them all!)

  3. The OG Anonsie*

    I have another thought here: I’m older than the LW, but one of the things that was a really difficult adjustment for me moving into the white collar working world (that I’m told is pretty common for people in our generation overall) is understanding that making mistakes or needing to be corrected doesn’t mean your work product is bad. A lot of people have classed this as “Millennials are so coddled that they can’t take any negative feedback,” but for myself and the people I know the source is that we’re used to neutral-to-positive feedback meaning you’re acceptable and negative feedback meaning you fail, you’re done, get out. I’m used to a really one-strike sort of approach to being evaluated.

    Having to do re-work as the LW describes is a total and complete failure in most of the settings I was in as a student, intern, service worker, etc that would keep any of the involved instructors/supervisors involved from being willing to give you a better grade or recommend you or write you a letter or whatever. The feeling that anything short of perfection was ruinous stuck with me for a looong time. Positive feedback is still kind of meaningless to me, I can still only hear it as “you are doing exactly well enough for us to not can you.”

    1. YesYesYes*

      +1 – I came here to say this, and I am Generation Oregon Trail-er. But I was the first in my family to go to a four year college and the first in a white-collar job.

      School and retail/factory type jobs are very much focused on getting it right the first time. Your first mistake is, at best, a warning and more commonly, your pink slip.

      OP, you know yourself, but you’re also new to the working world. Feedback is such a nebulous thing, and if it’s done at all it’s behind closed doors, so it’s really hard to get a sense of how you’re actually doing. In addition to what Allison suggests, find some mentors at your company who can help you navigate and give you long-term advice on career goals and skill development. Try to meet them for coffee every 6-8 months, ask them general insights on career paths, and you’ll really grow in self-awareness and confidence.

      1. N*

        Second this. OP, I am also a young-ish person who is fairly new to the work world, and when I first started in my first office job I was obsessed with needing everything to be “perfect” the first go around because that was how it is in retail and school. The good news is that I developed a reputation for being able to do good work on a short timeline. The bad news is that it took me a very long time to realize that the work can sometimes just be “good enough” and that sometimes you will definitely have to redo things, and it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect poorly on you–it can be just part of the process, depending on your field.

    2. Millie*

      Yes, you’ve really put into words something I’ve felt for a long time but could never really articulate!

      Also, I don’t know about other millennials but I’m the same age as the OP and was in high school during the Great Recession and seeing family members and friend’s family members laid off or fired for so many seemingly random reasons when I was also not at an age to really understand how those things function has definitely made me extremely convinced of my own temporariness in any job no matter how well I’m doing even now.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. The “seemingly random reasons” were an excuse – the Great Recession was *the reason*, full stop.

        Being convinced of the temporariness is deeply uncomfortable, but it may help keep you from over-identifying with your job.

      2. Halpful*

        if anyone else is wondering, the Great Recession started in 2007. (source: wikipedia)

    3. Odyssea*

      I agree that people often have an issue with receiving feedback. In recent interviews, I asked the question, “Describe a time that you received tough feedback, and what you did in response.” Note that it said tough, not bad or negative – I was looking for how they dealt with being told to redo or change work. I had one interviewee go off on how they had never received negative feedback and that all their feedback was positive, etc. etc. Now, even if you’re a great employee, there’s going to be a time when you get feedback that you need to do things a different way, or change directions – there’s no way you do everything perfectly the first time.

      I did have another interviewee who gave me an honest answer and described how they responded to that feedback. Guess who I recommended for hiring?

      1. Bolt*

        Problem is that some employers are too uncomfortable giving any kind of negative/tough feedback themselves… so you have kids entering the workplace never knowing what is was like to be told they are doing something wrong! Or they’ve sugar coat everything…

        I cried at my first real job when I was given my first dose of tough feedback – I had worked for years in retail but no one EVER called me out on my mistakes.

        1. Odyssea*

          This candidate had more experience than me, and had been a manager, too. I do wonder what kind of feedback they gave their reports!

          Yeah, it sucks the first time you get tough feedback. I’ve seen people quit jobs rather than change the behavior the feedback was about (and it was really easy to fix, too). At least the OP is working on improving!

        2. copy run start*

          Same experience. I had always done well or was never spoken to about issues, so my response to that question was tough for a while.

          And yes, I also cried during my first feedback conversation. So much cringe.

      2. Mike C.*

        But if those times you received feedback to change something were delivered in a casual manner where the stakes were low, then that isn’t very tough feedback.

      3. CMart*

        If I may be so bold to make a suggestion for future interviews, I think “tough” is a tricky word there. If you’re trying to figure out how someone responded to being given critical feedback then ask that. “Tough” isn’t a value-neutral word and carries are certain emotional component to it that might not exist for a lot of candidates.

