I’m supposed to be a superstar, but I don’t know how

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

After over a year of utterly fruitless job-searching post-graduation (shoutout to my fellow Virtual Grads, Class of 2020), I landed a job, thanks in no small part to your fantastic resume, cover letter, and interview advice. It was not what I pictured myself doing, but I love it, and I think I’m very good at it. But therein lies my question.

The first few months weren’t a big departure from an academic environment. There was a multi-week training component with virtual classes, culminating in written, verbal, and multiple-choice exams. You also have a finite period of time upon hire to pass several licensing exams, allowing for the possibility you may fail one or two and have to re-test. I was hired in May and fully licensed by mid-August. I passed the training program with flying colors, was repeatedly told that I was “a leader,” and scored an unheard-of 100% on the multiple-choice exam. In fact, on my first day in-office after the training, I asked directions of someone who turned out to be a senior manager, who recognized my name and said, “I know who you are. You got a hundred on the training exam, didn’t you? When we heard that, we all wanted you on our team.” I was asked to represent nearly 200 new hires in a meeting with managers to suggest better ways of communicating with the recently onboarded, and got glowing feedback on my presentation; the head of our entire department, as well as my boss’s boss, came by my desk to publicly compliment me on how well it went. Two months after getting my licenses, a member of my team nominated me for an Outstanding [My Job] Award, which I got for teaching other new hires (I was the first new hire on my team since the pandemic, so I’m slightly more tenured) how to do simple tasks that I’d mastered, taking pressure off more senior team members to do all the training. Phrases like “you’re going to be a superstar,” “made for this job,” and “when we’re hiring, we’re looking for the next [my name]” were repeatedly tossed in my direction. I realize this sounds like I’m bragging, but I just want to drive home how regular and effusive the praise was, and how high expectations were/are for my actual performance.

Since my industry is highly regulated, there are various hurdles to clear before you can perform all the required tasks: a phone-readiness test, additional training at 6 months, and a final mini-course on a specific task, typically after one year. I flew through those, and my manager had me complete the 6- and 12-month trainings at the 5-and 10-month marks, respectively. At my year-end review in December, my manager told me I was the first person with less than a year’s tenure that she’d ever given the highest of our three performance ratings for anything; typically the best a new hire can do is “meets expectations” across the board, but I got a top score in the leadership category (meets expectations on everything else, but I was still learning). At this point, all of my “milestones” are complete and I’m a full [job title] who is officially allowed to do everything. And I’m terrified.

The one-year mark is usually the benchmark for when someone is supposed to start feeling comfortable with this job. I do feel confident that I can do a large majority of the tasks required of me, but I’m also totally at a loss for how to live up to the reputation I acquired in the early days. There are no more tests to ace or trainers to impress. I just have to be consistently good at the job.

There’s plenty for me to do, and I work hard; I stay late and eat lunch at my desk. (I do take short breaks/walks outside throughout the day and vacation days as needed; I’m not a single-minded work automaton.) I’ve seen other new hires come and go. A little over half couldn’t pass the licensing exams or master the complicated systems we use. (Not that it matters, but the surviving new hires are all male—I’m a woman.) I’ve continued mentoring the ones who stuck around, joined a team that workshops system improvements, and even got a leadership position with the company-wide LGBTQ+ resource group. In addition to my everyday tasks, I’m working on compiling resources for training new hires on our team’s functions. I’m worried that all of this looks like a flailing, desperate attempt to distinguish myself—and in a way, it is. I’m a highly competitive person who runs on praise and remembers every compliment I’ve ever gotten (why yes, I am a former “gifted child”).

I love my job. I love my coworkers, especially the ones on my team. I love my boss, who is supremely competent, very supportive, sets challenging yet achievable goals, and gives appropriate praise when I meet them. But I feel like I’ve been set up to let people down when I’m not the single best [job title] that the company has ever seen. I’m scared of making some sort of big, fireable mistake. I feel like all of this is more of a referendum on my mental health than a workplace advice question, but I do want to know: let’s say you’ve got a relatively new person who has all the makings of being a rock star. How can they prove that they really are that good at the job? And conversely, what behaviors indicate that they’re going to crash and burn and squander all the goodwill they built up? More broadly, how does one transition from the first stage of their life, where achievement is all about passing tests/getting grades—essentially, one big expenditure of effort, then it’s over and you’re done—into a job, which seems to require fewer splashy big achievements and more constant, low-level maintenance and consistency in order to be considered successful?

Readers, want to tackle this one?

{ 272 comments… read them below }

  1. Hopefully Helpful*

    I think the biggest thing to do is reframe what a “superstar” employee is in your mind. It’s not that a high performer wouldn’t make mistakes (especially a new employee), it’s that they endeavor to learn from every mistake. So as long as you’re doing your best, learning from mistakes, and being gracious when you receive feedback, that’s still superstar behavior.

    That’s what helped me the most with work anxiety, at least. Learning to reframe high performance as an attitude of learning, humility, and hard work, not as a series of specific work goals/tasks.

    1. Mid*

      That’s a very good point! Working on changing how you define success is a very big part of transitioning from academics to longer term work. Success looks different for everyone and every role, so looking at people who are mid-career might be a good way to help frame future goals for yourself, and also realistic expectations.

    2. CTT*

      Yes! Everyone is going to make mistakes, but knowing that someone will be able to identify those mistakes/not brush them under the rug, own it (not prostrating yourself for forgiveness, but “I messed up on X, here is what I’m doing to solve it”), and then learn from it is huge and not something that everyone does.

      1. Soontoberetired*

        That is the advice I give to all our new hires. Own your mistakes and learn from them!

    3. Lenora Rose*

      THIS. If you decide you aren’t a superstar (or even just a perfectly good worker) if you make mistakes, you are setting yourself an impossible standard – and also a standard that even the people you see as expecting a lot from you don’t expect. Humans make mistakes and even “star employees” are human.

      If you do your work fast and well, learn from the mistakes you do make, and seek reasonable professional development, you’re doing fabulous.

    4. nonprofit writer*

      Yes, for sure! Don’t be afraid to ask questions and move out of your comfort zone. When I switched departments at a nonprofit from communications to fundraising, I knew how to do the writing piece, but I needed to learn a lot more about the organization’s finances and how we presented them to donors. I’m quite competent at math but I hadn’t had to use math since college, and I needed to learn how to create grant budgets and things like that. I was constantly asking our CFO questions. I felt kind of silly because he would send me info and I’d keep saying, sorry, but what does this mean exactly? Why do we calculate it this way? Tell me again what the difference is between a grant and a contribution? Etc etc. I worried a lot about that stuff at first, but after a few months the CFO made a point of telling my boss and grandboss how much he appreciated having someone in that position who really wanted to understand the financial side of things.

      But also, I agree with the commenter below who advised learning how to be bad at things (not necessarily work). It’s a good skill for us former gifted children who may have just a smidge of perfectionism!

    5. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

      Yes, there will come a time where OP makes a mistake. And that happens, even to the best of us. Learning and growing from that is what superstars do.

      Also, if you haven’t already, set some SMART goals for yourself now that the more tangible milestones have passed.

    6. Little My*

      I agree! LW, can you focus on the things that really matter to you? What does it mean to be good? For me, it means being helpful to my colleagues, leading on equity issues, and doing my job in an ethical manner that’s a net positive for the world. Your skills are what you use to do the things you think are actually important.

      Because of some high-stress work experiences, I really had to adjust my expectations in my first job. I expected to be punished for small mistakes. But at a good workplace, it’s not about “punishment”. Every time that my boss or a colleague gave me grace on a mistake, I unlearned that instinct.

      Maybe obvious, but I’d also really recommend therapy to help you explore these questions, if you aren’t already doing that.

    7. Decision Science PhD*

      You might find Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset (and her book) helpful in this. Basically, if people think that being “smart” or “talented” is a fixed property of themselves, they avoid challenging tasks where they might fail because that could prove they aren’t *really* “smart”. If they define it as a process/something you constantly build, then they seek out challenges to keep building that skill. Likewise, in the decision-making literature, there’s a well-documented effect where trying to make The Single Best Choice actually leads people to feel more regret/less satisfaction about their decisions, versus setting high standards and accepting any option above that standard as equally good.

      Put another way: as HH says, define “superstar” as trying hard, seeking opportunities to grow and learn, and setting a high standard that isn’t being The Single Best Llama Groomer to Ever Groom.

      1. President Porpoise*

        THIS. LW, do not be afraid of failing to meet everyone’s expectations. Instead, you should take this opportunity to learn about/from the higher-level people around you. What do they do all day? What did they have to do to get into that position? Is there more you could learn to position yourself for future growth? what other career paths are open to you?
        It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but you can start to map out what you want your career to look like going forward, and use your superstar reputation to get there. This stage of your life/career is about learning the basics/advanced requirements (which it looks like you’ve pretty much got) and then positioning yourself for future growth. But above all, plan your career for your benefit, not for theirs.

        Also, don’t be afraid of not knowing something or making mistakes. That’s fine. We all do that. The way to handle it is 1.) learn from those mistakes and avoid repeating them and 2.) work on developing a network of people who you can trust to give you good information and/or advice in areas where you don’t have direct expertise, so that your mistakes become fewer and/or more defensible.

    8. L'étrangere*

      The OP said it herself – it’s no longer about one big expenditure of effort, it’s about a lower level of consistent performance. She should stop torturing herself about other people’s expectations, which us indeed more of a mental health issue. If I could suggest something, it seems to me she has the opportunity to concentrate on mentoring other women into the profession, and maybe even to suggest changes in the training program so they no longer get eliminated so efficiently. That would be a lasting contribution to her field, and incidentally benefit her as well, as being the only woman is not a very sustainable position long-term

    9. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      OP, the irony. You are looking into yourself to see where you can improve and what you need to keep doing.
      Please understand that being someone people want on their team is different than being “someone who is good at their job.” The 100% got you in the door and on coworkers’ radars. It was working with you that got you the award.
      Maybe you learned everything before others, or faster. More important is that you were able to process it and share/teach others. Most important is that you did it. This is what makes a superstar in an office. (Sales is a different story, but as a non public facing office worker, I’ll take you.)

      1. President Porpoise*

        Yes! If you were just a good test taker but a miserable coworker, you would not be getting these types of accolades.

    10. immunorecovering*

      VERY this! In this new phase of work, your benchmarks are probably going to be annual reviews (if you continue to have those? Or are those just in the first 12 months at your company) and hearing the praise from your supervisors. Either way, reframe what “superstar” means in your role!

      It is a tough transition, though, I don’t want to downplay that. Just give yourself grace. Good luck!

    11. Sloanicota*

      This is a great comment. Reading Alison’s response to one of the similar “You Might Like” questions, she says this: “work on getting comfortable with the idea that you’re going to have times that you struggle, and you’re definitely not going to exceed expectations on everything. That’s just the reality of professional work. If you were someone who has always excelled pretty easily until now, you’re going to have be deliberate about getting more comfortable with the idea that that rarely continues for anyone once they’re out of school, even if they were always the Smart One or some other type of golden child previously.” (From ‘How Can I Bounce Back From Disappointing My Boss’). This is what the OP can do now to be ready for the moment that will inevitably come up where she’s not perfect.

    12. LunaLena*

      As a former “gifted child” and pathological overachiever myself, I agree with this. It also helps to realize that, no matter how “smart” or “experienced” or “superstar” someone is, for the most part, we’re really all just making it up as we go along. That’s why it’s doubly important to understand that we all make mistakes (and extend to grace to others), to keep learning, and to challenge yourself to grow.

      I have a pin on my bag that is a smiling cat wearing a tie with the caption “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and itt’s a reminder that there’s always things we don’t know but can improve and learn, and that sometimes we have to take risks and push the boundaries of our safe zones in order to grow. And yes, sometimes we will fail. But if we don’t test our limits, how do we know how far they truly go? Maybe you’ll surprise even yourself. That’s honestly where I get a lot of satisfaction and sense of achievement now – when I learn something new, find a way to implement it, and pull it off successfully (or at least, satisfactorily). Most of the time I’m screaming “I have NO IDEA what I’m doing, why did I suggest this” inside, but being able to see the project through to the end for better or for worse, and knowing I can do it again and better next time is as good as getting an A on a test to me.

      1. Now With Extra Macaroni*

        I really appreciate your comment. I am also a former “gifted child”. I’m curious what you think of the word “overachiever”. I always rationalize to myself that maybe I don’t “over”achieve, maybe other people should step up more. But maybe I need to re-think this mentality. Thanks.

        1. Tio*

          Another former gifted child

          I have felt the frustration of “Well this isn’t hard, why can’t you just DO it?” It was something I had to work on. The truth is, sometimes you’re overacheiving. Sometimes it just does take people longer to do what we do, and get where we get. You encounter it more harshly if you were mostly in gifted classes, fast tracks, or had only high achieving friends – as many of us do. And it can feel weird. Don’t let that “They’re not stepping up enough” mentality creep in without serious examination. Sometimes its right, and sometimes its not. And sometimes people are bad at one aspect at a job but really great at another, that you may or may not be seeing.

        2. LunaLena*

          I’ve just accepted being an overachiever, and, in fact, embrace it to a certain extent. Whether it’s because I was conditioned to be one starting when I was a little kid (my parents taught me the multiplication table by the time I was in first grade, for example) or it’s just inherent/genetic/whatever, the fact is that now it’s just who I am. I take a lot of pleasure in surpassing goals, whether they were set for me by other people or myself. I feel more satisfied with my life and myself in general when I see what I’ve managed to accomplish, despite often having zero clue what I’m doing. And I enjoy the feeling of finding a way to overcome a challenge that previously seemed insurmountable. It helps that I learned that I don’t need compliments from other people to be happy (though it’s nice, of course); sometimes kudos from me to me can be just as good.

          When I was younger and dumber this was not always a good thing. It made me very judgy and uptight about holding others to the same standards, and dismissing them as unworthy of my time if I decided they didn’t meet them. Once I started to grow up, though, I realized that this attitude was toxic and wrong and just plain mean, not only to others, but to myself. Eventually I was able to give myself permission to be wrong and fail at things and walk away without winning without beating myself up too much, and also accept that other people are not me and therefore bring things to the table that I don’t, so they deserve respect for that even if they don’t go about things the same way I would. I won’t lie, I do still instinctively get judgy about some things. But I also actively work at not standing by those snap judgments and being open-minded enough to realize that my solution is not the only one or even necessarily the best one. “Do unto others as you would yourself” is the Golden Rule for a reason; if I want other people to respect me enough to leave me to do my things my way, then I need to do the same for them, even if I privately wish they would step up more.

          But on the other hand, it’s no fun being an overachiever if the hurdles are barely above the ground; sometimes giving myself the extra challenge of having to step up more and then being able to pat myself on the back because “I did it! By myself! Nothing can stop me because I HAVE THE POWEEEERRRRR!” can be fun too, no? :)

    13. Starfox*

      Yes, this is great advice. I’m a former “gifted kid” as well, and we have the tendency to try to hide our mistakes, not ask questions, and try to figure things out on our own because those are the traits we were praised for as children. It’s hard to “unlearn.” It’s easier if you can develop a comfortable, mentor/mentee type relationship with your boss or someone more experienced, though.

    14. Invisible fish*

      I don’t want to parrot anyone who has already said this, but I’m in a rush, and your descriptions make me feel I must respond even if I haven’t yet read all the comments.

      Carefully, with deliberation and analysis, figure out how to “undo” the gifted child mentality. It will allow both employers and people in general to take advantage of you. You’ll look up and find you’re carrying a disproportionate amount of work and burning out. I did that, and I’m still recovering from the burn out two years after getting out of an unhealthy workplace.

      You must live for yourself and your joy, not for others and their praise. You deserve a full life and healthy balance.

      1. TheRain'sSmallHands*

        Early in my career I was ill and still at work. My boss looked at me and said “if you were that important, we’d pay you more – go home.” It caused me to reset my thinking (which had been warped by retail work through college – going home when you are sick and missing your shift for $3.35 an hour was just not done). I don’t get paid enough to keep an entire Fortune 500 going. I’m not a high enough level employee to do so. I do my job and I do it well – and sometimes I’ve managed to save a company millions of dollars by doing my job well. But those opportunities don’t come up often, and I’m not going to break myself finding them. And even then, eventually I burnt out, ended up “retiring” early.

        Every class in college is a sprint – for ten or sixteen weeks. With identifiable goals and metrics. You can do a sprint. Work is a marathon where you need to pace yourself – and it goes on and on for decades. The goals and metrics are often fuzzy and changing. There will be times when you know you need to slow down a bit so you can make it to the next water station. There will be times were the other runners are out in front of you, there will be times you stumble. But its a marathon and there are YEARS in front of you. I’m not the only person I know in my 50s who has stepped back because continuing at the pace wasn’t healthy. Set a pace you can continue in a healthy fashion – don’t worry if that isn’t a superstar pace, don’t be afraid to slow down when you need to. And start recognizing that “yep, I test well” and “yeah, I have good written communication skills” doesn’t necessarily translate into superstar. Let other people know that as well. “Oh, yeah, I test well.” (But how many tests are you going to take moving forward – testing is a requirement for some jobs – but no one pays you to take tests for a living.)

        1. Sarah*

          Yes. 100%. Marathon not a sprint is a perfect description of working vs college. As another formerly “gifted” child, my perfectionist streak led me to put a lot of pressure on myself and others earlier in my career. I accomplished a lot, but also burned myself out a few times. I’m now a bit further along in my career with a lot more responsibility, and even if I worked 20 hours a day there would still be things I’d miss and things I can’t be across.

          My focus now is developing others—initially to help me get more tasks accomplished, but now I’m really enjoying the process of leading a team and supporting others. This is not always easy as a perfectionist as I needed to let go of a lot, but working within a team with a varied level of skill/experience has been a great thing to get used to doing.

          I’ve seen too many people further along then me compromise their health and family because of excessive hours, so my focus is on prioritising what’s important and managing what I can control with the resources I have. And that includes my time.

    15. ArtK*

      Very well put!

      I am the superstar. I’ve been working in my profession for 40+ years and have always been a standout “go to” person. Guess what? I make mistakes. Sometimes really big, embarrassing ones. I always own my mistakes and try to improve based on what went wrong. I’m also constantly learning from others; I don’t care if it’s a new hire straight out of academia, they may still have something to teach me.

      1. Ann Nonymous*

        Very much same. I also now (most of the time) point out and admit my mistakes, sometimes explaining why I made them, then fixing them. And I just wish that I knew about Carol Dweck’s ideas when I was a kid, even though I’m older than she is!

        1. Lindsay*

          Hard agree! Bouncing back from mistakes by owning them and with a plan to avoid it in the future is part of being a (growth-mindset) “superstar.”

    16. ArtK*

      Here’s a definition of success, from an extremely successful person:

      “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” — John Wooden

    17. Flash Packet*

      I used to be so stressed from making a mistake that I would become close to non-functional after anyone pointed out something I’d done wrong / misunderstood / executed poorly on / totally forgot to do.

      I eventually got over that with time (too much time, honestly) and now I see it as a “gift” to younger hires for me to show them that mistakes are a part of life, and that it’s no big deal if you acknowledge the mistake, learn from it, and move on.

      We had an intern start this week and she’s paired with me. She is absolutely terrified of making a mistake and messing up this internship. It felt good to point out to her that we’re not brain surgeons. No one is going to die if we make a mistake. And, further, our entire process is set up so that everything goes through multiple layers of review; meaning, it would be really, really hard for her — or anyone in our department — to get something so wrong that it affects the company.

    18. Liu*

      How you handle it when you make a mistake is important. When you take accountability, correct the mistake, and you learn from it. When you show others how to learn from your mistake. When you change processes, where possible, to avoid it in the future. All of these are where someone shows their character.

    1. COBOL Dinosaur*

      yes! Imposter syndrome is where my brain immediately went. I suffer from this greatly! And then when I push through it I am afraid I’m suffering from Kruger-Dunning. I can’t seem to find a middle ground!

      1. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

        This is a really small thing, but when someone compliments you, say thank you instead of something like trivializing, such as “it was nothing” or “it’s no problem”. Reframing compliments as accomplishments might help.

        1. crankasaurus*

          It definitely helps, and in my experience “thank you!” is actually a more gracious response. When you consistently downplay your achievements, people notice and it can start to come across as self-flagellating or insecure, and sometimes makes the other person feel uncomfortable. It’s better to just accept the compliment.

          Framing it this way – as a favor to the person giving me the compliment – helped me actually say “thank you,” which in turn helped me feel more confident in myself. A very good feedback loop overall.

      2. NeedRain47*

        I tell myself that if I’m thinking about Dunning-Kruger, I can’t be falling victim to it… I’m well aware I have no idea what I’m doing! ;)

    2. londonedit*

      Yes! And also, please don’t burn yourself out. If you don’t need to stay late and barely leave your desk, don’t – of course you need to get your work done, but being a great employee who’s good at their job doesn’t have to mean flogging yourself working long hours. Your work and your performance obviously stands for itself – if you also feel you need to make a show of being the first to arrive and the last to leave, or never being seen to take a proper lunch break, then that’s not a good sign in terms of company culture (or possibly not a good sign in terms of you having unreasonable expectations for yourself and the image you feel you need to project).

      1. Esmeralda*

        Agreed. Start taking real lunches, not at your desk, take breaks, leave (reasonably close to) on time.

        It’s better for you now. And also, you do not want to establish fast lunch at desk/stays late always as the baseline. Even if what you’re doing now doesn’t feel excessive, it won’t always feel that way. Set the expectation that you get a lot of work done well within reasonable time frames.

    3. Not A Girl Boss*

      The HBR article “If You’re So Successful, Why Are You Still Working 70 Hours a Week?” triggered me in a big way, but it was probably the wakeup call I needed to realize that the constant competitiveness, accelerating through every possible milestone, acing every test, and constant adoration from managers… weren’t the things that were going to ultimately make me feel ok with myself.

      I had to create that self esteem / self respect within myself. The external reinforcement is like caffeine, its effectiveness wears off over time – especially since its very normal for coworkers and managers to grow used to your performance level, coming to expect it instead of appreciate it.
      The pressure of being a superstar really burned me out, because I felt like I could *never* have a day where I performed at mere human levels. To dig myself out of burnout, I had to work very hard at getting internal enjoyment out of doing things well. Its a huge improvement over my old emotions: relief at not messing anything up that day, followed by a pounding anxiety the next morning when I have to get up and not mess up again.

      I also really recommend the book “How to be an imperfectionist” which helped me with practical and mini exercises I could do to get better at ^^^.

      There’s another comic that didn’t read as very funny to me, but I feel fits my life really well. It was a graph depicting the “life of a highly talented youth”, showing a meteoric rise, a crashing burnout, and then big long flatline of existential despair starting at around 30 and continuing into retirement. I’m trying to figure out how to get out of the flatline zone by cultivating new challenges and goals in my life. Because ultimately, once you achieve all the things… you’ve achieved them. And its not very fun to be without goals when you are used to getting such great satisfaction out of crushing goals.

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        It might be interesting for you to have a non-competitive hobby that you are ok at being bad at. For instance, this year I plan to do Inktober, despite not being terribly artistically talented. (this involves drawing *something* every day in October and posting it, if you feel like).

        And if you enjoy something that you are bad at–is this really a problem? It might be easy to slip into Extreme Knitting or Extreme Ironing (both of which are things), but doing something just for fun? Yes it is possible, even for overachievers.

  2. Mid*

    This is something I’ve struggled with as well, LW, and I want to say one of the best things you can do is start talking to a therapist.

    I know that might seem drastic, but it’s a really good way to help you shift your mindset from needing external validation to internal, and to help build up coping skills for when you, like everyone else in the world, make a mistake and don’t get the constant praise you’re used to.

    Note, this is not meant as an attack, it’s speaking from my personal experience. It was a rough transition from academia with clear-cut goals and milestones to the more long term consistency that work requires. And one that I did not do gracefully, as I worked myself half to death and burnt out. I wish I was better about starting the process earlier on to 1. build up my life outside of work to be fulfilling and 2. working with a therapist to break some of my old, harmful thought patterns about achievement, work, success, perfection, etc.

    1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Yes, THIS, definitely this.

      OP, you identify yourself as having been labeled gifted, a high achiever, and a perfectionist, and you can tell you’ve learned skills and thought processes that served you in one area but you know may become maladaptive now. And that’s GREAT, because a lot of us learn that the hard way. You’ve got a great start on a concrete area you want to work on, and a therapist can do wonders with helping you work on that.

      I’m also going to echo what others said above: learning to be okay(ish) with mistakes, and how to frame them, talk with your boss and team about them, and let them just be mistakes rather than a referendum on your self-worth, was a huge part of what I had to learn the hard way.

      1. Marthooh*

        And learn how to say “no” to some of those tasks you’re taking on. You shouldn’t have to work late every single day!

    2. ariel*

      I agree with this as a big help in how to reframe what success looks like for you, at work and away from it. You can be a “superstar” without exceeding expectations at every pass, and expecting to exceed expectations at every pass is a one-way ticket to a miserable life. Love from a recovering perfectionist!

  3. Ana*

    From my perspective–I have a very similar trajectory, winning awards and being celebrated, and being overwhelmed with it. What helped me was identifying my impostor syndrome and getting into therapy. Over time my therapist gave me permission (that I didn’t need, but I had a mental block) to give myself grace, learn to stay present, and just embrace my new role. As a woman, it’s insanely difficult to compete in the professional world–that’s just how it is. It’s an ongoing process but I cannot recommend therapy enough.

    1. another idea*

      Echoing the sentiments here. The letter writer is putting a ton of pressure on herself. I hope that she’s able to realize that she *doesn’t* have to be a rockstar! It’s great if she is, sure, but the idea that everyone will be dissapointed in her and she’s only one step away from being fired in a big mistake is A LOT of pressure.

    2. StrikingFalcon*

      The contrast between “my manager sets reasonable expectations” and “I work late and through my lunch” also stood out to me. OP, are long hours really necessary for your job, or is this pressure you are putting on yourself? I’m a former perfectionist who filled every second of every day with being busy until my health collapsed. I would have told you “I’m happiest when I’m busy!” when I was younger, but actually it turns out it was a combination of my own perfectionism being fed by a culture that was thrilled to take advantage of that plus overscheduling myself as a coping mechanism for my undiagnosed anxiety. Turns out I’m even happier with a work life balance and realistic expectations of myself.

      And I’m still seen as a superstar at work! Being a superstar isn’t about being the best X that ever existed, it’s about asking good questions, learning the job well, taking initiative to help others out, and consistently turning in high quality work. Not perfect work, not the best work that anyone has ever seen, just high quality work, consistently. It sounds like you are already meeting those bars!

      Now it’s time to learn to be a little kinder to yourself. I too highly recommend therapy for sorting through all of this. And also, be aware that imposter syndrome is more common in employees that don’t belong to the dominate group that holds their job. There’s a possibility that in a company where women “just don’t make the cut” but men do, there’s a sense that you have to be the best to be good enough that you are picking up on, and which is feeding your already high perfectionist tendencies.

  4. Moo*

    Just in general, outside of your job, can I recommend taking some hobby that you are terrible at. Early high achiever are often really afraid of failing anything or being bad at anything. I’m not suggesting you start being terrible at your job, but it would be good to experience failure in a way that “doesn’t matter” (I personally am the world’s worst surfer!). Other than that you might need to explore how to be “good enough” rather than the best or perfect.

    In terms of your work reputation, try to remember those things come and go. People likely want to be complimentary and supportive but they are probably not actively watching you with the enormous expectations in the way you are watching yourself!

    1. Dasein9*

      Yes! I do this with watercolors. I do the paintings and then hang them up on the wall for a while so I can learn to live with my mistakes and imperfections.

      Pick something you can do in a comfortable environment and just have fun with it, LW.

    2. Just J.*

      OMG. I did this with golf and was explicitly told by my instructor to never take up golf. I was that bad at it. It is good if you can learn to laugh at yourself.

      1. Miss Muffet*

        This cracked me up! I also try to model this with my teens – being willing to try something and suck and it and just have fun and/or laugh at myself. I hope it is showing them they can take risks too, and it’s ok to fail sometimes. They also have some combinations of the giftedness/perfectionist traits.

      2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        YES! I was so terrible at spinning wool, and it did not get better quickly. I’m still only okay at it. But I still wear the lumpy hat I knit with that first yarn because it really taught me perseverance and patience with myself.

        1. Loredena*

          This! I spin, crochet, weave. I do fused glass. I’m never going to be an artist not more than decent at any of them. But they are fun, creative, and low risk ways to fail.

        2. Cat Lady*

          I did this with sewing over the pandemic! I have some truly ridiculously fitting clothes as a result but I learned a lot from each one. Every time I pull out my seam ripper I try to tell myself its all part of the process.

      3. Flash Packet*

        I, too, sucked at golf. But I kept playing because I enjoyed it. I’d tell my friends and co-workers that they *wanted* me to be in their golfing party because I could guarantee that they’d look like pros next to me.

        Also, I was comedic relief. Every single shot I whiffed or sent sailing at a 90-degree angle set me off on an uncontrollable laughing fit. I thought it was hilarious, and all but the most stick-in-the-mud fellow players also ended up spending the day laughing along with me.

    3. DataGobbler*

      I really want to co-sign the first part of what you said about hobbies. When I was in school and a high achiever, I didn’t do anything in the arts because I was a STEM person. But I always wished I was better at painting and drawing. So when I graduated I started doing a lot of things I didn’t have time for in school, and one of them was painting. I cannot impress upon you how much I stunk at watercolor when I first started. I was better at acrylic, but honestly, I’m not getting anything hung in galleries anytime soon.

      But I love it because who cares if I’m bad! It’s a safe place to “fail” and since most people aren’t Rembrandt, there’s no judgement at all, and you get points for even trying! It’s helped me to be less critical and rigid in my thinking about my day job which is very much STEM.

      So I think that in your free time, definitely do that hobby or passtime you’ve always wanted to do but avoided because you thought you’d be bad at it. It’ll do wonders for you.

      1. Emdash*

        I wrote a similar comment on how painting has helped me not just to unwind or distress, but to help me with self-esteem. I do it for fun and not to master the skill or be good at it (“good” being so subjective anyway) or put it on my resume. It has helped me decouple the notion that my self-worth is tied to productivity or job status or external praise. Also, it is fun and I don’t try to sell them or Etsy or ask for feedback on how to to improve. Just for the pure enjoyment.

    4. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      YES. That was going to be my comment as well. Running has been really, really great for me (also a recovering gifted child/gold star seeker) because I’m never going to win a race. My goals are all about finishing, about persistence and effort, not about where I place.

      I’d also suggest cultivating relationships with family and friends who really know you and get you and don’t care about your work performance. I felt crummy at work yesterday because I didn’t meet someone’s expectations–not typical, not comfortable for me–but I was able to shake it off as soon as I got home because I was having fun with my kids. My personal relationships help keep my work in perspective, which in turn helps my performance; you’ll be better able to keep a learner’s mindset and not obsess over less-than-perfect moments at work if you don’t see work as your only source of positive affirmation.

      1. Moo*

        Yeah I get this alright. One day I was having a terrible work day and I gave my dog a bath (for unrelated reasons). He’s still young so he gets the zoomies after. I spent about 20 solid minutes laughing as I tried to wrestle him into a towel to dry and he just ran around at speed on my bed. I remember it struck me about how grounding it was, and how my worth doesn’t need to come from work (a struggle for me!)

        1. Sara (not my actual name)*

          @Moo this is an aside but my dog was 18 when she died and she was still doing zoomies after her baths including the week she died. It never stops being hilarious. Enjoy your dog’s zoomies and long may they last!

      2. londonedit*

        Yep, absolutely. I’m also a perfectionist who runs because I am objectively bad at running. I’m never going to win anything, I’m never going to be one of the fastest even within my age group or even within my friendship group. I do it for the health and fitness benefits but also because it’s important to remind myself that I can do things and enjoy them and stick at them without having to be ‘good’ at them.

    5. many bells down*

      I started learning the bagpipes with zero musical experience other than those 3 months in 7th grade when they gave me a recorder. I always thought of myself as having no musical ability whatsoever and I was shocked to discover I am only the normal amount of bad at it. It really does reframe your perspective!

    6. Elysian*

      This is such good advice. It can be really frustrating to feel like you’re doing badly at something when that isn’t an experience you have practice in. You have to learn how to work through that feeling, learn what to do and how to cope when something isn’t working out. A hobby is a great way to practice that. I have been learning to play guitar after years of being “good” at a wind instrument, and it is humbling and kind of uncomfortable to start over and not be “good”. It is uncomfortable in a way that is making me grow, though. I also do oil pastel drawings, which I am terrible at, but no one sees them. It is a safe place to fail.

    7. Mimi*

      I totally agree with this! I’m also a “former gifted child” and taking up hobbies that I initially sucked at was really mentally freeing (after a little bit – it was actually extremely annoying at first and I had to push through that.)

      But beyond specifically taking up a hobby you’re bad at, it might also just be helpful to take up (or get back into, or whatever) any hobby at all! It sounds like a lot of your life revolves around your work/workplace right now – you mention staying late often and being involved in multiple extra things with your company, like mentoring and the LGBTQ+ resource group (which is awesome!) And if you’re totally happy with that and this doesn’t resonate, ignore this!