        I say this because I personally have struggled with this exact question in interviews and for a while had been interpreting it as “tell me about a time someone was mean to you about your work” or “how do you respond when someone upsets you with their feedback”– not “how do you react to being told changes need to be made.” And much like your less-ideal candidate I never really had a great response because I’ve never had feedback that I found “tough” to hear. I’m very good at receiving feedback and evaluating it, so nothing has ever been very difficult for me to process, emotionally. Logistically, yes, and when questions with the same end goal have been phrased differently I had a few examples to point to.

        1. TL -*

          One of the nice things about working in science is that you can ask them to describe a project that failed or hit a really big snag – if you’ve been in a lab for any decent amount of time, you should’ve run into that. It’s a big red flag if you haven’t. But because it’s so accepted that science is hard like that, it’s doesn’t come across as a negative thing.

        2. hbc*

          I think you can say that you’ve never really had tough feedback, and then give an example of the toughest situation, or some feedback you got that would make another person run out of the room crying.

          “If you mean ‘tough’ emotionally, I don’t really react emotionally to feedback, so I’ve never been in that situation. For example, when I was new to teapot assembly, my supervisor told me it looked like a drunk baby had done the spout seams and that I had 30 minutes to get better. When he left, I just sat with the expert and had her show me the techniques she used, and when the boss came back, he upgraded me to sober toddler.” If I had asked the question, this would make me pretty confidant that you’ll be fine in our environment.

          And maybe keeping it vague is part of the assessment. You went to the emotional component of “tough,” but maybe someone else would assume the question was about difficult to implement feedback, or unfair/misinformed feedback. That choice may give information about the candidate too.

    4. Another Lawyer*

      “neutral-to-positive feedback meaning you’re acceptable and negative feedback meaning you fail, you’re done, get out”

      Absolutely, I grew up in a blue-collar, work-to-live family and I always understood critical feedback to signal an end. In law school, I had a professor who spent an entire month in a year long skills course on “mistakes” and how to make them, learn from them, and not let them derail your career. It was probably the most helpful thing I’ve ever learned.

      Almost everything I write comes back to me with edits, comments, and occasionally a total overhaul. It’s progressively been getting less frequent, but I’ll never forget the first day I got something back WITHOUT an edit. I basically cried tears of joy.

      1. Emmie*

        What an amazing opportunity you had from your law professor. Would you mind sharing that advice with us? It might be helpful to the OP, the readership and me to learn.

    5. Stellaaaaa*

      It’s a fundamental difference between school and work. A bad test or presentation can sink your grade and redefine your status as a student. At work, you don’t get paid less or demoted when your performance has normal fluctuations.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This is particular a hard lesson for those of us who took school seriously and never played a sport. As much as I hate to admit, the athletes have an advantage of 1) learning how to be coached, and 2) rolling with the losses, because you can play well and still lose since somebody has to.

        1. CMart*

          One can take school seriously *and* play a sport ;)

          But yes, you’re absolutely right that being in some sort of competitive activity really helps with character development in this respect. I wasn’t athletic, but I did compete in various theater/music/debate venues throughout my academic career and being judged as “good but not great” and having areas of improvement clearly identified was absolutely a foundation in who I am today in the workforce.

          1. TL -*

            Yes, I played sports seriously (though I wasn’t good, I took my practices very seriously) and I took school very seriously as well.
            But, yes, playing sports is a really great way to develop those skills – I think more so than almost anything else, because you have immediate, solid metrics as to how you did compared to everyone else. And you’re going to learn that you’re going to have better days and worse days and you can’t stop working because of either.

        2. Anxa*

          I had a bit of the opposite experience with sports. I only have a superficial knowledge of coaching and effort and rolling with loss, because I really didn’t care about the outcomes much and I was horribly athletic. I just kind of learned to accept that I’m not good at things, but it’s important to try. Trying without success doesn’t count for much as an adult.

          I was so busy doing a million different things just because, that I never tried to develop any particular talents. I wish I had taken school seriously when I was young. I was so used school coming last that in college it was hard to prioritize it.

      2. The OG Anonsie*

        Not just school and internships, though, but a lot of the types of work younger people will have had before moving to an office job are similarly structured. Or, as some folks have mentioned, if you come from a blue collar / service background in your family, expectations around behavior and work quality are extremely different. Professional level white collar jobs are really an exception to the expectations you’ll meet in most other places.

      3. TootsNYC*

        Parents sometimes teach kids this too!

        Lately I’ve been musing on the idea that when a kid forgets his homework, the boom is lowered! He’s a horrible person! He gets scolded!

        But if I forget something, well, I just figure out how to work around it, or I apologize, or I am allowed to go get it. (Not always, of course not, but…)

        I lost my boarding pass–I got another one. Nobody scolds me. I just live with the consequences (or, even better, figure out how to get around not having it).

        A kid loses something, and he gets scolded.

        So lots of young people have had mistakes be treated as character flaws, huge evilnesses, etc.