      But when THAT much of your life revolves around your workplace, it’s easy for workplace pressures to take up an outsized amount of space in your head, and for your self-image to be defined in large part (or completely) by your job performance – which can lead to exactly the kind of stress you’re experiencing. Intentionally starting to put some time & energy into something that has nothing to do with work can help remind your brain that person-you is bigger than just employee-you, redefine your self-image a bit, and take off some of that pressure.

      (And if it feels scary to pull back at all on work-related stuff because you’re worried your performance will slip – your performance is very likely to get BETTER when you’re not struggling with all this pressure and stress.)

    8. Boom! Tetris for Jeff!*

      This rings a bell! I started doing daily crosswords and puzzles. Because I will never get all the words in the full crossword or be always the fasted at New York mini, but every new day allows a reset and a new chance. Oh and the ones I did on paper, I did in pen and if I thought I knew a word, I put it in, even if I wasn’t 100% sure. Sometimes that was the right answer afterall and other times I had to fix the error. But it was good exercise to trust my gut even if I wasn’t fully certain and commit to potentially making a mistake.

    9. The Prettiest Curse*

      I have a performing arts-related degree, and I’m so glad that I spent those years failing repeatedly, watching other people fail, and realising that failure wasn’t the end of the world and could even be useful.
      And the upside of having a hobby at which you are either mediocre or bad is that any small improvement is really, really satisfying. (Take it from a mediocre amateur ballet dancer who has spent the last 2 years barely scratching the surface of this very difficult art form.)

    10. I Faught the Law*

      YES. I was 37 when I took up long distance running and learned that it’s ok to participate in races just because they’re fun, even if I come in close to last in every one. It took me 37 YEARS to learn that I didn’t have to quit things I wasn’t the best at, because that’s how I was brought up. I still suffer from imposter syndrome and feeling like a failure in some areas, but learning this lesson made a huge difference in how I handle failure and cope with being in a profession I don’t always feel the best at.

    11. Phoenix*

      This is *exactly* the advice I came into the comments to offer – practice failing at something, anything, the lowest stakes thing in the world. You have to learn through experience that life goes on after imperfections, mistakes, and outright failures. Childhood and school should help us learn those things, but they often don’t.

    12. just a thought*

      Yes! I started CrossFit for the first time a few years ago.
      It’s a nice reminder to not compare myself to the person next to me that was a life-long athlete lifting over twice the weight I am.

      I’m still definitely at the bottom but making measurable improvements, getting better, and getting healthier. It’s nice to have something where I can show up, go through the motions, and still feel productive. The gym I go to is also a very nice and supportive environment. Usually people that are finishing last (me many times) have everyone cheering them on and congratulating them for not giving up!

    13. OP/LW*

      You are totally spot-on, especially about me not wanting to do things I’m not already good at! The thing is, all of my hobbies tend to be things I have some sort of natural abilities in, BUT, I have recently undertaken something that gels with this advice. I’ve been really into acting ever since I was tiny, and I’m fairly active in my local community theatre scene, but I really only do straight plays, no singing. A friend of mine couldn’t find anyone to fill a certain role in a musical he’s directing and asked me to step in. I like to sing a lot, but I will never be truly talented at it. My voice is…fine. And I’m struggling to come to terms with it being just fine, and just having fun at something that really doesn’t matter, without being embarrassed that I’m not knocking it out of the park. We open tomorrow. I’m going to kind of suck. And I’m still going to try to love the experience. I think it’s going to be very good for me. Thank you :)

      1. allathian*

        Break a leg! And enjoy the freedom of the experience of being just okay at something, rather than excelling at it.

    14. Chickaletta*

      This is great advice. And don’t be afraid to fail, or to embarrass yourself, or to quit halfway through. Doing these things will help you realize that they don’t mean the end of the world, and they’ll help you do them better – as in, they’ll help you learn how to take failure, how to behave in an embarrassing situation, how (and when, and why) to quit. It’s ok to do these things, I promise!

  5. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Look around you. Look at your organization, your industry, your customers, your regulatory environment. What needs changing? Maybe your organization needs to do more around work/life balance as a way to encourage and retain good employees. Maybe they need to find better ways to attract and retain talented women (people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people).

    Then think about how you can help make those things happen. Maybe there’s a documentation project that could help make training new people easier. Maybe you can work with HR to publicize your ERG outside the organization. Maybe you can work with a professional organization to encourage higher standards and better employment situations for people who do what you do. Maybe you can position yourself to run for office and change the regulations! Think big.

    Whatever you take on next, make it something you care about, and something that can’t be done in one quick hit. You’re stretching your own skills and developing the ability to push toward longer-term goals.

    1. Purely Allegorical*

      I love this and was going to comment something similar. You have a lot of capital right now with your stellar performance — think about using that capital in positive ways to improve the company culture or certain processes that are inefficient. A lot of times this can help build other positive impressions of you, as the company sees that you’re investing in the areas that go beyond what your job duties are.

      On the other hand… if the company doesn’t WANT to change certain things about the company culture, be aware how pushing for change could impact your reputation. That happened to me — I came in fresh, did some actually objectively awesome things, everyone loved me… but when I tried to fix some toxicity on my team and address a manager’s bad behavior, it blew up in my face.

      So I guess just understand that you have capital right now, you should use it on a couple things you care about, but be aware which boulders you’re trying to roll and whether or not the hill is worth it.

  6. High Score!*

    Be humble. Do your best. Find ways to compliment others when they do well. Build others up. When you listen to others and recognize their achievements, they will like you more and listen to your ideas as well. Don’t pretend to know things you don’t and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If someone says something you know is wrong, say “that’s different than what I understood or the online class said differently. Am I missing something?”
    You never know what you might learn.
    Above all, don’t worry about maintaining the rock star title, just do your best and you’ll be fine.

    1. Just J.*

      +1. This is absolutely excellent advice. Always be humble. Always be genuine. If you are enthusiastic about what you do, it will come through naturally. Don’t try to snow people and do own your mistakes.

      Offer respect to those that are around you. ALWAYS offer real respect to your admins, your junior employees, and your janitorial staff. These are the people that make your work happen and they deserve your respect and gratitude.

    2. FireDragon*

      This is the right response! And be humble is the most important part of it.
      Stop thinking about you now, you’ve proved yourself worthy abs there is no reason why you cannot continue in this vein.
      But helping and supporting others is an exceptional thing to do abs far more satisfying than winning awards!

    3. Gracely*


      Being a rockstar is great, but ultimately, speaking up to address inequities as well as being dependable and reliable, pleasant to work with/for, and willing to learn is more valuable to you and your coworkers in the long run. Those coworkers are the true rockstars.

    4. ferrina*

      YES. Life isn’t about award and achievements- it’s about the little choices we make day after day. Celebrities’ get awards- heroes get results. Focus on the results you want to get at your job. It’s going to be more nebulous than a test. Instead of a multi-choice, you’ll face challenges like “demonstrate and quantify my team’s value to leadership” and “get buy in and support from very busy people with competing priorities”. You’ll mess up and make mistakes, and you’ll keep learning and getting better in those intangible skills.

      You’ve got this!

    5. HR Chickie*

      I cannot stress enough this part: “Don’t pretend to know things you don’t and don’t be afraid to ask questions”. I see a lot of myself in this letter (high-achieving academically and then at work as well) but this advice has served me throughout my entire career. I wasn’t usually afraid of asking questions, and I’ve learned to temper my impulse to answer everything if I truly don’t know the answer. If you say, “That’s a great question, I don’t know but I can investigate it” and then (this is key) you follow up and provide the answer, people will continue thinking you’re a rockstar. As other commenters have pointed out, a surprising number of people do not do what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it.

      A lot of folks have also commented about what to do when (not if) you make a mistake, but I’ll chime in too: if you find the mistake yourself, get ahead of it. Take accountability, tell your boss and/or whoever else needs to know, and work with that person to find a solution. If someone else finds the mistake and you know it was yours, again, take responsibility and then do what you can to help with the solution. You are building up the credibility and the reputation now to be able to survive the inevitable mistakes in the future, and emerge on the other side with people still thinking you’re a rockstar. (Ask me how I know, says the woman who has accidentally messed up people’s 401(k)s before and is still considered a high performer).

      1. iamapalindrome*

        I cannot agree with you and second your advice harder. Acknowledging the mistake, going to your boss and saying, “yup, I f***ed up, I’m mortified, but here’s what I propose to do to fix it” alone will make you a rock star. Your bosses and coworkers will respect you for it, and trust you more because of it, and give you more grace for failure in the future because you didn’t waste their time with excuses or blaming others. Also be nice to your support staff and admins–if you respect them and are friendly, I guarantee they’ll help you out if you’re ever in a jam in a way that they won’t help people who complain about them (or to them!) all the time.

  7. Numb Little Bug*

    I too, a former ‘gifted child’ suffer with this superstar complex.

    I think the first thing for you to try and understand is that the only person putting this pressure on you, is you. The people who are complimenting you and telling you you are a superstar and the best thing since sliced bread are not expecting you to be flawlessly perfect. It just means that they see you as someone who is qualified for the job, able to do the job and willing to learn and take on feedback. All of the reasons you were hired. They probably also want to make sure you feel valued and appreciated because companies usually don’t want to lose talent like you.

    I think you are doing all of the right things in terms of making sure you maintain a healthy work/life balance, but also be sure to be realistic with yourself and others in terms of what you can achieve. Set realistic goals that won’t have you stretching yourself too thin or up at night worrying about work.

    1. Cold and Tired*

      This! I was exactly the same way – excelled in school, excelled especially on tests (my brain is very compatible with standardized testing), excelled in the first 6 months of training at my company where you did have benchmarks. But then they put me on a project that was a nightmare even for some of my coworkers with 10 years of tenure, and I struggled so so so hard. My feelings about my performance contributed to one of the worst depressive periods I’ve ever had, because I felt like a failure.

      Turns out though, I wasn’t a failure at all. I actually was performing far above and beyond the expectations anyone had of me for my tenure. I just was so wrapped up in the idea of what I expected from me that I couldn’t see it. I’ve now been at my company for nearing 10 years, and it’s clear how much I was just destroying myself with that mentality.

      It takes time, but work on resetting expectations for yourself. Take in the feedback you get on your work and hold it level to your own. If people say your presentation was great even if you disagree, try to start matching your expectations to theirs. Stop aiming for perfection in what you do and instead aim for like 90% – turns out no one ever notices that extra 10% but you, but you can kill your self trying to achieve it. Also, catastrophic “getting fired” mistakes are hard to make at companies that have sensible guardrails. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in a decade, but they haven’t been cataclysmic and so I’ve learned from them. And honestly, my bosses care more that I learn and evolve from feedback than about the original mistake.

      Keep your own tenure in mind too – 1 year at a job does mean you should probably have mastered the basics, but you’re not going to be an expert yet. And even more, no one expects you to be an expert either. I’d say I finally lapsed into true expert status in a small number of areas after 3-5 years, and am only achieving fairly widespread expert status in my wider area of specialization now after 10 years.

      That said, it’s really hard for a recovering perfectionist to do a lot of these things. It took me years to unlearn my bad mental habits, especially as someone who built my own sense of self worth on my academic achievements for many years and tried to do the same with work. But I’ve learned now to stake my personal worth on non work things like family, friends, hobbies, and how I treat people in the world, and leave work as just something i do to make money that I enjoy but isn’t everything about me. A similar change in perspective may be helpful to the letter writer too.

    2. Ama*

      Yes, I am in the same boat — early in my career I would consistently get massive amounts of praise for things that seemed extremely trivial to me (like reformatting a report so it looked a little more polished than a Word document with a plain, unformatted text table, or sending an email with information about some upcoming event before that person had to ask me for it). What I’ve realized as I have moved up and begun training and managing people myself, is that some of my inherent strengths as a worker are things a lot of people need training and practice to master.

      For example, clear and timely communication about deadlines and expectations for projects is something that seems like common sense to me, but at this point I’ve had enough frustrating exchanges with colleagues who leave crucial context out of an email or who wait until the day they need info to actually ask for it, to realize a lot of people struggle with that aspect. So when colleagues call me a “superstar” what they are actually doing is saying “oh we can skip training you on this and move on to more job specific responsibilities.”

      But I do agree with Numb Little Bug, make sure you set realistic goals — if you are a fast or efficient worker, you may run into the problem I ran into early in my career where you keep volunteering to take on more and more work because you are done with your other duties, and then when you reach your limit (or say, two of the five projects you manage triple in volume and what used to be manageable is now beyond what one person can do alone), it’s hard to get bosses, even good ones, to hear you because they are so used to you always being able to say yes.

      One thing I do these days is build in buffer time in my projects — yes I could turn that report around in an hour or so (and I will if it is a real emergency), but what I will tell my colleagues, is “I can get that to you in a couple days, does that work?” This not only sets realistic expectations with my colleagues, but if an actual emergency comes up I have flexibility to deal with it without missing other deadlines. This has been key to keeping myself from burning out in a job where in almost half of my time here I have been the sole employee in my department. I also never work on weekends or evenings unless it is something that was scheduled in advance or it is one of my two busy times a year where being available by email on the weekends for a couple of weeks will save me a lot of time during the week.

      1. another_scientist*

        oh that is such a good point. OP, it is so easy to discount your own strengths and accomplishments, especially if (gifted child) they came naturally to you. You are doing this so much in your letter: You are confident that you can carry out your tasks, but feel it’s not enough. You receive high test scores and performance results, but feel it’s not enough. You are passing exams and mastering systems that half your peers don’t, but you feel it’s not enough. You are going above your job duties with extracuriculars, you work long hours, but feel it’s not enough. Is this also a pattern in your personal life – feeling like you are never enough? I am not saying it is, but if yes, then there are perhaps deeper roots to explore.

        Spending some time observing and reflecting on your own will help you in multiple ways. Maybe some of those things are easy for you, and therefore you feel strange being praised or feeling confidence in those. But put yourself in the shoes of your bosses. They pay wages for your time, and they hope to find someone in the labor pool who can do the job and be productive without costing too much.
        They get the full package. A new team member who can pull her weight, took less time before being onboarded and fully productive, goes above and beyond, is already mentoring new colleagues and literally taking work off their plate. You can’t deny that so far you are outperforming your peers. Usually they say comparison is the thief of joy, but you might benefit from trying to compare yourself a bit more with your peers. Are they as useful to the organization as you are? Which skills come naturally to you that seem less obvious to them? (this will come in handy when you coach or mentor others – figuring out your so-called unknown knowns, the things that seem obvoius to you, but others need explained) Or the other way around – is there something that you envy a colleague or boss for, that you could learn?

    3. Midwest Manager*

      As Numb Little Bug said so eloquently: The pressure you feel is coming from internal sources. Your manager does NOT expect perfection 100% of the time, and is likely keeping a close eye on you for signs of burnout. Remember, making mistakes is expected because we’re human. The key is how you react/respond to your mistakes and if you make an effort to correct them.

      Now that you’ve spent a year knocking everyone’s socks off, you can afford to slow down a little and find your new baseline pace. Even if you make a mistake, you’ve built up enough of a reputation that it’s likely all will be forgiven because of your history here. If you have a string of serious ones in a short period, your boss will likely ask you what changed – but I can only imagine a few scenarios where it would be a fireable offense (breaking a law, ethics violation, or costing the company significant money).

      You need to give yourself permission to slow down. Top performers come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe now that you’ve completed the trainings, become actively involved in leadership/culture impact groups, and begun creating resources for other people, you can allow yourself to enter into a “maintenance mode”. This is a phase where you simply coast along with the projects on your plate and stop trying to add new ones. You can still excel with the ones you have and be considered a top performer.

      As a manager, I view top performance in terms of dependability (do you show up to work?), reliability (is your work completed timely and without error most of the time?), communication (if you’re missing a deadline, did you tell me beforehand), and willingness to help. You don’t need to run yourself into the ground to be considered one of the best on my team.

  8. Numb Little Bug*

    I too, a former ‘gifted child’, suffer with this superstar complex.

    I think the first thing for you to try and understand is that the only person putting this pressure on you, is you. The people who are complimenting you and telling you you are a superstar and the best thing since sliced bread are not expecting you to be flawlessly perfect. It just means that they see you as someone who is qualified for the job, able to do the job and willing to learn and take on feedback. All of the reasons you were hired. They probably also want to make sure you feel valued and appreciated because companies usually don’t want to lose talent like you.

    I think you are doing all of the right things in terms of making sure you maintain a healthy work/life balance, but also be sure to be realistic with yourself and others in terms of what you can achieve. Set realistic goals that won’t have you stretching yourself too thin or up at night worrying about work.

  9. Lifelong student*

    Join your local professional organization and find opportunities there to achieve things. It will provide you with growth opportunities as well as continue to enhance your professional status.

  10. SereneScientist*

    LW, this is a topic my fiance (who is also a “former” gifted child) have discussed frequently and I hope to share some of those insights with you. I think what you’re experiencing right now is a shift in your identity. As children, academic success was/is some of the clearest metrics by which we could be examined. You in particularly seem very suited to some of those tasks–exams, licensture, etc–so it’s not surprising that your achievements make up a large part of how you understand yourself both as a person and in relation to your workplace.

    What I’m hearing you say is that you feel you are not up to the task of meeting these expectations you’ve set early on by performing well on things you’ve always performed well on. That somehow, in the hereafter, where evaluations of your performance will depend solely on your ability to perform it–you will fail in a big way because it’s outside of where you’ve been successful historically. I think this is a very relatable and understandable impulse given your track record of success thus far. I’d posit that this combination of your identity as an accomplished person combined with a relative lack of experience with failures may be leading you to catastrophize what will happen if/when you do make a mistake. If you view that potential mistake solely in the context of what you’ve achieved so far, it’s hard to imagine it being anything short of disastrous.

    I think there are a couple things you can consider doing:
    1. What if you take the praise you’ve been getting at face value? That they are nothing more than an expression from your managers and colleagues on how well you’ve done so far? Knowing the basis of their esteem, would they react so badly if you did make a mistake?

    2. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes. You are fortunate enough to get the new rockstar on your team. A year in, they make a mistake. Regardless of the reason, what would you conclude about this person? That they are an abject failure who didn’t deserve the confidence you developed in them? Likely not. You’d want to support them in learning from the mistake and ensuring that knowledge helps them to grow further.

    At the end of the day, high expectations can weigh on us tremendously and perhaps even distort how we see ourselves. I was not a gifted kid when I was young, but I had all the same expectations nonetheless. It wasn’t until very recently, after describing myself as a “mediocre person” to my other partner, that I realized…I wasn’t. My accomplishments even through those periods had merit of their own. The world is really not so black and white as your childhood experience of evaluation may be. I hope you can give yourself a little grace in the face of all that. You are not lesser for being human.

    1. Little My*

      What you brought up in your last paragraph — the experience of “non-gifted” children feeling mediocre because of an evaluation — is also really relevant to this. Gifted programs are systems of racial and disability stratification. There is no objective “gifted child,” and your SAT scores are more related to your socioeconomic status than your intelligence, whatever intelligence even is. It’s been hard but important for me to form a positive identity that doesn’t rely on test scores, since a) adult life has very few standardized tests and b) standardized tests are not meaningful or fair.

      1. SereneScientist*

        Indeed. It can be really hard to think about those systemic considerations when we take achievement so closely to heart as a key part of ourselves.

      2. Daisy-dog*

        Yes, I was shocked when I remembered that my gifted class time was at the same time as the ESL (English as a Second Language) class. Which therefore meant that no one could be in both.

  11. goducks*

    “More broadly, how does one transition from the first stage of their life, where achievement is all about passing tests/getting grades—essentially, one big expenditure of effort, then it’s over and you’re done—into a job, which seems to require fewer splashy big achievements and more constant, low-level maintenance and consistency in order to be considered successful?”

    Honestly? Time, maybe therapy, and taking some bruises to the ego from time to time. What is valued in school is often far from what’s valued in the workplace, and if you’ve been conditioned all your life to expect certain types of recognition there’s no switch you can flip to reprogram your brain to feeling comfortable and successful in the new expectations. It’s just a thing you have to grow into. Which is probably hard to hear and internalize when your whole life has been about exceeding expectations on individual exams and assignments.

    1. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

      Well, generally the work world rewards metrics like number of accounts landed, revenue generated, money saved, etc. Other extracurricular activities might include joining industry leadership groups, becoming an industry influencer, speaker, advocate, or mentor. These things are all measurable.

      Personally, I hate the term superstar or rockstar in terms of employment. Aim to set good goals, exceed them, and be a high performer.

      1. recovering "gifted kid"*

        this might sound harsh, but i hope anyone struggling with these issues can at least consider it: everything in this letter is really, underlyingly about your upbringing, your relationship with your parents, and ways in which their beliefs and actions have damaged your self-worth and self-trust. (right now you’re probably feeling very defensive of your parents, certain that they can’t possibly have done anything harmful, and incensed at the suggestion that your by-all-accounts excellent and probably privileged childhood was in any way hurtful to you, when other people are out there with ~real problems.~)

        i have been you; most of my dear friends and significant others have been you. from the other side i can assure you: displacing these issues onto your job will not fix them or make your life tolerable. going to therapy is the only thing i know that can help you start to untangle this, develop your own values, and hear your own self/inner voice instead of merely spending the rest of your life being driven forward by terror of being worthless. go to therapy! you are worth it.

  12. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Oh boy, deja vu.

    Different industry, but when I was fresh out of college in my first job I was told several times that I was a “rising star” or some such terminology in my first two years. And it messed with my head in a few ways. I think they meant it as a compliment (and maybe a little bit as a motivator), but it also gave me a false sense of security and I underperformed in a couple projects about 3 years into the job.

    Sometimes it’s a fine line between imposter syndrome and a swollen ego.

    My advice is to pay attention to the work habits of your boss and your slightly-more-senior peers. Things like prioritizing, knowing when better is the enemy of good enough, figuring out when you’re really being productive versus just marking time.

  13. Bernice Clifton*

    I think one of the biggest adjustments to working a professional environment is that unlike school or working a service job is that in school and service jobs, things you should do or not do were spelled out more blatantly.

    In office environments, you can do things that might look odd but people won’t necessarily tell you *can’t* do that. A good rule of thumb is that if you are the only one who does something like be on your phone during meetings, or eats your lunch on the floor of the common area, or walks around the office without your shoes on, it’s probably not a good idea.

  14. Smithy*

    I’d really recommend going to therapy. This may be a more garden variety imposter syndrome, and a few sessions will be really helpful. However, if you’re in a position with few or no other peers who are also women, LGBTQI, or from a similar background to you – it can really escalate a feeling of always needing to be “the best”. Which can be compounded by a number of other factors from your family or school environment.

    Ultimately, we take OPs at their word to assess their situations. But if you’re only a year into the work world – in many ways you really are starting from scratch in learning a whole new system and way of being. It may be that your workplace is wonderful but it may also be that they’re engaged in some less than amazing practices driving these feelings that you’re not as well positioned to notice because you’re newer to the work world.

    This doesn’t mean you’re failing or that you need a new job or that you’re at risk of being fired. But working with a therapist can really help deescalate these feelings.

  15. MK*

    OP, part of the reason why very young people are labeled prodigies or superstars is not that their work is phenomenal, but that it’s impressively better than what one expects at that stage. I too had praise heaped upon me in my first year because I was better than, say, 85% of my peers. 15 years later, though I am recognized as a top performer, I don’t receive so many compliments, because everyone expects that someone of my abilities and experience will be on point, so it’s not as noteworthy. You don’t actually need to do anything specific, expects perhaps mentally free yourself from the pressure. No one actually expects you to keep reaching new heights constantly. Keep doing a great job, and you will grow into your role. After a while your coworkers will outgrow the “shiny new employee” image of you, though if you are lucky, they will retain the positive impression.

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      This. Getting this kind of praise doesn’t mean that they expect you to be perfect or expect that you will never make mistakes — in fact you should hope for mistakes because that’s how you learn. It also doesn’t mean that they expect you to hit it out of the park and perform at an expert level immediately. It just means that compared to others, you are performing well FOR THE STAGE YOU ARE AT. And that stage is beginner — you are good, for a beginner. Let yourself learn the job like everyone else does and did — by not being great at it at first, by making mistakes, by learning by doing.

    2. kiki*

      Yes, I also think LW should prepare for the fact that some folks may catch up to her or even come out from behind and exceed her performance. That doesn’t mean LW failed or isn’t keeping the pace they should. People have different skills and talent that make them shine at different stages. Sometimes the person who has to learn everything the hard way comes out on top in the end due to their wisdom and lived experiences.

      For LW, I think the biggest thing to remember is that even if people stop calling you a superstar, you’re still a good, worthy, and valuable person.

  16. FireDragon*

    This is the right response! And be humble is the most important part of it.
    Stop thinking about you now, you’ve proved yourself worthy abs there is no reason why you cannot continue in this vein.
    But helping and supporting others is an exceptional thing to do abs far more satisfying than winning awards!

  17. Gretchen Starr*

    Please tell your supervisor how you are feeling- sounds like he/she is very supportive. This way, when you do make that first mistake, your supervisor will understand how you react to that. I had a hard time transitioning from laboratory and science work during college to an actual business environment. My first big project I broke a $2000 piece of glassware. I freaked out and was practically ready to quit, and then my boss just tossed it in the trash and said go buy another one. That’s when I learned that mistakes do happen and as long as you don’t do it on purpose or repeatedly, a good manager won’t have a problem with that.

    1. Threeve*

      I wouldn’t advise talking to your boss about this. Even an incredibly supportive boss is there to be supportive of you as an employee; they aren’t responsible for your ongoing emotional state or self-doubt.

      If you have something concrete you want to improve or ask for feedback on, that’s one thing. But general fear about living up to expectations is something to talk about with a mentor or a therapist.

      1. wordswords*

        I agree with this, but I do think there’s room to say something along the lines of, “I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and I’ve gotten a lot of really encouraging feedback from you and others about my potential and how fast I’ve made these achievements. At this point, though, some of those metrics are done — I’m not going to have more exams, and I’m not a first-year employee anymore. Can you give me some more context for what an excellent performer or rock star employee means in the second and third years on the job? What are the kind of benchmarks and expectations I should be thinking in terms of for the medium and longer term?”

        Not baring your heart to your boss and explaining all of your fears and insecurities, but asking professionally for actionable goals and metrics and a generally more detailed picture of what your boss and your company think it means to be a rock star who’s more settled in for the long haul and less of a brand new star rocketing into her early career.

    2. ariel*

      I wouldn’t tell my boss everything, but I think it’s worth asking them about what’s next. It’s legit to ask “what does continued success look like” now that you have made it to this one-year mark. I don’t think that’s unusual for people just out of college to get to work and want to get an A – but it just got harder to figure out what’s an A. So talk about expectations, short- and long-term goals, etc., with your supervisor. And/or find a mentor in your field (or in line with future career goals) who can help you craft a vision to help you set goals. Having a vision I can work towards, or expectations I can steer towards, has always been helpful for me, professionally and even to some degree outside of work.

  18. Tinpantithesis*

    I think the biggest piece of advice I can offer is: when you do make mistakes, don’t let them overwhelm you. You will make mistakes, because you’re human, and since you’ve got this 100% Perfect Track Record it might feel like you’ve ruined something. But you haven’t! You have made a mistake at work, something that everyone has done. Fix whatever needs fixing, say to yourself “next time, I will do X,” and move on.

    I think your focus on the LGBTQ+ group and on training new hires is actually great. From how you describe the licensing process and the systems your office uses, and the way some people didn’t stay, it’s possible the work isn’t for everyone. But since you’ve shown that you’re very good at it, that means you’re in a great place to make sure that everyone who can succeed in that role gets the best possible chance.

    You might have landed a job that you’re extraordinarily well-suited for. Or, you might be very good at suiting yourself to this job. Or a little of both! But now, in addition to doing your job well, you can help make it so when your job hire/ “the next You” you can say to that person “welcome! Here are some things that will help you.” (And if the things that will help them also help you, that’s just being efficient! :-)

  19. eliza*

    If you’re in a functional workplace (and honestly, a lot of time even if you’re not), being a consistent, competent worker is all you need to do. I have been the “superstar” in all of my positions, and I frankly don’t think I ever did anything that special. What it boils down to is: meeting deadlines without drama, handing in clean work, and being relatively quick on the uptake. I figure out what I can on my own, I ask incisive questions when I need help.

    And frankly, I don’t think you have to work through lunch to be a superstar. My first job was one that required a lot of extra hours and I worked them when it was needed, but I always took a full lunch break and pushed back when I didn’t think burning the midnight oil was necessary. This is something that ended up contributing to my “superstar” reputation because it made the bosses assume I was significantly more efficient than others. Obviously ymmv on that front but don’t put in extra hours just to look like you’re working hard — the work often speaks for itself.

    1. atgo*

      Ooh boy I could have written this letter 10 years ago.

      Totally agree with Eliza’s feedback. But how to get there…

      Start working on defining your priorities within your role and what boundaries you want to have on your time and your focus. You have to make the shift from “I have to be good at everything to be good at anything” to “I will excel in this job,” which means making sure that you really know what the job entails. For me, when I was early in my career I would take on any task and see inefficiencies and work to fix just about everything around me. And some of that is great! And also, it’s a sure path to burnout and anxiety in my experience. So, start figuring out where you can let some things go and put some guardrails on your work. Take a lunch break, like for real. If your work ends up seeming like it’s going to be too much time or take you in too many directions, practice speaking with your manager about what you should be prioritizing.

      This may feel like you’re letting people down, but actually you’ll be showing yourself to be really capable, in control, and self aware. All of which are things that will reflect well on you as you grow in seniority. Practice this with little things to start and make sure to pay attention to how it goes – my experience was that I’d have a ton of anxiety about a conversation and then it would just not even be a blip on my manager’s radar most of the time. Notice that and it will start to get easier.

    2. BlueWolf*

      This could be me honestly. I consistently get good/great performance reviews and have received tons of praise, but I really don’t think my job is that difficult. For my managers, the bar for excellence is: meet expected deadlines, complete your assigned work, and be responsive to our internal clients. Basically, as long as no one is complaining to my managers about me, that makes me a rockstar. Obviously, every job is different, but my guess is once you’re actually doing the work, as long as your managers see the work is getting done and no one is complaining, you’re probably good. Everyone makes mistakes and as long as you own up to it and learn from them, you won’t suddenly lose your rockstar status.

    3. Feral Humanist*

      I totally agree with this. A lot of the time, what will come naturally to you will actually look exceptional to others. This can be feel weird, because you might not feel like you’re putting in a lot of effort. It took me a long time to realize that my 80% LOOKED like 110% to a lot of people, and I could therefore tone things down a notch and it would be fine. (I wasn’t in a system that labeled kids “gifted,” but I did have a schoolteacher mother who harped on me to give 110% on EVERY assignment.)

      I would add that over time, as you move through your careers, you’ll identify your own strengths and learn how to play to them. It wasn’t until I realized what *I* was good at, specifically, that I started really feeling comfortable with that success. You have specific abilities that are contributing to that success, but you might not yet know exactly what they are. Perhaps you are super organized and detail oriented. Perhaps you’re really good at remembering names and faces and making folks feel valued. Perhaps you are a stellar writer and communicator. Perhaps you are a great big picture, systems-thinker. Perhaps you’re great at helping other people be better at *their* jobs.

      All of these are qualities that can make someone a superstar, but they don’t all exist in the same person –– and that’s fine! You’ll figure out what you’re great at and you’ll become more comfortable with that over time. And that process of discovery is kind of awesome.

      Take a deep breath and keep doing what you’re doing.

  20. Insert witty name here*

    I feel for you here. I know exactly what you’re going through. But the more you pressure yourself to live up to all the this and be a rock star the more you’re going to burn yourself out very quickly. Focus on being good at your job, be competent, but don’t take on more than you can handle, and do not destroy yourself over a mistakes. There will be a lot of mistakes. You’ve created a good track record for everyone else, set some reasonable goals for yourself. Actionable goals, stuff that’s measurable so that you can look back and know that you’re doing a good job. And don’t be afraid to revise those goals as you go! You will not be a rockstar at everything forever in this job, and the sooner you can work on being okay with that the better off you’re going to be. You recognize that this is an internal problem, and that is so important. I know that you can get through this. Beware of burnout, that will be the number one thing that prevents you from being amazing at this job. And please, give yourself a break

  21. A Beth*

    I think identifying the key points of the job will help give you concrete things to work towards and help you understand whether you’re successful. It might be deliverables, it might be maintaining a program/process/database, whatever. I have a pretty wide variety of tasks in my job but the whiteboard over my desk tracks the big picture goals & timelines — so checking something off my list helps me stay on track to succeed but also gives me the serotonin boost or whatever that a good grade would have gotten me in school. I just had to realign my little wins to a new playing field, if that makes sense.

    But also, let’s say the worst-case scenario is that you aren’t as good at the actual job duties — even that’s not really that bad. You’ve already identified a bunch of things here you ARE successful at (communication, training, involvement in the LGTBQ+ group, mentoring). There’s no shame in deciding to go a different direction now that you’re in the workforce.

    But really, like others have said, you’re allowed to make mistakes and that doesn’t mean the faith that others put in you (or you put in yourself) was misplaced. It just means you’re a person!

  22. C in the Hood*

    OP, folks here have offered good advice. Here’s mine: keep doing what you’re doing; it obviously works. Over time, you’re going to notice trends & nuances in your job that will eventually help you get even better at it. Also, look at the people ahead of you: what do they do? How does your job relate to what they do? What are some skills you’d need to develop to eventually get to where they are? And look around you: how does your job interact with the other jobs in your company? How can you make that relationship better?
    Overall, remember that a career is different from school in the way that you need to accomplish X in a semester, a year, or over 4 years. The timeframe is more fluid. Unless your work ethic stinks (and yours definitely sounds like it doesn’t), you’re not going to flunk out of your career.