    6. Anxa*

      “we’re used to neutral-to-positive feedback meaning you’re acceptable and negative feedback meaning you fail, you’re done, get out. I’m used to a really one-strike sort of approach to being evaluated.”

      You know, I do think there is something to this. I also think it’s that maybe coming of age in a rough economy means there actually is a bit of truth to it? It may not be normal to be fired for your first offense, but it’s not really that uncommon either. I remember transitioning from a lot of jobs where you were allowed to make errors into then being terrified of one small mistake. And while it felt like it transitioning into the real world, it was perhaps more like transitioning into bad management in a bad economy.

      I also think this is probably part of the issue with things like grade inflation. Instructors complain that students are obsessed with getting all As, but straight As are a new norm. I think its less about people being too fragile to accept a C, and having very real worries that their plan will be derailed, maybe permanently.

      1. The OG Anonsie*

        I think its less about people being too fragile to accept a C, and having very real worries that their plan will be derailed, maybe permanently.

        Exactly. I’ve never been too puffed up about myself to understand I need room to improve, but the norm in many situations I’ve been in is that if you are faulted on anything, your candidacy for [insert goal here] starts circling the drain immediately. It’s especially bad in school, but it’s also pretty prevalent in a lot of fields and industries.

        Some of this comes from a shift in culture to how the education system works (see zero tolerance policies for example, or the escalation to school-stationed police for non-criminal behavioral complaints) and kids / young people are brought up, and some is a product of the drastically increased level of competition and chance involved in doing just about god damn anything.

        You know how you reserve a seat to take the MCAT now? Registration opens for several months at once (there are 1 or 2 days per month for the entire year and only in major cities at a few specified testing centers) on one pre-announced day. BUT the time isn’t announced ahead of time. The AAMC will just, at some point in that 24 hour period, tweet (tweet) that the system is available. When I needed to do this the tweet went out at something like 3am my time. I had notifications on and the page queued up on my laptop next to the bed so there was a delay of about 45 whole seconds from when the alert went up to when I refreshed the page and I was in a queue behind 200+ people already waiting to get in when people who had already managed to get through were finished. I managed to get a spot at the only testing center for several states around me, but most of the people I knew checked when they woke up at a normal time in the morning and spaces were full. People commonly have to push back their test dates (which can dramatically reduce your chances of being admitted if you’re trying to apply that cycle) and/or fly to random cities where they could find an open spot to take the test. Just to TAKE the test, let’s not even talk about the scores you have to get or the rest of the shit you have to do to apply. Just to get a seat to take it.

        1. KellyK*

          Yes, absolutely. I spent a large part of my freshman year *terrified* about my grades because my scholarship depended on maintaining a 3.33 (I think that was the number, it’s been a while), and my continued attendance at the expensive private school I was at depended on that scholarship. I *did* have difficulty taking criticism and have gotten better at it since, but the intense pressure of, “If you want to stay here, you must get A’s and B’s,” didn’t help, and it wasn’t something I was making up.

          But the MCAT….that’s just insane. That’s completely bonkers. Flying to random cities to even be able to take a test…that’s horrifying.

    7. aebhel*

      This rings very true. And in general, schools are doing young people no favors by failing to provide critical feedback; far from teaching us to think we’re perfect, it teaches us to be neurotic and suspicious of praise, and to take criticism as a sign of abject failure.

  4. Luke*

    It should be noted that no one becomes an expert overnight in ANY field. Everyone makes mistakes- the key is learning from them.

    If an individual is in a role where the same mistakes are made with no changes or lessons learned,perhaps it’s not the best fit. That said,it’s dangerously unrealistic to enter any new career role with the expectation of perfection.

  5. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Removed a comment here that violated the commenting rules about nitpicking language. If you’re new to commenting, please read the commenting rules! (Or even if you’re not new but it’s been a while since you’ve read them.)

    1. apparently not the only fashion designer here*

      Sounds like that’s the answer to my question. My apologies, Alison.

  6. ZSD*

    Is it possible to get an update on this one? I’d like to learn what the OP’s boss/colleague ends up saying about her performance!

    1. OP*

      Hi! Sorry for the delay, I’m on the other side of the world.

      I sent this letter to Alison about six months ago. A couple of months ago my boss did sit me down and say, verbatim, “It’s been a year and you’re not improving”. It suuucked. It turns out management didn’t agree and thought I was doing a pretty good job – I was able to swap very quickly into an identical role in a different department, which is fantastic! I’m much much happier and excited about work.

      Weirdly, I was actually incredibly relieved to find out I didn’t have imposter syndrome. My boss thought I lacked fine-grain judgement. Being told by (very well-meaning) people I was wrong in judging that she was frustrated and I was failing to meet her standards made me feel completely adrift.

      It turns out that not being able to meet my old boss’s very high standards was not actually a catastrophic failure, and my future at my company is bigger than her assessment of me. But it also helped that I aggressively pursued training opportunities and made myself visible to higher-ups as much as possible.

      1. Emily*

        Wow, thanks for the update, OP! I’m glad to hear that things eventually worked out well for you.

  7. Ramona Flowers*

    Hey OP, I’m so sorry you’re feeling so stressed. I noticed that you mentioned something about putting processes in place to give you more supervision at points. But I wondered if you’re getting any training or coaching and, if not, whether this could be an option? Both in terms of what’s available at your workplace and what’s helpful vs harmful for your sanity?

    Is your manager frustrated or are YOU frustrated and projecting those feelings onto her? Is it also possible that those times when you get extra supervision are reinforcing your feelings of inadequacy? Is there any training that would help at all? If you imagine someone who’s doing well at this job, what does that look like? What do they have and how have they acquired it?

    It’s okay to have a learning curve. It’s okay to need training. But if the stress is such that you don’t want to do that and just want out, then that’s okay too. My concern is that it sounds like they’re checking the fish you catch and not necessarily teaching you how to fish.

    1. Sami*

      Good point. Perhaps there are professional development opportunities you can take advantage of. A conference or workshop. A course – either in-person or online. A mentor that willing to meet with you more frequently than is usual.
      Sure this all will take time and you’re already at your wit’s end but it might be worth it.

    2. Mike C.*

      Given the fact the first manager left and the second one isn’t managing very well, I can’t help but think that the issue here really is lack of training.

      1. Jaybeetee*

        To me it might suggest a more systemic issue with the company too, when the above management events are paired with “let’s throw a novice into a very advanced role.”

    3. OP*

      OP here. I pursued every professional development opportunity pretty aggressively (internal workshops, an external short course work paid for, even taking notes of feedback and making little post-it notes to remind me of things). In a lot of measurable ways I was actually fine at my job, but my manager had a very very ambitious plan that there was no way I was going to be able to be a high level contributor to.

      The good news is that all these training things, apart from being good in and of itself, made me more visible to higher-ups. I was able to do a secondment to a different department, and then shortly after I was able to transfer into the exact same role in a different (third) department. It’s a huge relief!

      My old boss was extremely good at her job, but the one of the things required to reach her level was literally “20 years experience”. It didn’t necessarily make her good at training.

  8. Tomato Frog*

    This gives me flashbacks to various experiences throughout my life, where teachers or managers would expect me to do something that was really beyond my skills and experience, just because I seemed bright and responsible. These days I’m pretty good at gauging when people are asking me to perform above my skill/experience level, or without proper support — but learning to gauge that required experience! Up through my first job out of college I’d be more likely to spend a lot of time beating myself up over my inability to do the thing that no one ever should have expected me to be able to do in the first place.

    It sounds like OP already has an inner voice telling her that this is about circumstances and experience, and not about some innate failing, which is, like, half the battle. What I would add is, don’t feel guilty about wanting to stop! You’re not “throwing away an opportunity,” you’re moving on to new opportunities. You have skills you want to learn, and if you’re not getting them where you are, it’s very reasonable to seek them elsewhere. And all this experience ends up in the same place, regardless of what order you get it in.

    1. Anxa*

      Holy heck, yes!

      I can come across as pretty bright and fairly mature. But I struggle with doing things right the first time and feeling confident with it. Just because something is easy for most people doesn’t mean it’s easy for me. And just because I’m smart doesn’t mean I won’t make a mistake.

      1. Elfie*

        Yeah, absolutely! I’m like this, and it’s taken nearly 20 years of working to START to get comfortable with the idea that people can see my work in progress. To me, that’s evidence of me struggling (because it’s not perfect – well of course not, it’s not even finished yet! And even when it is, it probably won’t be right first time!).

  9. Marcy Marketer*

    I don’t think it’ll look bad for you to go “back.” I started my career as a manager, then a VP. I then dropped down to assistant, but at a bigger company, and then associate, and now manager again in an extremely large department. The titles may matter a little bit, but what matters is the successes you achieve in each role and your ability to talk about them.

    I remember when I was VP, I printed a brochure with a small Photoshop fail. I was devastated. In an interview, I asked an extremely senior person the last time he printed something with a typo. He said, “I haven’t printed anything with a typo in 20 years.” I can definitly see how people with more experience get much more competent, and how you wouldn’t want to be high level until you’re there experience wise. I’ve never regretted going back down from VP. To me it felt like a way to get back to basics and get some foundational experience before moving back up.

    1. hbc*

      I would far more trust you and your story about your printing error than someone claiming he hadn’t made that kind of mistake in 20 years. It’s not that it’s impossible to go that long without making that kind of mistake, but:

      1) On a Venn diagram, the people who *claim* to never make X mistake have much, much more overlap with Frequently Does X than Never Does X.