  23. WorkerJawn*

    I would like to encourage LW to diversify their identity. Speaking from my own experience, people who do well in academic settings can easily make that success a core tenant of their identity. Having my sense of self and sense of value so tightly connected with my academic performance made the transition into the workforce *incredibly* hard for me – suddenly I wasn’t getting the constant feedback that grades provide and couldn’t trust that I was doing a good job without them.

    Picking up hobbies, joining groups, doing anything to build a sense of self outside work (which has replaced school) helped me immensely. Having multiple sources of feedback that I am a good, productive member of my communities helps me approach work with a better mindset. Basically, make a transition from “I am a good worker” to “I am a good worker AND I play X sport AND I can make this dish really well AND [other stuff].” Best of luck, this transition is normal and not really talked about!

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Yes, and I think that people who make their jobs (and being seen as professional and highly competent at their jobs) a core part of their identity can run into major issues if they wind up in an abusive working environment later on. Clinging solely onto that part of your identity can really mess with your head if you’re not careful!

    2. Trotwood*

      This is super important and also happens naturally as you adjust to non-school life. Work is only one component of your identity, and you get to choose other things that you value and spend time on that aren’t limited to your achievement at work. Maybe you also want to travel, or spend time playing music or swimming or gardening or any number of other things. Work can be a source of satisfaction and fulfillment in your life, but it doesn’t need to be the only source.

      I also think it’s important to stop focusing on how to be the “rock star” in all aspects of your work. Rarely in a company are you going to have one “rock star” who is good at everything. Maybe you’re the “rock star” teapot sculptor but Wilhelmina is the “rock star” teapot painter, and that’s totally normal. You’re going to have a long career and there will be periods where you’re thriving and periods where you’re in a bit of a lull. It’s going to cause a lot of unnecessary stress if you’re agonizing over every moment when you’re not getting showered with praise. So the things you’re worrying about are very normal, but it’s important to remember that the professional world is a lot different from the school world and not all of your ways of measuring yourself are going to apply anymore. That can be nerve-wracking at first but it’s also an opportunity.

    3. allathian*

      Yes, this is certainly one aspect of it. But another one that I think is more crucial for long-term contentment is to learn to stop relying on validation from external sources, and to truly internalize that you have value as a person even if you never achieve anything that anyone else compliments you on ever again.

  24. Jessica*

    The people I admire as fantastic colleagues in my organization sometimes have Brilliant Ideas, but mostly they’re just Reliably Helpful and Good. I don’t know what your work duties are like, but if I email you “please send me a copy of the May TPS report,” I’m not looking for “here it is, dusted in glitter, and also I cured cancer!” I’m looking for a prompt, friendly response to which you’ve attached not April, not June, but the May report like I asked for. And if I get that from you often enough that I become confident I can rely on you, then I’m going to think you’re great.

    I’m sure your workplace has room for improvement, but you can’t drastically improve everything all the time. Sometimes it’s just about reliably doing a good job on your regular duties, and that may seem mundane but I promise your coworkers will appreciate it.

    1. Overeducated*

      Yup. Beware of getting so focused on the Extra Accomplishments that you neglect your regular duties because they’re not as impressive and consistency doesn’t get attention the way special projects do. (This is something I’m sure many of us have seen.) If you get the core work done, and done well, it may not generate constant recognition and praise…but if it’s not done, it matters.

    2. The Prettiest Curse*

      I cannot tell you how much I appreciate all of my current and past colleagues who do/did what they are supposed to do, when they are/were supposed to do it. Consistently delivering good work on time is an incredibly valuable (and surprisingly rare) quality in a colleague.

  25. drpuma*

    It took me years to fully accept, but something that helps me is really looking around and honestly comparing myself to my peers. My default is normally to compare how I’m doing with folks my age or younger who are running companies and stuff. Sometimes I need to remind myself that what’s “average” for me is above and beyond for someone else.

    Also since this is your first job and it sounds like you lucked into a role that really suits you, I want to emphasize – it will NOT always be this way! I’ve had jobs that didn’t suit me and unsupportive bosses. Eventually you may be moved into a role that doesn’t work for you or choose to move on but it turns out to be a bad choice. It will feel sucky and confusing at first but that’s okay! You have to do things you’re bad at in order to really understand what you’re good at.

    For now I would say just keep doing the things that come natural to you. You have a ton of goodwill banked, so when you get tired of desperately proving your worth you can downshift and still make fantastic contributions.

    Career path is a process and there are always new things to learn in terms of job skills but also about your self. Good luck!

  26. SJ (they/them)*

    Oh, OP! Congratulations on your achievements so far, it sounds like you are seeing outstanding results from your hard work and talent.

    I’m sure the commentariat will have plenty of thoughts — for me, one thing I would love to see is for you to periodically try on some different questions for size, such as:

    – Given that I am performing at such a high level, how can my company support me in having the compensation, flexibility, benefits, or other perks I would like to have in order to be happy here?

    – I am hearing a lot of praise from my supervisor for my excellent work; am I also receiving excellent pay for that work?

    – What is my company doing to build up goodwill with me?

    – How can my manager or leadership show me that they are committed to supporting and developing me within this role and this company?

    – I am very happy with my employer so far. How can they prove to me that they really are that good of a place to work, in the long term and not just temporarily while I’m new?

    Things like that — any questions you have about proving yourself to your workplace, I think it could be really helpful to see if you can stomach asking yourself the same question, but about your workplace proving itself to you. If you can, then great! The answers to those questions will help guide you in your career planning and decision making. If not, though — if that feels impossible or uncomfortable — perhaps something to bring to a couple of therapy sessions, or talking through with a trusted friend or family member. Your company may have (should have, really) a free EAP service you can access; I think there’s even a post here where someone who worked at an EAP explained how they work and what they can help with.

    I am wishing you the absolute best, OP. Take care!

    1. Generic Name*

      Yes! It’s great to be accomplished and get praise. It feels good! But you can’t pay rent with good vibes from your work.

  27. Turanga Leela*

    I really feel you, OP. I’ve never had quite the experience you did, but I feel similarly—I’m really good at the test and training parts of jobs, and I’ve been taken aback by the praise I’ve gotten early on.

    But it turns out (happy ending) I’m good at the other stuff, too. Here are some things I’ve found helpful in the day-to-day parts of jobs:
    -Respond to calls/emails promptly. I tell my clients that I return calls within 48 hours, and if they don’t hear back, that means I didn’t get the message and they should try again. It’s good to get a reputation for being responsive, and I find that being explicit about my time frame helps to manage my clients’ anxiety.
    -In that same vein, be reliable. Keep a calendar of deadlines, including your internal deadlines, and refer to it often. (This part is like school.) If you say you’ll have a draft to someone by close of business Friday, make sure you get it to them on Friday or earlier. Many, many people are not reliable; reliable people stand out.
    -Do your work well. Again, this sounds self-evident, but it has shocked me how many people are just not that good at their jobs. Sometimes everyone just uses Form X for procedure Y, even though if they double-checked it, Form X hasn’t been updated since 1999 and is now wrong about lots of stuff. You don’t want to nitpick other people’s work, but for your own work, check on these things and update the form. Make sure your calculations are correct, the sources you’re citing are updated—whatever applies in your job. And then you can let your colleagues know that you’ve updated Form X and it’s in the shared drive, or whatever. Updating/improving resources and then making them available to others is one way to be a rock star at your job.
    -Ask for help. It sounds like you’re no longer new to your job, but when you have real questions, you can still go to more senior people and ask for their thoughts. It will make you better at your job, the senior people will think highly of you for asking, and you will know things and be able to be a resource for more junior people.
    -Take on additional tasks that are good for your professional development. You’re already doing trainings, which is great. Be open to leadership teams and committees that you can join. It’s not always a good idea—not all committees are a good use of your time—but if there’s a working group to streamline processes, or a committee that will make recommendations to an external agency, or if you otherwise think that you could use your professional knowledge to make things better at your company, then doing that is one more way to be great at your job.
    -Be nice to people and generous with your help to new hires. It sounds like you already do this.

  28. Firecat*

    I personally found this one of the most difficult adjustments to make in my life, harder even then living in another country.

    The reality is your store is very common. Everyone comes into work kind of culture shocked as they go from consistent numeric feedback and high praise to … being the diligent and smart worker you are is just another cog in the system.

    I also had a similar experience as you, in that in my first job out of college I was able to save a company millions of dollars by looking into their processes.

    Now that I am much more senior and better paid, the work I do rarely has the opportunity to make a big change like that. It’s difficult to adjust to for sure!

    Here’s how I transitioned:
    1 I made a point of rewarding myself for accomplishments and made explicit non work goals. So for example: I’ll clean out the trash from my car every Friday and if I keep that up then the end of the month I go to a movie. Or – I’m going to spend 4 hours this weekend playing video games without thinking about work. I’d literally write this down and cross it off my check list.

    2 Whenever I was feeling underappreciated or under performing id take a breath, and think about my best friend. If she came to me feeling inadequate for only mastering her role in one week but not yet making an industry changing splash I’d tell her she was being way to hard on herself and should be proud of how quickly she mastered the basics. Then I’d give myself permission to treat myself that well.

    4 I let go of the thought that anyone expected anything from me at work. Work is not like school, and the leaders in the room honestly aren’t thinking about you that much! Let go of the idea that you have a bar to measure up to. You really don’t. Even the mention of the 100% and wanting to hire more people like you is simply praise for the person you are, not code that they expect you to come up with the next big thing.

    5 Accept the opportunities that come and don’t push for more. As a stand out new hire you will get opportunities to shine. Such as the training you took on of new hires. Don’t feel like you need to constantly come up with great new projects for yourself. Leadership has an eye on you and they will tap you on the shoulder from time to time for an opportunity. Or something will come up and you can volunteer for ONE of the opportunities. Don’t take them all on.

    Good luck and be nice to yourself.

    1. Generic Name*

      #4 is so important to keep in mind. I hope this advice takes some of the pressure off you and doesn’t come off as dismissive, but it is absolutely true that the leaders at your company aren’t thinking about you a ton. They are thinking about the work that the company needs to accomplish and whether or not it’s happening. They really don’t care if Task A is done by Shiny Superstar Susan or Barely Adequate Bob as long as it gets done with few or no mistakes in a reasonable amount of time.

  29. NeedRain47*

    Most jobs don’t have opportunities to be an ongoing “rock star” every minute, so it might benefit you to reframe that idea. You may be doing whatever your field is for 40 years, and you won’t be the ABSOLUTE BEST every single year, and if you tell yourself you always need to be, it’s going to be a really rough few decades. Give yourself some time, too! A year is not long at all.You will likely have opportunities to demonstrate your best work on certain projects or tasks, so look to these as a place to excel, instead of the daily repeating things. (As a 2020 virtual grad school grad myself, I treat work projects a lot like I treated school projects as far as planning, scheduling, research, etc.) You sound like a smart and conscientious person, keep learning and stay the course… it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

  30. kiki*

    I think this has been one of the hardest adjustments I made post-school. I recommend, for the next 6 months at least, focus on doing your job well. Don’t try to exceed expectations right off the bat. Just do your job as well as you can within normal working hours. Observe existing workflows and take lots of notes. Set yourself up for good work-life balance, take care of your mental health, get plenty of sleep, take stock of what work habits work best for you. Find out if you work best doing your most challenging work in the mornings or evenings. Play with different schedule configurations.

    One you’re 6 months in, you’ll know yourself better and probably have better insight as to what would actually make a superstar employee. At my first job in my current career, I came in determined to IMPRESS. If I saw an opportunity to do additional work, I’d do it. All that happened is that I burnt myself out and found out that the extra work was not even high priority. I also missed out on having the time and space to really grow my skills in the core of my job. You seem smart and driven. Just show up every day and do the best you can with the energy you have. Remember that consistency and small achievements are cumulative and often more valuable than big, flashy singular wins.

    Another thing to consider is that your working life will likely be long. There will be times in your future where you will not be able to give the 100% you’re giving now. Work to get so good at the core functions of your work that you can do them with minimal effort. That way when you need to take a step back, you can still deliver what counts.

    1. kiki*

      This may be a me-issue, but if you watch a fair amount of TV, make sure you reframe what a rockstar looks like in real life. I’ve been re-watching Suits in the background while I work and, holy moly, the bar for “rockstar” was somebody with an eidetic memory who could do in an hour what most people do in days and always had a perfect response to anything anyone said. I realized I subconsciously took that as my idea of what a great employee looks like, but that’s a scripted series and also all the characters should be disbarred.

    2. kiki*

      This question hits me so personally that I can’t help but come back to it!

      How can they prove that they really are that good at the job? And conversely, what behaviors indicate that they’re going to crash and burn and squander all the goodwill they built up?

      This is pretty big all-or-nothing thinking! People do crash and burn and come out of it fine, I want to reassure LW of that. But the more likely situation is that you’ll be in the middle. And that’s fine! Most employees are average and companies still move forward. Doing just well enough still carries companies forward. You still are an important contributor even if you’re not the best or perfect. And even wonderful employees aren’t wonderful all the time. Get comfortable feeling human, LW.

  31. Yamikuronue*

    Think of it this way: the feedback you’re getting isn’t “You need to be amazing so do more”, it’s “You’re amazing, do what you do”. So you’re doing great, just the way you are!

  32. NovaAnon*

    Oh boy. In many ways, I feel like I could have written a letter like this a few years ago, and I could have written in asking for help on how to manage a high performer like you.

    Have you put any thought into, or spoken to your manager, your team lead, or a mentor about, your overall career goals? From what you’ve written, you’ve said a lot about what you’ve given to the job, but not much about what you want out of it (besides a salary and benefits, of course). It sounds like you need some set goals and milestones to feel like you’re making progress towards something instead of flailing around looking for distinction.

    In my experience in the professional services world, it’s a very easy conversation to open, and one managers or leads or mentors should be ready to have: “hey, Manager/Lead/Mentor, I’ve been here for a year and I’ve found I really enjoy mentoring new teapot designers. I’ve worked on some process improvements, helped mentor some fellow new hires, and have gotten involved in the LGBTQ Employee Group. How can I move into a team lead role where mentorship is a core job responsibility.” Hopefully, after you have that conversation, you should have somewhere to focus your efforts and feel like you’re progressing towards something, whether it’s a manager/team lead role, or greater technical expertise.

  33. nona*

    As someone who has gotten labelled as “high potential” in their job (and advanced through job titles more quickly that typical), here are my rambling thoughts.

    1. Be aware of the reputation, but don’t buy into the hype. Don’t try to live up to the expectation, just keeping doing the things that feel right in doing a job well. Just because they think you’ll be a RockStar, doesn’t mean you’ll have to prove them right in the first year, or even the first five. Sometimes a RockStar isn’t the splashiest personality – it’s the consistent rock that gives good, thoughtful input and feedback. Work and career have a longer horizon than school does, so don’t burn yourself out trying to live up to someone else’s vague expectation. The reputation will mellow at some point and won’t feel so undeserved.

    2. If there are qualities of leadership, those will come out in how you do your job and champion ideas that you think are valuable – you don’t need to force it. If you are given opportunties to grow and advance – take them! Try them out – they might fit and they might not, but you don’t know until you try.

    3. Don’t let work define your worth. Your co-workers don’t get to decide what RockStar means to you, or what your career path has to look like. Just because a decision makes sense to someone else, doesn’t mean it makes sense for you.

    4. You will make mistakes. You will do something wrong. I know this because it happens to everyone. And it’ll suck and feel awful and then you’ll realize you learned a LOT by doing something wrong, that will help you figure out how to do it right next time. Because unlike school, there aren’t always clear right answers to the problems in front of you. Sometimes they are buried under regulations, sometimes the regs are unclear and you have to chart the best path possible and figure out what to do when that path doesn’t go right. Rockstars aren’t people that never make mistakes – they are people that figure out how to deal with problems and mistakes (legally and compliantly :) )

  34. V*

    Take six months to coast at the current level of what you’re doing. Just breathe, and do the work. (And the extra-curriculars you’ve already assigned to yourself.) You are already great. Now give yourself some grace and slack to be settled in one space before you’re being pushed into the next.

    Also, from a former unwitting young superstar – be VERY careful not to get your ego involved in being the one person everyone expects to fix everything. It is perfect that you took what you learned and immediately turned it into training/helping your cohort. It is thrilling to be depended upon, but it can be a dead end and a drag and lead to burnout really fast.