      2) If he doesn’t have enough self-awareness to qualify with “to my knowledge” or “that a customer ever caught,” then I don’t believe he has the right qualities to catch that kind of mistake.

      1. Amarzing*

        Yeah, I kind of thought the kind of his story was going to be. “…because I’m too important to be dealing with printing typos/printing types are no longer my responsibility” which isn’t you know, a super helpful sentiment, but it’s definitely more believable.

  10. Situational leadership*

    This is from the other side of the table, but I found the concepts in “Situational Leadership” to be really helpful in managing a team, and helpful in discussing performance issues with team members. The concept centers around tasks vs. personality traits, so if you don’t know how to do a task, it’s not that you’re stupid or lazy, it’s that you just need to be taught that task. When you first start a new job, you still have to learn where the bathroom is located, learn how the coffee maker works in this office, etc. etc. So maybe frame your conversation in terms of tasks that you feel are struggling vs. beating yourself up for not being completely independent. I totally agree with approaching your manager, especially if there’s specific tasks that you consistently have issues with. I worked with a team of content writers in one role, and some people were really well-suited to writing short, quippy copy. Others for research. Others for more formal/academic writing. Trying to give them assignments outside their core strengths tended to fail. So maybe there’s a few things that you’re awesome at, but you need more collaboration or different ways to assign other things that aren’t your strength yet? I get that the stress is killing you, but if your manager seems reasonable, I’m sure she’d be willing to work with you to train or re-allocate work to play to your strengths.

    1. LQ*

      All the pluses to Situational Leadership. I did some work on it in the last year and how I manage work I give peers has improved by so much. That said I think that understanding for yourself where things fall on that spectrum is important. I have a big project that is sort of everything I’m doing right now and I feel SO HORRIBLE about how I’m doing my job. But it is a new thing. It is unknown territory. I’ve talked to my boss a bunch and while there is only so much help he can give (it’s a technical thing outside his expertise and he’s been trying to bring in help for me on that part but that’s also been a challenge) it is really helpful to hear that I’m performing as expected or better and that this is an unusual case. So I think you can do a little of understanding where you are and when to ask for help by understanding the situational leadership. Though you are already doing the biggest piece which is more check ins more frequently.

      I’d also self identify a little, and ask your manager too, what things are you consistently succeeding at. There are likely more than you know and more than you see, and seeing them is really helpful because it gives you perspective.

    2. Clewgarnet*

      Out of interest, how would situational leadership address what seems to be a lack of initiative? Is it even possible when you’re not actually managing the people in question?

      I’m the project engineer for a piece of software that automates building teapots. The teapot engineers who are supposed to be taking over the day-to-day support of the software seem to be unable to apply their teapot knowledge, eg, “If I was manually building this teapot and the lid didn’t fit, I’d check it was the right lid. But the software has assembled this teapot and is saying the lid doesn’t fit, so I’m going to ask Clewgarnet because she deals with the software.”

  11. I Herd the Cats*

    Everybody’s being encouraging and has great suggestions, don’t sell yourself short, etc. I’m going to go a slightly different direction… the longest year of my life was doing a job I wasn’t able to do (a combination of experience, training, and some natural skill.) It was nobody’s fault, per se. I was hired to do X and after a couple of weeks on the job, it was clear to me that what they really needed was someone with top-notch skills in Y. I got better over the year — took classes, studied online after work, mentored by a friend who does Y for a living. I felt like throwing up every morning before work; it was that feeling you get in a nightmare where it’s your French final and you never went to class all year and don’t know even basic French. The day they called me in and said “it just isn’t working out” was one of the best days of my career. They gave me a nice severance and a nice reference, and they also got to hire someone who could do the job expertly and with minimal effort.

    1. SansaStark*

      Ugh this was me, too. I was taking Xanax like Skittles just to get through the day. It was literally the worst 6 months and the day they fired me was among the best days of my life. They did not give me a severance OR a job reference because they were giant jerks (part of the whole “worst 6 months part”), but I was free to find something where I wasn’t miserable. I was so scarred that it took me a few months to really even start looking for a new job in earnest because I was convinced of my incompetence as a person. But now on the other side of the whole thing….it was a good lesson/experience to have.

      1. I Herd the Cats*

        Yeah, thanks! It’s funny…. I’m reading a lot of “hey, maybe you’re actually fine at this job.” But not if it makes you miserable.

    2. Chinook*

      I am another person who took a job that it turned out I couldn’t do. I was poached by one of our clients and went from being an admin. assistant in an accounting firm to being one to an executive in a family owned business. In hindsight, I was horrible at this new job and my boss (who was my boss at the other job) did me a favour in firing me. I did not have the skill set required to do the job nor to recognize that I was failing at doing it.

      How I explain it now when asked in an interview is that I took a calculated risk and failed. I now know where my limits are (I need clear objectives and communication and work best when supporting multiple people vs. being the sole support for one person) because I have experienced them. I also know what type of work environment to stay away from (this one was also highly toxic and everyone they poached from the accounting firm left within a year) and what types of questions to ask in an interview to look for red flags.