  35. SleepingCat*

    All of the above advice is excellent–to add one more thing: in the working world (at least at a healthy workplace), you are expected to have other demands on your time in a way that you might not be in school. I remember feeling weirdly confused that my first job out of college didn’t take *all* of my time. Like, I’d do my work, and then I’d be done with it and it would still be light outside. It seemed like work was too easy, compared to studying until 11 every night in college. And then I realized that I also had to, like, grocery shop and cook and pay my electric bill and all of that stuff, and that actually took up time. In order to live as a healthy adult I actually *couldn’t* work as much as I used to study in college.

    For people who take school really seriously, it can be this really single minded, focused thing, but often what makes people feel busy and overwhelmed later on isn’t *just* work, it’s that you also have to do a bunch of life stuff.

    1. Happy Thursday-Yay!!!*

      I remember when—in our first year out of college and living in NYC while working at entry-level jobs that frequently had us home by 6-630PM—my roommate turned to me a said in very puzzled tone: “What do people do when they no longer have homework?”

      We both still laugh at that.

  36. Nightwing*

    I work in a field much like this, with lots of testing early on. In one job, within the first week I was being told I was the standout in my group, etc, and I had similar concerns. The primary thing that I found, when there aren’t any special goals to meet, is to just be consistent. Show up when needed, work hard while there, and be someone nice to work with.

    When you make mistakes, which you will inevitably do, your reputation as someone who consistently does good work won’t be tarnished—it will provide you good will from the people who work with who will recognize it as human error and not something horribly wrong with you. You already have a great year under your belt! You’re continuing to do good things! I’m not saying rest on your laurels, but that will go a long way toward making it easy for everyone to overlook the occasional error (even if there is a big one) because they know your overall quality is good.

    Congratulations, and good luck.

  37. PB Bunny Watson*

    I had a very similar problem. When you are in school, you have premade benchmarks that make it easier to know what you are doing and where you are going. Pass this class, complete this degree, etc. Then you get dumped into the workplace and the only set goal for everyone after that is… retirement? Talk about overwhelming!

    Know that this is normal… know that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you are honest about them and learn from them. And free yourself from the superstar pressure. Maybe you’ll still be a superstar in 20 years… maybe not. But focusing on that will burn you out quickly. Instead, set your own goals. Sometimes you’ll have managers who can help you with that (and sometimes you’ll have managers that just don’t know what to do with you because you are already performing so highly). So it’s important that you identify your own goals–be they personal or professional. For instance, getting certified in something that interests you… or completing a particular leadership program… or even just getting training in something. When you reach that goal, reassess and work on the next goal. The goal can also be different positions or projects in the workplace. This will keep you from getting bored while also keeping your skills fresh. In the end, it’s more fun to have these goals that you’ve made for yourself because you want to, as opposed to the goals society has set for us all up to this point.

  38. CH*

    As someone who also thrives on praise, I feel this! If I were in your situation, I would consider:
    – Where I saw myself in the next 5 years. What role do you want to have at your current company or another company? What skills or experiences do you need to get there, and what can you start doing now to prepare yourself for that role?
    – How your bosses are recognized for their accomplishments – what kinds of work are celebrated at your company? (Not to say you should only pursue what is celebrated – but this could help you calibrate your own understanding of the culture.)
    – And don’t be afraid to ask your boss what success looks like in your role now that you’ve completed these milestones. Beyond meeting your goals, what would it look like to exceed expectations? What are pain points for your company, and is there anything you could do to help solve them?

    It sounds like they have a lot of trust in you and want you to stay for the long-term. That can go a long way when trying to build a professional development plan with your supervisor.

  39. AnotherSarah*

    A general thought and a work-related piece of advice:

    -I think you’ve already demonstrated that you won’t crash and burn. I also think that gender DOES matter here, a bit. My partner, a man, has been offered many opportunities, jobs and otherwise, that he wasn’t really qualified for. He was enthusiastic and willing, but didn’t have the experience or skills. It was obvious from a few weeks in that he was behind the curve and wasn’t going to catch up, and was miserable at work. (Now he’s in a job that’s exactly right, there are some stretches and some easier parts, and he’s learning along the way.) A lot of this was, in my opinion (and his) because of his presentation, which includes gender. From what I’ve seen, if you really think you’re not suited, you won’t feel good about coming into work. It sounds like you DO feel good about coming into work, and thus I agree with the commenters above that you need to think about the feedback you receive seriously.

    And the advice–consider what a “superstar” is in your field, at your level. Is it more about consistently good work? Developing new projects? Winning clients? Making high-level presentations? You could pick an area that’s a stretch and work on it, and try to just stretch in that direction–having a general goal of consistently good work and one stretch goal will help you from burning out. Also: a lot of high-level work REQUIRES rest and downtime–it’s part of the cycle. If there’s any aspect of your job that requires creativity–any sort of writing, imagining, brainstorming–you need the downtime. Give it to yourself. Don’t be a martyr–for your own sake but/and also for the sake of your work.

  40. WomensRea*

    As another former gifted child (lol) it was a really long process for me to shift into the working world, where there is very little external validation for your work and achievements. Every time I made a mistake I would somehow turn that into a trait for myself, rather than just an area to work on. It took a very long time but eventually I separated mentally my work self from my true self and that helped me to not turn basic mistakes into character flaws. For me emotional detachment was key (I also work in reproductive rights and that field can be very demanding work load wise and emotionally).

    I think it can be helpful very early on in your career to find a mentor or someone who is 5, 10 years ahead of you in your career and see what traits they have that you might like to work towards. It’s also good to have a conversation with yourself about what “success” looks like for you. For me, success is about doing work I’m proud of externally and internally at my organization and rarely ever thinking about work outside of work. And that version of superstardom aligns really well with the team and organization I’m working in because I was clear on that when I was hired.

  41. Professor E*

    I think you’re already on the right track, since you realize the issue and explain it very well in the letter. Especially the bolded sentence at the end.

    As a fellow former gifted kid, my advice is to surround yourself with high achievers. Find out who the established rock stars are in your company/field, and try to soak up as much from them as possible, by observation and/or informal mentorship. The goal is to adjust your idea of normal performance to be something that the average person in your field would consider excellent. This is the best of both worlds, because you’ll be killing it by normal standards, but psychologically you’re not straining to win a Nobel Prize by next Thursday, you’re just doing what you consider normal and expected.

    For me, what made the difference was enrolling in a top PhD program in my field. I’d been the smartest kid in high school by far, one of the highest academic achievers in college, but then I was solidly in the lower middle among my PhD cohort. This was scary at first, but cured me of my emotional need to always be the best.

  42. OhGee*

    Lots of good advice here already, so I’ll say: think about where you’d like to be, professionally and in life more generally, in 5 years. Do you want to grow in your current role? Do you want to continue in this industry but aren’t sure what is a good next step for you? What else do you want out of life? That has always helped me, especially because, at my first job out of college, I was also a rockstar, to the point where my boss told me she pictured me in her role eventually. The work was satisfying, but very boring! I didn’t want to do it forever, and I eventually left, translating those skills into something more aligned with my interests. This is a great time for you to perform well in your role (sounds like you’re doing that), but also to talk with your manager about what excelling means to them. You might ask what future they see for you, and talk with people in that future role about how they got there, what their current work entails. And don’t be afraid to pivot to something else if you change your mind about your future in the kind of work you’re doing now. This is a great time to have solid work-life balance and do some introspection about your next steps.

  43. Marvel*

    LW, this is so, so normal, especially for former “gifted kids” (of which I also am one). You are not alone in any way. I was just talking to my therapist the other day about how I was basically addicted to grades while I was in school (I left grad school in 2018). If I could pay someone to follow me around now and grade everything I do, I probably would, because I’ve been taught to base on my self-worth on my ability to perform.

    You don’t have to live like that. And really, the first thing I’d recommend is a therapist. Get a trauma specialist if you can. Gifted kid trauma is real and it is life-altering, and not in a good way. You might also get some mileage out of searching “gifted kid trauma” and “impostor syndrome” on google scholar (which will bring up academic papers specifically; I find those must more helpful than random pop psych articles) and reading through some of what you find.

    LW, you have already proven yourself here. You have nothing left to prove! If you make a mistake, even a large one, and this is crucial: people’s opinions of you will not change. They will not suddenly see you differently, regret hiring you, or think you are squandering your goodwill. You don’t have to continue proving your competence, and every new project is not a test of your worth. And if your reaction to my last sentence was “then how will I know my worth?”, that’s exactly the problem.

    You have worth outside of your ability to perform. Working on your ability to self-validate, rather than seeking validation from authority figures (which I suspect is exactly why you wrote to Alison!), will allow you to relax at work and stop seeking validation and approval in order to feel safe. This will actually make you better at your job! When every work project no longer feels like a referendum on your personhood, you can see things more clearly and make decisions more consciously. Ask me how I know…

  44. SoloKid*

    I’d reframe what you consider a “superstar”. The most competent people I work with are superstars at resourcing. They are best at explaining what they know about a task/problem, and then know how to resource the solutions. Whether that is sit patiently 3 hours with a spreadsheet, know the right google search term, or know someone in shipping/receiving etc.

    Also, as a former gifted-ish child (I was a B- student overall but I really excelled in one subject even to today), I realized a lot of my work was around trying to please other people. Once I realized I had to work for myself to support my family, that toned itself down a LOT. I’m now trying to impress the part of me that wants to relax on weekends and go home at a decent hour. I don’t aspire to director of anything besides my vegetable garden.

  45. Recovering Gifted Kid*

    When we no longer have grades or other clear benchmarks, it’s easy to assume that the only way to get an “A” in work is to achieve perfection. When in reality an “A” is to get your work done well and on time, be proactive, contribute to your team and learn from your mistakes. That’s it.

    My advisor in grad school always said that in almost any situation 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people, and those 20% still usually feel like they aren’t doing enough.. But if you look around, you’ll see that the standards we high achievers set for ourselves are not actually normal. So just doing pretty ok by your standards can easily translate into star performer by company standards. And star performer standard in your own head is probably straight up unachievable.

  46. Hamster Manager*

    Don’t underestimate how long you can coast when you have this much goodwill. If you’re burning yourself out, you can probably coast at work for a week or two and literally no one will notice.

    And you ARE going to burn out; you need to rein in staying late and not taking a lunch break as a daily thing. You’ll function much, much better if you take regular breaks.

    1. Also an early super star*

      Adding: The value of building a great reputation at work early on is that you buy yourself a lot of grace for whenever you inevitably make a mistake or slack for a bit. When a great employee struggles, a good manager will assume there’s a reason and work to help through it, whether that’s with coaching, giving you time to learn, etc. Instead of worrying so much about maintaining your reputation, try to remember that your reputation will give you space to make mistakes or falter during this transition.

    2. Also an early super star*

      The value of building a great reputation at work early on is that you buy yourself a lot of grace for whenever you inevitably make a mistake or slack for a bit. When a great employee struggles, a good manager will assume there’s a reason and work to help through it, whether that’s with coaching, giving you time to learn, etc. Instead of worrying so much about maintaining your reputation, try to remember that your reputation will give you space to make mistakes or falter during this transition.

  47. Llama Llover*

    I knew you were a woman and a former gifted child before you even said so in your letter! I seriously just have one question for you to sit with:

    What about anything you wrote or have done in the past year indicate you will not be good at your job?

    Seriously. You have zero evidence that this is even going to be a problem. I’m not trying to dismiss your feelings, but looking at the facts of the situation make it pretty clear you don’t have to worry.

  48. EditorPerson*

    Remember that you’re holding yourself to a higher standard that pretty much anyone else. Internally you have an idea of what you’d be capable of (with infinite time and resources and energy but we tend to forget that part in our self-evaluations).

    The other day I heard my cube neighbor struggling to be heard on a zoom call even though they were marked unmuted on the participant list. After a minute or so I popped up like a meerkat and said “did you maybe bump your manual mute on your headset?” Voila. And they and others around us spent the rest of the day singing my praises. This isn’t to say I’m some genius; I’ve done that before and would have considered a single “lol whoops, thanks” a proportionate response. What I took away from that is that sometimes it takes VERY little to be considered wonderful. Don’t feel the need to disabuse anyone of that notion.

  49. Dorothy Mantooth is a saint*

    As you advance in your career, CONSISTENCY IS YOUR NEW SUPERPOWER. You’d be surprised how many people flame out, stop trying, or just make different choices and change direction. I’m 20+ years into a competitive career, another former gold-star seeker like you, and I truly think one of my best assets is not my dazzling brain but my dogged consistency to stick with tasks and get things done. Your reliability is the thing that people will notice and appreciate — that and, as many others have said, your kindness and the ability to work well with others.

    Stick with it. Do the work. You’ve got this.

  50. Knows the Type*

    This sounds like a person struggling with the burden of “moreness” that comes with the reality of being a gifted adult. I would encourage the OP to seek out a mental health professional that specifically deals with giftedness (a type of neurodiversity), especially as relates to setting boundaries, various overexcitabilities, and dealing with developing and maintaining positive work relationships and reputation throughout career development and transitions. The amount of time relayed in this letter regarding the employee development path is concerning (too short, honeymoon period) – in the long run nothing beats experience. It’s concerning also to me that it sounds like the employee is potentially being tokenized or taken advantage of. A MHP can help the employee navigate these types of situations and provide a reality check on the behaviors of others. If the employer has a EAP program, starting there to find a practitioner who can provide a referral might really help. Also, asking the leadership teams for examples of others who have more experience in the culture and are also considered stellar, find out what they’ve done, and ask for one or more to be a mentor. I would guess it would be unusual to win the same employee award each year in a row, which could feel like a failure to the OP given how much of the hype there is. Hope this helps.

  51. Chc34*

    Oooh, I feel this letter. Lots of great advice here already, but I’ll also caution you: this was me at my first job out of college, and I was also incredibly focused on Being the Best and Doing the Most. And within a couple years, I burned the fuck out. Please also know that it’s okay to Do Slightly Less and take care of yourself: being a “superstar” doesn’t mean you need to push yourself to do everything all the time.

  52. keep the shine, not the star*

    oh boy, this was (and is still to some extent) me. What’s help me is understanding is this is really a face value thing. People succeeding quickly and easily isn’t common, and it’s usually genuine praise.

    For me, when I started to make sure the extra work got spread around to my peers, that’s when the feeling of having to be a superstar started to go away. You don’t have to be responsible for everything. Say no, suggest another person to do a project or ask if you can have a partner for it. This will also look good –the star wanting to uplift other people rather than hoard it all.

    Those first mistakes when you have been on the pedestal can feel so treachorous, but I’ve learned that most of the time, those are what makes you human again — as long as you approach the correction with a mindset of learning from it, you’ll still retain the goodwill, but it takes the edge off.

  53. anonymouse*

    I agree that this seems like an imposter syndrome thing, so definitely do some research on that and see what resonates for you.

    My other tips would be as follows:

    -You *have* already proven yourself, and I think as long as you continue to display that you’re being thoughtful and intentional, completing your work to the best of your abilities, asking questions and admitting mistakes as necessary, and being gracious – everyone will continue to see you in the positive light they currently do. You honestly will probably receive a lot more grace if you do have questions or screw up than other people would *because* people know you and your work ethic by now. If I had to guess, I’d say it would probably take a lot for you to be fired or seen negatively as long as it’s clear you’re trying your best.

    -Expanding on being thoughtful and intentional – reflect on your performance and your goals often. Think about where you could realistically improve, and what supports you’d need to do so. If you have the kind of job where there’s some freedom in deciding how something gets done, this is even more important. If you’re at the top of your game and there’s nowhere to go from where you are, think about if that’s where you’d like to stay or if you’d like to expand your responsibilities / move into other ones. I am someone who struggles to answer the question “what do you think you want your career to look like 5 years from now?” and it was even harder when I first was entering the workforce. For me, it helped me to break things down into what skills I want to learn, what skills I want to use, how much more responsibility I want to take on, and what I’d need to be ready to take on more responsibilities. (I think, for me, doing this kind of thinking and reflecting has contributed the most to me being seen as a rising star and hard worker.)

    -Expanding on thinking about your career goals – because you’re seen as a star here, it might be the case that you’ll have the opportunity to move up quicker than usual. Really think about if this is what you want and if it’s what you’re ready for. At least for me and my high-achieving friends, there was actually something that felt so good about having an entry-level job where there’s not a ton of pressure on you, and that might be a place you want to stay for a while! (I know you feel pressure in other ways, but here I mean in the sense that you are not a key decision maker / in control of a lot of high-stakes things.) I would bet that your company will offer you flexibility here and will be willing to move on your timeline if you share it with them.

    -A tough part for me in the transition from school to work was, like you said, it’s never “over”. There’s not an end in sight that you’re working towards. You are here indefinitely. I think what helps my brain to function in this environment is to set deadlines and goals and have a schedule for yourself, especially if that’s not already provided in the structure of your job. Break down your work into chunks. That helps it feel more like “assignments” and eases the transition. It sounds like your boss already helps with the goals piece which is great. The goals can be lateral! It doesn’t always have to be about escalating responsibility or skill.

    -Maybe take some of these extras off your plate, particularly the working late or working through lunch parts. I worry you’re sprinting towards burnout if these things keep up. Give yourself permission to focus on the things in your job description and, if desired, a few extra things that pique your interest and genuinely bring you satisfaction at work (and I mean personal satisfaction, not the satisfaction you get from praise/recognition from others). I think you’ll only look like you’re “flailing” if you’re clearly overwhelmed by the extras you’re taking over, which is why I’d suggest being judicious and strategic.

    Signed, a fellow formerly “gifted kid” a few years out from that school to work transition who is also a rising star at work trying to figure it out.

  54. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

    Ohhhhh I see a lot of myself in this. You will need to do two things –
    1 – realize that what is “easy” for you isn’t easy for a lot of people, so just going along at your normal level is going to seem incredible to other people, because they have to work harder to reach that same level. So you may not feel like you’re putting in a lot of effort, but sometimes your ‘half-assed’ is their ‘whole-assed’ and that is okay. It adds to the feeling of imposter syndrome when you’re getting all this praise for just….doing your job??? Bank that and come to peace with the fact that you can get by on 60% effort, which means you can bank that extra 40% for when you really need to rise to a new challenge or for other projects in your personal life. Don’t fall into the trap of making yourself find ways to work at 90% or 100% because there lies burnout. You will exhaust yourself trying to look busy.
    2 – work with your supervisor to define metrics for what is considered “good performance” for you. Without those metrics it is easy to get mired in feelings of inadequacy and feeling kind of lost. I went through the same thing early in my career – I felt unmoored and unfocused because there was no longer the structure of school around me. No more major milestones to reach for regularly. It helped a lot to build new goals for myself, both at work and at home. It might sound silly, but setting those 3, 6, 12 month and 2, 5, 10 year goals really added a layer of structure to my life – a north star to help keep me feeling like I had a sense of direction.

  55. Emm*

    Start with taking a lunch break! There’s a lot of good advice in the comments, but this is something that stood out to me while reading your letter. I know it depends on the workplace, but it sounds like you don’t need to stay late or work through lunch in order to prove yourself. Based on the feedback you’ve been given, you’ve already demonstrated your talent and commitment. And you’re entitled to a break, no matter your rockstar status.

    1. Properlike*

      This. You’ve been training for semester-long sprints. The work timeline is a marathon. Time to adapt those habits to a new life. Expectations, output, everything. Get into therapy now to help reframe your self-concept… it’s so useful!

      I also had a rough transition from school achievement into real-life achievement. With a little therapy, and examination of my value systems, I’m now able to recognize my larger contributions to work/friends/society as valuable and take pride in my many skills. And the many things I’ll never excel at (shoutout to my fellow run-for-fun folks!) It all. Same 25 years too late.

      Curiosity and self-acceptance will be your super powers if you can shed the Super Student mantle.

  56. Washed Up*

    I am a former rockstar in my professor. I have been interviewed by NPR and presented at national conferences. I was even slated to publish a book. What made me fail? My bosses expected more and more without giving me more. I’d finish one huge project and be told to do another immediately. I was given no resources, no more compensation for this than others who performed less, my boss would take credit for things she had nothing to do with, she’d interview with local papers about MY accomplishments. Slowly, I burnt out and then covid and I realized I was miserable.

    I’m no longer a rockstar and have been written up twice within the past three months. I’m looking for a career change desperately. Please, if you notice you’re not getting “rockstar” support, slow down before it’s too late. Or switch jobs. I’m unfortunately in a field where I am obviously in the best paid job for my position with no desire to advance further so the only way for me is out.

  57. Falling Diphthong*

    OP, do not underestimate how important it is to be good at teaching others the skills they need. Out in the real world of hiring, someone who scored a 91 on the test and is good at explaining the material is frequently much more desirable than someone who scored a 100 but isn’t great at explaining things. In you they got both! And it sounds like your bosses see a strong correlation between being good at the test taking requirements and good at your job–this is just an early indicator to them that you are good at learning new things as needed.

    Being good at learning new things, efficiently and to a high standard, and then good at turning around and explaining or teaching those things–those are valuable in an employee, and your company is recognizing that.

    For the eating lunch at your desk, working late stuff–is that normal for those one level above you? Or at your level? If not I’d suggest you try to rein that in. On the other hand, if people are well compensated and a typical salaried week is around 50 hours, and you do best eating while checking emails and taking a break at more flexible times through the day, it’s okay to keep doing what’s working for you.

    1. EarlGrey*

      Being recognized as a good and flexible learner also sounds like a fantastic way to never have to settle into a monotonous job, if that’s something that matters to you, LW. Like i said in my other comment, praise is nice but now that school is over, it’s less a reward in itself and more a way to get rewarded with money, more interesting day to day work, opportunities to help others, whatever motivates you.

      To your point about the desk lunches, i would also ask yourself if you want to be recognized as someone who works through lunch, or someone who can be trusted to manage her own schedule even if that means taking a “long lunch” or leaving “early” relative to your company culture? What will be better for you in the long run? (I’m one of those people who prefers a working lunch, but I also hold firm to my being out the door before 5!) One of the benefits of having proved yourself early is that you don’t have to make these highly visible gestures of dedication if they’re not actually what you prefer.

  58. I Feel You*

    I don’t have much advice, but I feel this so hard. I’m just a few years ahead of you and came into my first job with a similar reputation, and the pressure is immense. About a year ago, I got an award — literally a “superstar award” — from my department management, and I cried because I felt like such a fraud winning it. The best thing I can tell you is to keep doing your best work, accepting both positive and negative feedback with grace (even if you’re screaming in your head) and try to find mentors and supervisors who will give you honest assessments of your work. Ask specifically if there are things that you can improve on or things that could make you more efficient. Sometimes having something to work on helps with feeling like a fraud. And please please make sure you’re taking lots of time away from work to rest!

  59. introverted af*

    No good answer, but solidarity to the LW. I’m 27, on track for the career I want to be moving into after a couple jobs where I didn’t know what I wanted exactly but was moving in the direction I chose, and still figuring it out in a lot of ways. I worry that my own desire for change and newness like what you get in school, especially college, is going to set me back in the long term.

  60. Candice*

    I think one thing that’s important to remember is that these roles naturally evolve over time and it’s good not to get your identity wrapped up in one of them. Like right now you’re the young hotshot and that has pressures as you’re finding but also rewards. As you progress in seniority, there will be new young hotshots and you probably won’t get the same level of positive feedback you’re getting now – not because you’re not doing as well but because when you move into mid-career, you will just be in a different place. You might need to challenge how some people are doing things in a way brand new employees don’t for instance which can ruffle feathers. And at any rate, people won’t be surprised by your stellar performance either.

    Rewards come along with growth too of course. Assurance and confidence that you know what you’re doing and ongoing work relationships and a mastery of your profession. But I think for many people there’s a frustrating period where you’re no longer the young prodigy but aren’t yet someone who has real authority at work so it can be a difficult transitional period.

  61. DrSalty*

    Therapy, honestly. You need to reframe what success is and what you want from life. The fear of failure is anxiety talking. Good luck!!

  62. Stevie Budd*

    I’m not going to repeat what I’ve seen above, but one other thing that occurred to me while reading your letter: Inevitably there will be another younger “superstar” come in behind you, and this person will also get the kind of attention you’ve been getting. By that point, you may not be getting as much attention because you’ve been there a little while and settled in. This is normal, and don’t take it as evidence that you’re not valued or doing a good job anymore.

  63. A Kate*

    This: “I’ve continued mentoring the ones who stuck around, joined a team that workshops system improvements, and even got a leadership position with the company-wide LGBTQ+ resource group. In addition to my everyday tasks, I’m working on compiling resources for training new hires on our team’s functions.” Does not in any way naturally lend itself to this: “I’m worried that all of this looks like a flailing, desperate attempt to distinguish myself—and in a way, it is.”

    People around you aren’t looking at your engagement in office life and willingness to train others as a bad thing, I promise you. That said, if you’re feeling like you’re only taking these things on because they’re new and shiny and are replacing the dopamine hit of “getting an A” on tests, then that’s something to be aware of for your own self. It’s NOT, however, something most other people in a position of power over you are going to frame that way. They’ll just see you as engaged and helpful!

    That said, I think the best thing you can do for yourself is focus on your daily work (others have covered the fact that everyone, even “superstar employees,” make mistakes), and just continue to be yourself. Being YOU is what got you this far; it’s not some kind of accident that your employers find you a pleasure to work with. Eventually, your difficult task is going to be setting boundaries and making sure you only get drawn into projects you actually want to do, but for now, while you’re new and it’s all still fresh, continue offering your considerable talents wherever they’re needed, and you can be sure that they will translate to the less glamorous “daily grind” work.

  64. Strange observer*

    Former gifted child here. I am exhausted just reading your letter. The part that struck me the hardest was this “I’m worried that all of this looks like a flailing, desperate attempt to distinguish myself—and in a way, it is. I’m a highly competitive person who runs on praise and remembers every compliment I’ve ever gotten.”

    With the pressure you are putting on yourself to be a superstar and the anxiety you feel about needing to be the best, you are rightly identifying yourself as on the path to burnout. Your managers and coworkers are giving compliments because they assume it’s a good thing to do, but it sounds like, for you, praise is just feedstock for the pressure you put on yourself. I absolutely relate to the kind of perfectionism that can develop in an academic environment where you are graded on work products, but what your employer really needs from you is for you to be happy, healthy, consistent, and professional in your work for years to come. Which, based on your letter, you already know. It sounds like you are seeking permission to lean into it.

    You are exactly right when you say that work life “require[s] fewer splashy big achievements and more constant, low-level maintenance and consistency.” The key to making a successful shift to everyday work is to shift your focus to being awesome at work-life balance. Yes, take on some leadership roles, but not so many that you find yourself never having a relaxed lunch or letting work take over your non-working hours, whether because you are physically or mentally at your desk. Make sure you have the time and energy to eat healthy meals, get good sleep, and maintain hobbies or interests other than work on a day to day basis. With the lifestyle you are describing, you won’t fully unwind with a few vacation days here and there. You are in it for the long haul, and you can’t treat every day as a sprint.

    As for work itself, being reliable and detail-oriented goes a long way, as does having a cheerful outlook about the inevitability of mistakes – both your own and others’. It is important to be open to feedback and learn from mistakes, but beating yourself up about every misstep – which is something I’m guessing you’re prone to do – mostly makes the people witnessing it uncomfortable.

  65. Stitch*

    I have a small child so I’ve watched/listened to Encanto on repeat for the past few months. And this letter makes me think of Luisa and the song Surface Preasure. You’re absolutely capable but the pressure you’re putting on yourself is causing you to crack..

    You’re great, don’t burn yourself out. Toxic perfectionism absolutely is a thing.

  66. Artemesia*

    Been there, done that. Been the amazing test taker and early star. I think that it is an issue of maturity — it is hard when you were the good student to realize that that is a childish status, one that as an adult in the ‘real world’ is of no interest. Harping on this even to yourself is kind of like putting your SAT scores on your resume (and yeah mine were very very high); see how out of touch that makes me seem, writing that? There are no points for ‘working hard’, passing tests, working through lunch and being a very good girl. Make transition to thinking less about yourself and the impression you make and on the work itself and on what you want to do and where you want to go.

    Of course work hard and focus on doing a great job, but knock out the working through lunch and performative good girlism. Learn to prioritize and focus on the things that matter in your workplace, avoid tasks that don’t advance the core work and organize your life so that you have work life balance and a rich rewarding life outside of work. Sometimes you will need to work long hours or through lunch not because you are a good girl and a star but because this work is top priority and needs done now. But don’t make this kind of thing your identity in the workplace.

    Think about where you want your own career to go, what you want to do, and don’t get trapped doing things because people stick you with them because you are a ‘star’ and feel you have to accept any task if asked. What are the jobs that will help develop your skills and talents to take you to the steps you want to climb.

    Stars and ‘good girls’ often end up doing a lot of work that other people don’t want to do because they think it makes them look good. Meanwhile people with clearer career goals are doing the actually important work and getting promoted. The guy who has figured out what is truly valued is not working through lunch and serving on the diversity committee and volunteering for the Christmas party committee; he probably isn’t working through lunch either. And he is likely in line to get promoted because he is doing the work most valued.

    Try to erase this star nonsense from your consciousness as much as possible and figure out what YOU really want and what you need to do to get there. Do that.

  67. EarlGrey*

    This is such an interesting question! And definitely relatable for me in some ways. I think one thing I’d add to the good advice here is, write down your accomplishments. Put a monthly reminder on your calendar to log the stuff you did above and beyond your standard job description – whether it was meeting a tough deadline, pitching in on a team you don’t usually work with, doing some professional development – everything that isn’t just showing up and doing your regular tasks. For one thing, like you said, you’re at the point where you don’t have milestones structured in a way that your boss will recognize, so you’ll have to go out of your way to highlight successes your boss might not know about (and needs to know about for promotion and raise discussions). Realizing that supervisors who trust you often don’t actually know what you’re up to all day was a big one for me! Now that you’re not doing exams and stuff, don’t assume anyone who makes decisions above you is aware of what makes you awesome. Praise is nice, but you’re not fishing for praise in that gifted child way, you’re making sure your company has the full picture when it’s time to make decisions that affect you financially and professionally.

    Of course, not everything on that list is going to be something you need to bring up to the boss, and then it’s just a regular reminder that you’re kicking butt at your job overall even when you feel like you haven’t done much that particular week or month.

    And then, help make that list of accomplishments for others, be that person who corrects for the “higher ups don’t always know what anyone’s doing” thing. Did someone really step up for you? Tell their boss! When it’s review time especially, email a manager and tell them if one of their direct reports made a difference in your work. Again, it’s not just about praise and recognition, it’s about how praise and recognition get translated into the material rewards a person has earned.

  68. anonymous73*

    I think it’s best to be realistic in this situation (or any situation really). You are great at what you do and quicker to learn than most. But you will make mistakes – you’re not a robot. Own them and learn from them as anyone does. And if your manager is a reasonable human, they won’t focus on any mistakes you make, but help you learn how to not make them again. I would also consider having a conversation with your manager about your doubts and worries about living up to your reputation. If they are supportive, they will want to help you navigate through these things.

  69. Joanna*

    I had a chuckle at your “former gifted child” comment because that is what I was thinking the entire time I was reading your question. I am also a former gifted child and I’ve realized over the past several years that it’s been causing me anxiety at work. What I did about it, and what I think you might benefit from is finding a mentor. In your case, I would think of who you consider to be a superstar and see if you can forge a relationship with them as your mentor. My mentor is a high performer and is great about letting me bounce ideas off of him, and providing feedback when I’m a bit off the mark. It’s been very helpful for me to know I have someone I can turn to when I’m not confident of my own approach. It’s reduced my anxiety, but it’s also really helped me develop as a professional, which in turn has helped reduced my anxiety.

    So, see if you can get a superstar mentor. Also, you will eventually make a mistake. It happens to all of us. If you work for a well managed company, it will be OK. We all make mistakes.

  70. More dopamine, please*

    There are so many amazing suggestions here. I’ll echo with two things:

    1. Start working with a therapist on unpacking this over a longer period of time. You want a long, successful career, and making the identity shift from an academic overachiever to a sustained performer takes work. It’s worth the investment.

    2. In the vein of the book “Never Eat Alone,” think about redefining how you prioritize your work hours. While it’s fine to eat lunch at your desk and stay late to get the work done from time to time, are you underinvesting in building a network and strong relationships that will provide you with support for your entire career, and will give you an opportunity to support others? Consider the value of business lunches and coffees as an investment that will enrich both parties. I neglected this early in my career in favor of “grinding harder” and I regret it now. People will move on to other companies and the relationships you form will continue to expand your network. If you keep your head down and work hard, your network will shrink as people move on from your company.

  71. Anon for this*

    I think this comment says it all, OP: “I’m a highly competitive person who runs on praise and remembers every compliment I’ve ever gotten (why yes, I am a former “gifted child”).” I honestly think you are more worried about not getting regular, over-the-top praise as opposed to “failing on the job” or “letting people down.” Not to downplay your accomplishments, which are objectively excellent (See, praise! Doesn’t that feel good?!). But in the real world, Mommy is not going to clap every time you sit on the potty, and while I think the other encouraging comments here are good and true, I almost think you wrote this letter to solicit more praise from internet strangers to refill your “praise bank.” I think you’d do well to examine your excessive need for praise, possibly in therapy. Wishing you the best, and you truly are a superstar! (Not sarcasm. You are! But don’t place your self-worth on hearing that constantly!)

  72. Generic Name*

    I’m exhausted just reading all of that, honestly. It comes across as very intense. There’s nothing wrong with intensity. I’m intense. I get it. But it’s unsustainable in the long run. You are afraid you’ll make some huge mistake and crash and burn. I think that’s extraordinarily unlikely. What I think is more likely is that you will burn out at some point. Humans just cannot work and work and work indefinitely without consequences to their bodies/brains.