      If a hiring manager doesn’t want to hear that I know what failure looks like, then to me it sounds like they also don’t know that success is not always an option or that everyone has limits. This to me is a boss I don’t want to work for long term.

      On the plus side, I went from that horrendous job to the one I currently hold which is also the best work environment I have ever had. If I were to ever see the boss who fired me again, I would actually thank him for doing so because it freed me up to do something better.

    3. Jaybeetee*

      I remember my own nightmare scenario where I was actually relieved to be let go. After a year+ of low wage, temporary work, I got what I thought was a great job in an industry I had been trying to get into for ages. It was a combination of hellish commute (I’d heard from several sources it was about an hour’s drive, turned out to be closer to 90 minutes each way, longer if there were any problems or tried to carpool) and just the wrong job for me, but I was an obsessive mess for three months straight, not eating or sleeping properly, until they let me go for poor performance at the end of my probationary period (despite everything, my training had seemed to go fine, but as soon as I was working more independently, there were problems). I was also a mess for ages, not just because of the experience itself, but because it just seemed like I’d had such poor insight into myself to think any of it was a good idea in the first place. Lessons learned.

      1. SansaStark*

        You’re right – so many lessons learned. I didn’t see how it was affecting my real life when I was in the middle of it, but later I saw how I wasn’t eating, sleeping, or doing just the basic things I enjoyed on my off time like reading or hanging out with friends. I allowed them to steal “me,” which I will forever be vigilant about moving forward. I also now (several years later) have the confidence to turn down a job if something about it just doesn’t feel right.

  12. AnonAcademic*

    For what it’s worth, I’m in academic research and the rule I’ve heard is that if you don’t feel in over your head at least some of the time, you’re not stretching yourself. It’s part of the natural transition from Undergrad/Research Assistant -> Doctoral Student -> Postdoc -> Faculty. Each role has distinct challenges that the previous roles may not have prepared you for (e.g. the managerial responsibilities of running a lab). I have seen people get “stuck” at each stage, feeling like they aren’t adjusting fast enough, but some adjustment period seems inevitable for everyone. It took me 1.5 years to get fully comfortable on my current project because it uses a technology I had no exposure to prior to starting this job and is a whole field in and of itself. But now I’m treated as “senior” in the lab and the new people have come to me for advice on transitioning into similar roles (which is weird but also flattering). My career counselor says that being comfortable where I am is a sign I’m ready to go on the job market, where I can once again explore all my inadequacies!

  13. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    My honest feeling is that this is a bad case of impostor syndrome following a very rapid transition from the academic world. I think you can do it, OP. You’re showing a level of introspection and dedication that a truly bad worker wouldn’t. You’re just on the steep part of the learning curve. Don’t lose heart.

  14. HR Gal*

    OP, I was in the same exact boat as you recently.

    Almost right out of college, I was hired to work with a consultant to develop a new department at company X from scratch, despite having no prior experience in that area. After 3 months, the consultant left and it was just me, a 22 year old, running a department for a 75+ person company with only 3 months of experience. I certainly learned a ton in that position – and worked on projects that I would never have had the opportunity to work on otherwise – but it was awful. It felt fraudulent. I felt like I couldn’t do my job effectively as I didn’t have the years of experience or knowledge to back up my decisions.

    Ultimately, I left and found a new position. When interviewing, I phrased it like Alison suggested: that I wanted to find a position in which I could learn the ropes a bit more, etc. I ended up getting a lower-lever position in the same field at a stellar company (and a significant salary boost!).

    But OP, beware. You may be super stressed doing the high-level work that you’re doing now, but ask yourself if you honestly think you can handle transitioning into a job without as much responsibility. It’s very likely that at a lower-level job, you’ll be doing more basic tasks that you find boring. Are you willing to give up interesting (albeit stressful) work for work that is potentially boring/administrative? I certainly thought I was, but the transition is much harder than expected. Be honest with yourself if a lower-level job is really what you want.

    1. aebhel*

      Eh, not necessarily. It’s not quite the same thing, but I’ve been the acting director at my place of employment for a couple of months, and one of the things that I really hate about it is the amount of boring administrative work and personnel management that I have to do, as compared to my normal job. In some fields, a lot of the interesting work isn’t actually happening at the top of the chain.

      1. HR Gal*

        I agree this may not apply to all situations – it’s mostly just something to consider. OP says her current job requires “creativity, tact, good judgment, and a level of autonomy.” Although not universally true, it’s likely that a junior-level job will not require all that from her. If she’s at a job that’s really mentally stimulating, it might be hard for her to find satisfaction in a job that’s not quite so stimulating.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          On the other hand, it could be a relief.

          After getting really burned out in my old field, I was retraining part-time and spent a few months working part-time in an entry-level office assistant post where I mostly did filing and data entry. It was bliss. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it forever but after a period of feeling like stress was killing me, it was such a relief not to have to worry all day.

    2. Chinook*

      ” Are you willing to give up interesting (albeit stressful) work for work that is potentially boring/administrative? I”

      One should not discount boring work. It frees up the mind to have a life outside work and gives you the potential to be a superstar at it. It can also open doors to doing “more exciting” work because, if you can show your responsibility and attention to detail when doing “boring,” sometimes it means someone will take a risk on you to do something else because you have proven yourself as a known quantity (though I am the first to admit this doesn’t always happen).

      Most importantly, there is always a need for someone to do the boring work, which, if you need a pay cheque, can mean better job security if you are known as the person who is consistently good at it.

  15. Sal*

    Definitely talk to someone. I was in this position a while back and it helped SO MUCH to talk to my manager. First, it confirmed that I wasn’t as horrible as I thought/felt, and in fact I was one of the best performers. Second, he shared with me ways in which he felt unqualified for his job, and how he had talked to his own boss about this kind of thing, and believe me when I say this was one of the most qualified people for what he was doing. And finally, we had a good conversation about the tools I needed to feel more competent, such as some training, and other things he suggested could help me out. At a later time I ended up leaving that position for one that in many ways better suits my strengths, but I’m SO glad that I was in that role for that long. It helped to build up confidence and experience in things I’m not great at naturally, and the skills transferred really well to this new (related but different) in a way – I basically am bringing a unique experience to my new job that most people don’t have, which can hinder them, so while I’m new to the specific systems in my new job, I bring a lot of good outside experience to the organization. Good luck!!

  16. aebhel*

    OP, I can really relate to this.

    I want to second all the advice to get a second opinion on how your work is progressing, but also: I’m currently the acting director at my place of work, and I am definitely over my head and unqualified for this job. I’m lucky enough to know that this is temporary (after which I will go back to my ordinary job, which I am actually good at and enjoy!). If you’re miserable and stressed out because you’re afraid you’re screwing up, that’s something that it’s worth getting feedback on and maybe laying those fears to rest (or maybe not! but it’s good to have another opinion either way). If you’re miserable and stressed because you just genuinely don’t like the job, then don’t force yourself to keep doing it when you could find something else that you’ll enjoy more.

  17. Was I Ready?*

    As the person unsure if I was ready for a career leap a decade ago (https://www.askamanager.org/2007/10/do-i-need-more-time-to-grow.html) — wow I’ve been reading AAM for that long, huh? — this letter catches my eye for obvious reasons.

    All I can really say is that ten years and a change of field later, my observation is that there still is and may always be an inherent “am I a fraud?” feeling to any kind of complex work because its very nature is to have less certain black-and-white, right and wrong ways of doing things, and any exercise of critical analysis or discretion can be easily second-guessed in ways that may or may not be fair to you (if not by others, by your own overly conscientious self). Ultimately, I’d echo those above who have suggested interpreting your situation as a learning experience regardless of your decision — whether by continuing to pick up skills and experience or by steering toward a position you’re more comfortable with, as the case may be — and I’d just add that your relationship with your advisers remains key here as well…

    You should take full advantage of the fact you seem to have a boss who you can trust will hear “I am struggling” as “how can I find my bearings/improve for the good of the team?” and not “I can’t do my job and should be replaced.” It’s that much of a rougher lesson the latter way, even if still valuable.

      1. De Minimis*


        I can’t remember what year I first wrote a letter, though I started reading in 2008.

  18. To Ra Loo Ra*

    This has been me recently. Also 24, graduated about 2.5 years ago, was accepted into a (wonderful) internship and transitioned to full-time after about a year at a company that is extremely respected and hard to break into.

    I had a small amount of related experience when I started the internship and was so grateful to go full-time. But then the next rounds of interns came in suddenly I started seriously questioning why they hired me at all, let alone twice. My current manager isn’t the one who hired me, and worked in a different state so we never really interacted before their promotion.

    I’ve been full-time just over a year now, but have been feeling like I should be much farther along in my skills than I am. Part of it is that I’m not sure I want to stay on this career path forever – it’s tangentially related to where I want to be but not quite there. Add that my title was just reclassified to a higher level (same title, higher pay band) when I already felt behind and now I just don’t know.

    I did have plans to bring it up with my manager in our one-on-one this week, and they would absolutely take it seriously with actionable feedback, but just bringing it up at this point is a hurdle for me. In the end, this is my career and I have to be the one in charge of it, but also it still feels weird to know that I am in the midst of my career rather than just planning for it

    1. misspiggy*

      It might be worth knowing that many jobs take well over a year to get competent at. For your first post-internship job, your bosses are unlikely to expect you to be fully up to speed at this point. They may well be willing to wait for you to catch up – it’s an investment of time which will hopefully pay off for the company if you stay.

      1. To Ra Loo Ra*

        At this point I’ve been with the same team for almost 2.5 years (the internship started right after graduation, full time right after the internship) so so even though I effectively got a promotion, it still feels like I should be doing more. I am also at a point where I’ve hit the wall of ‘stay here and be okay at my job, or take the next step and be really good’ – I’m just not sure what that next step is and that’s the gist of what I want to discuss with my manager.

        Logical side of my brain recognizes that, of course it’s not going to be as natural to me as it is to the manager who has been in the industry since it began and that’s perfectly reasonable.
        Non-logical side of my brain says that a lot of my life is tied up in this company (which sounds not good but isn’t abnormal in this instance) and anything that is a risk to the job is A Bad Thing

  19. Bess*

    I get vibes of imposter syndrome and perfectionism in this letter, too–tough to say whether the OP’s sense of work quality is accurate.

    Maybe the job just isn’t the right fit, but I wouldn’t count out the (frankly) huge transition out of school and then the separate transition into not just the working world, but also a new job. In my first few jobs–entry level, not too much to do, and I tended to stay under 2 years–I really didn’t get how a new job transition is really a process over a year or year and a half…particularly as you move up the chain. You’re learning that whole time, and ideally not burning the place down, but also probably not turning in perfect work with no learning curve, no guidance, etc. I’d think even someone more senior would need time to get up to speed with a new organization, special processes and policies, etc. I look back a few jobs ago and it’s kind of stunning how much information you store up just by being in the workforce a while (and how little you sometimes know early on).

    And, again, maybe the letter is an accurate self-assessment, but…as someone who often has to struggle with wanting something to be perfect, A+ when “good enough” would do just fine…I wonder if that’s an element here.

    OP, hope you can gain some clarity and get yourself into a less stressful place, whether that means a change in mindset or a change in job!

    1. that guy*

      Perfectionism may seem like a good thing, but it often leads to complete chaos. My boss has complained about my productivity, because I want everything to be perfect. Which means I never get anything done.

      My therapist said “sometimes good enough is good enough.” I should get that tattooed on my arm to remind me.

  20. TootsNYC*

    If not your manager–is there some other person at your company that you can approach for feedback?

    Or, instead of “closer supervision,” maybe you need someone experienced to think out loud in front of.

  21. Thlayli*

    Alison suggested that if you are really unhappy you should look elsewhere for another job which is good advice. You might also want to consider whether or would be possible to look for a less stressful role within your own organisation. It’s tricky because most organisations can’t seem to fathom the idea of moving someone into a “lower” role. But some organisations have done it. At oldjob there were 2 people I knew who got promoted to manager and absolutely sucked at it. Both were moved into other roles that used their other skills and didn’t require them to manage people. If a company can find a way to move you sideways or even down a little in the org chart then that would be a sign of a really great company.

    Asking for that is a risk though. They may take it as an opportunity to say goodbye. So maybe try to suss out from colleagues you have a good relationship with whether that could ever happen or has happened before raising it with your manager.

    Good luck.

  22. Jaybeetee*

    No one has mentioned yet, but I always get a bit suspicious of places where inexperienced people get thrown into advanced roles, or a relative newbie suddenly gets promoted like 5 levels up the chain. I’m sure it’s not always the case, but it tend to suggest dysfunction to me.

    I’m acquainted with someone who started in an entry-level role somewhere, and by the year’s end he was doing work several levels above his actual job, and additionally doing multiple people’s jobs. He’s a hard worker and a very smart guy, but he was still working 70 hour weeks and was a ball of stress – at like age 24. He eventually “escaped” to law school (you know you’re in deep when law school is less stressful than what you came from), and the department mostly collapsed behind him.

    1. Nabby*

      Also good on him for finding the time to apply to grad school. A lot of times people get or feel even more trapped in these crazy stressful 70 hr a week jobs because they don’t have sufficient time to plan their next move.

  23. Amy*

    This is so strikingly similar to my situation that i have to reread this to be sure i didn’t send this in :)! In my situation though i eventually handed in my notice and I’m looking for another job (in the mean time helping my husband manage an Airbnb business). Reasons for me leaving in addition to feeling that I couldn’t do the job as well (evident in number of mistakes i make, constantly working over time in tears and dreading Mondays, and dreaming and talking about work in my sleep) were also because of the commuting by train for 4 hours in total back and forth with shaky train schedules; being the only one in my team on a temporary contract; being rated as having low potential in my performance review. A conflict with a team member were s/he pointed out to me angrily that I misunderstand /do not correctly make customers aware of the consequences of their request – of course this kept happening because i myself lacked this experience on consequences/knowledge to inform customers correctly on this.
    I can only hope that there is something out there that will match better. Good luck to the OP and hope you find a workable solution!

Comments are closed.