    So my first piece of advice is to pause, and take a deep breath. I assume you will read every single comment (hi! :) ), so please pause reading right now and look around. That’s it. Just experience what it’s like to not be “doing” for maybe a minute. Along with pausing, I suggest an experiment. Stop working through lunch. Bring a book or sit with coworkers and chat. See if anyone notices or says anything. If nobody notices, I suggest you continue to take at least a half hour break for lunch each day.

    You also mentioned that you are afraid you’ll let people down if you aren’t the brightest shining superstar the company has ever seen. Who exactly will you let down, and how exactly will they be let down? Are you afraid of disappointing nebulous “others”? Think about why that is. This might be something you could unpack with a counselor.

    You are fresh out of school, so I assume you are very young. This is a good time to think about who you are as a person and what you want your life to look like. What do you value, as in what is important to you? Maybe you value family or pets or music or whatever. Think about how you spend your time and does it align with what you value.

    At this stage in your career, it’s very easy to throw yourself all-in to your job to the exclusion of literally everything else in your life, but consider making room for other things by setting boundaries in your working life. Many companies will throw more and more and more work to an eager new hire who never says no. Practice not saying yes to every single thing asked of you. If you want to rise in the ranks, be deliberate in what you say yes to.

    My other piece of advice is to find a mentor/sponsor. If you are a women or a POC, find a woman or POC to mentor you, if possible. A mentor can help you to figure out what you should say yes to and what to say no to. Saying no to something does not make you a bad person. If saying no fills you with terror, that’s something else you could bring up with a counselor.

    I also want you to know, that it is entirely possible to have a fulfilling career at a company you love, and have the respect of colleagues within and outside your company and work 40 hours a week. From the very beginning of my career I decided I did not want to work a bunch of overtime, and I have molded my career based on that. I have a MS, and I work as a consultant at a boutique consulting firm. For 40 hours a week. I bring in work for my company, manage projects, am an expert in my field, and I get asked to give presentations at professional organization meetings. Could I have risen in the ranks a teeny bit faster if I put in a lot of overtime? Maybe. But to me rank and money aren’t more important to me than family/friends/pets/my garden.

    Being smart and driven is a gift, but the gift is for you.

    1. A Kate*

      “the gift is for you.”


      I once had a friend question my career goals (spoiler: I don’t have many) because I’m “smart enough to do anything” and my visceral, immediate response that I didn’t even know was there waiting to be spoken was, “But that’s not FOR them. That’s mine, and not up for grabs for any corporate entity or boss-type to profit from just because I have it.”

    2. Cold and Tired*

      I wholeheartedly second this! I had an epiphany (to me at least) a few years ago where I thought to myself “when I’m on my death bed, what will I be proud of in my life or be happy I did?” Kind of a morbid question, but it really helped me realign my priorities. I realized that I cared about making money doing a job where I am mentally stimulated and feel like I’m doing something good, but that I value friends, family, travel, and living my life so much more.

      I was in a job role for years that was high travel, high stress, and frequently 60+ hours a week, and it was burning me out and making me miserable. I’ve now loved into a different job that’s 40 hours a week, almost no travel, still challenging but a lot more flexible, and pays just as well. I lost the opportunity for a number of promotions by this move, but I gained back a life outside of work I can actually enjoy. Now I use my gifted child brain to do what I want to do with my life rather than just chasing work achievements that, at the end of the day, didn’t fulfill me as a person. I’ve honestly never been happier.

      Live your life in a way that makes you genuinely happy, not in a way that you feel like you’ve been raised to. It takes time, but you’ll be able to look back in 10 years and see your progress and hopefully be a lot happier as well.

      1. allathian*

        Yes. Maybe it’s morbid, but I don’t think anyone on their deathbed ever regrets not spending more time at work, whereas I expect that many if not most career-oriented people end up regretting that they didn’t value their life outside of work enough.

  73. Cat Lady in the Mountains*

    The best career advice I ever got was the first year in my first post-grad job – a senior leader told me, “there are two ways to distinguish yourself at work: the work you do, and the attitude you bring. Early in your career, you can’t distinguish yourself by the work you do.” That really stuck with me. So things like building strong relationships with coworkers or clients if it’s relevant for your role (it is SO rare for early-career folks to know how to proactively build relationships that aren’t strictly transactional and folks who can do it always stand out as high performers), receiving feedback well and implementing it, proactively identifying places to improve in your work (like bring solutions when you find problems, but if you don’t have a solution that’s ok too — it’s still impressive when someone talks through what you considered and why it won’t work). Follow through on commitments or tell people otherwise – another seemingly obvious thing that is so, so rare for people to actually do. And don’t underestimate the value of doing what you do, really consistently and really well. Demonstrate good judgement in what you bring your manager or colleagues for input vs. what you solve on your own — which, to be clear, doesn’t mean solving everything on your own. (That doesn’t mean never making mistakes, it just means learning from your mistakes.)

    Also – ask your manager for feedback! One device I use a lot: in my check-ins, I bring some self-reflection — something I think I did well that week, and something I could have done better, and ask my manager if they agree. This helps me see where I might be overly critical of myself, and where I might be putting too much weight on something that doesn’t really matter (like if I was really happy with the way a task went and my boss is like “eh I wish you’d spent that time on X instead). It goes a long way to refining your sense of what “superstar” means in a professional context, and what your manager cares about, if you do it regularly.

  74. Alex*

    How about asking your manager what excellence would look like for someone in your role? Burning all engines may not be a really good use of your time if what you are doing isn’t a priority for your managers. You don’t have to guess at how to be excellent–this isn’t an English paper where you need to come up with a unique and brilliant thesis. You have have discussions about your performance and ask for guidance without it lessening your stardom.

  75. The Ginger Ginger*

    Also, check in with your manager on your 1x1s! Ask for honest feedback on improvements or tasks she’d like you to handle. Keep her up to date on what you’re working on, and if she’s happy then you’re good! Don’t feel like you have to keep loading more and more and more on your plate in an effort to keep collecting “new” achievements. Being consistent, teachable, and humble will keep you in the high-performer realm without burning yourself to flinders. Your bosses know you’re not in the training phase now too, so they’re aware your achievements are going to look different. Don’t put expectations on yourself that are out of sync with the expectations your boss has; aim for the bar they’re setting, don’t hamper yourself by setting it for yourself.

  76. Margo*

    You need to read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies. It’s all about how people respond to internal and external expectations. You sound like you could be an Upholder or Obliger (categories in the book)—there are some strategies that could really help!

  77. Noelle*

    LW, I see so much of myself in you. I too was a “gifted kid”, always doing very well on tests and homework, even being at the top of my class in college. After a while, the praise stopped meaning anything to me. It was just expected, and if I didn’t get it, I felt something was seriously wrong and I had made a mistake somewhere. I’ve fallen into a pattern where achieving any goal feels like I’m checking something off a list, and I immediately need to move on to the next goal. The more I achieve, the more difficult and outright impossible my goals become.
    My therapist told me yesterday I need to celebrate my successes more, and she’s right. I landed my dream job earlier this year, but I cannot remember what I did to celebrate. I only remember immediately pivoting my goal to buying a house. That realization really had an impact on me, and hopefully it does on you too. You have done AMAZING things and you need to celebrate that, not by looking for others to praise you, but by doing something fun you enjoy.
    Also, you’ll find out as you continue to work that the bar is actually lower than it was in school. I always panic before every performance review and 1 on 1, because I know there were days I didn’t give 100%, or I had to push back a completion date, but it always goes well. I was honestly bewildered that 4 different people at my old job gave me glowing references, including a team lead I thought didn’t even like me. Work isn’t an exact science, but generally, if you get your tasks done in a reasonable time and present a helpful, friendly attitude to everyone you interact with, you’re doing well. Sure, there can be metrics to meet, but what’s more important is how you attain them. People at your work are praising you so much because this isn’t the expected performance. Meeting the standard expectations after that won’t be letting anyone down… it is literally doing what they want.

  78. a manager*

    Consistently doing your work, meeting deadlines and targets without prompting, thinking strategically about your work, and just generally showing up may seem to you like the bare minimum – and it kind of is – but not everyone is doing that. I would say that the kind of consistent accomplishment you’re describing is uncommon enough to be “a rockstar.”
    A couple other things you can do:
    * think about how you can lift other people up through mentoring, training, or teaching. You’ll learn from others as you also cement your position as someone to look to for guidance.
    * consider finding yourself a mentor who can help guide your professional career.
    * consider finding a career coach or counselor. I had one for eight years, and it was the greatest investment I’ve ever made in my career.

    1. EarlGrey*

      “Consistently doing your work, meeting deadlines and targets without prompting, thinking strategically about your work, and just generally showing up may seem to you like the bare minimum – and it kind of is – but not everyone is doing that.”

      Totally seconding this! Some of the highest praise I’ve gotten from managers is “I don’t have to manage you.” It took a long time for me to realize how much hands-on managing MANY people need, people who are total rock stars in other ways and aren’t doing badly by any means, but being able to hit the ground running and figure stuff out for yourself is far from a universal trait. Absolutely embrace showing up and meeting deadlines as something you’re doing beyond the minimum.

  79. A project manager*

    Great comments here, but I wanted to chime in to say I cannot overstate the importance of simply showing up on time, following instructions for the work, and either meeting deadlines or escalating in advance when there are issues putting a deadline at risk. Being seen as a reliable employee when you’re entering the job market is HUGE.

  80. Little Pig*

    I think this is an interesting turning point into adulthood, and an opportunity to rethink your priorities for your whole life. As you’ve noted, progress is very clearly defined through the school years, and it’s easy to follow a straightforward template of good-grades-and-extracurriculars, and feel confident that you are “successful.” But success is a lot more varied in adulthood, and it really depends on what you want from life. People organize their lives around all sorts of values: Financial security, adventure, family, creative pursuits, etc. If you better understand what you want out of life, you will be more confident in knowing when you are achieving those goals, and be less reliant on external indicators of “success.”

    Remember that managerial praise isn’t a reliable metric for your personal wellbeing, because it’s not in your control. You’re in control of how much time you spend on your hobbies or with your friends, but you’re not in control of your boss’s standards, habits, or moods. So don’t set yourself up to “fail” if your boss just isn’t big on praise, even for great employees.

  81. Mrs Potts*

    Here’s the thing: high achievers like you don’t know they’re high achievers. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You are getting such positive feedback because you really don’t understand how much more competent you are than the average person. As a university professor, I see it all the time with high achieving college students—they don’t know what else I see, which is A LOT of very mediocre work. When they get into a TA position or something, and start evaluating peers’ work, they are always surprised at the quality. You do you, don’t worry about others’ expectations because they’re low and you’re already exceeding them.

  82. Irish Teacher*

    I think it took me quite a long time to transition. I am a “good student” but not a very practical person and when I started teaching, I was very worried about the discipline side because…I’m a pretty empathetic person and I don’t like upsetting anybody nor am I good at knowing what to say when awkward issues arise.

    I think part of what helped for me is something completely out of my control, simply being in a job for a longish period of time and colleagues getting to know where my strengths lay and realising that my boss was aware not only of the things I’m not great at but also the things I am (for example, one thing that used to concern me was the fact that I don’t get involved in extra-curricular activities and I feared this might make me seem like somebody who was just “doing the bare minimum” but I am now pretty sure my bosses see that I mentor student teachers, have developed curricula for the new courses being introduced, am working on literacy stuff within the school, that I take extra classes with students who need additional help, etc and that “not knowing how to organise extra-curricular activities” isn’t a “oh, clearly has no interest in taking on additional duties” deal breaker).

    I think when it comes to new teachers, my feelings about who is going to be a “rockstar” is often tied up with how interested they seem. The student teacher who immediately took me up on “you’re welcome to visit my classroom any time,” with “well, I’m free for the next two periods if you don’t mind me sitting in,” the new additions to the resource department who asked me for resources to use with resource students, that sort of thing.

    In my experience, one difference between work and school is that innate ability probably matters more at school. Don’t get me wrong, how much work somebody is willing to put in has a big influence on grades too, but…there are things like how intelligent somebody is or what topics they have an aptitude for or something just how good a memory they have that can majorly benefit or disadvantage them. At work…well, one has more choice over one’s career and presumably most people won’t choose, or be hired for, a field where they really have no aptitude for it. Plus, as I implied above, a lot of roles have a certain amount of leeway anyway and you can often take on more of what you are good at (I am really lucky in that the head of my department is really practical but dislikes research typed tasks, so we’ve gotten into a rhythm where it’s like “Johnny could do with some support in such a subject. Can you go research what supports/resources/technology is available and tell me what we need and I’ll go organise the funding and so on,” which works really well) so a lot of success is dependent on the effort the person makes, especially if they are in a role where they are getting 100% on the tests.

    I also think that people probably aren’t expecting as much of you as you are. I know when I started teaching I was comparing myself to people who were DECADES in the role – “how come her class do x when she tells them to but mine keep arguing?” “He’s getting through the curriculum so much faster than I am; why is it taking my students so long to grasp it.” “He has so many great resources (created across the last 15 years). Mine look pathetic by comparison.” Now, from the point of view of the teacher who has been years in the role, I definitely don’t expect teachers in their first or second year to have the number of resources I do or for students to be as clear about their expectations as they are about mine – having been taught by me for years or having brothers or sisters who warned them, “don’t do x in Irish Teacher’s class. She’s REALLY strict about that”. I look at new teachers and think “wow, they’re avoiding so many of the mistakes I made my first year.” It’s very likely your colleagues are thinking the same, that your mistakes seem minor compared to their early ones.

    1. kiki*

      I want to echo Irish Teacher on comparing yourself to unrealistic examples. A lot of getting really, really good at your job will just take time. In school you’re surrounded by people who are likely similar to you in experience, so comparing yourself to others, though never wise, isn’t as jarring. Once you’re fully in the workforce, you’ll likely be working directly with folks who have years or even decades of experience on you. Don’t compare your newbie self to their decades-in selves. Don’t work long hours and burn yourself out trying to perform the same as them. Who you are today is good enough. Just keep working, slowly but surely you’ll get there.

  83. Arabella Flynn*

    You’re probably fine. There’s this weird collision between growing up as a “gifted child” and a push in parenting philosophy that started when I was young in the ’80s and continues today towards “praise for effort, not results”. The basic idea is that if you teach kids to value working, they’re more likely to pour effort into personal growth even if the results aren’t instant, than teaching them that results are most important, and having them decide to stick with a thing they’re already good at and never branch out.

    I get it, and it’s not a bad idea, it just… needs adjusting for kids who are super smart/competent super young. People fall into this pattern of seeing you do amazingly advanced things in school or hobbies, and instead of telling you “wow, you’ve developed your skills a lot, do you want to keep going with more advanced stuff?” they default to telling you, “wow, you worked really hard on that!” Except often you didn’t, because they haven’t yet handed you anything difficult enough to require it.

    It feels really bizarre, like the compliments are coming from a different dimension where you slaved over the project for an eternity, instead of the world you live in, where you ignored the assignment for a month and then wrote it in three hours the night before it was due. It makes you paranoid that suddenly the great results will mean nothing and everyone will be furious when they find out it didn’t actually take that much grinding, and you didn’t think it was that hard. A lot of us devolve into this state where we panic and overcomplicate things when they don’t feel hard enough, so nobody can accuse us of not “really” doing the work.

    The reality, as with most things, is somewhere in the middle. Most people are concerned with results more than effort, so if they like what you’re doing, just say thank you and let it go. It is not always REQUIRED for you to explain how easy things are. It is also not necessary for you to kill yourself doing them AS PERFECTLY AS (or AS FAST AS) you possibly can when doing them reasonably quickly with above-average results will do, especially if you’re in an environment where the reward for doing a lot of work is to get a lot more work dumped on your head.

    tl;dr: You do not continually need to do better in order to remain an excellent performer. Just do better than they expect. The adults who told you “you won’t always be able to coast on your brains” were mostly wrong. Also, they’re going to keep giving you things ad infinitum, learn how to say no politely before you work yourself to death.

  84. ecnaseener*

    Oh gosh, others have more helpful advice but all I can say is shed that academic/testing/grades mindset by any means necessary. I think having such a muddy transition between school and work didn’t do you any favors (I’m having a visceral reaction to it myself…3 years into my first post-college job, just the prospect of studying for a certification is dredging up all sorts of weird feelings and now I’m so grateful it wasn’t a constant thing at the start)

    But to be a little more concrete, try to get really clear in your head about your goals: not to be a ~superstar,~ but to do your work well (not better than anyones ever done it before! Just do it well and on time), take on interesting projects, learning the work, setting yourself up for growth, etc.

  85. Cremedelagremlin*

    As a fellow former “gifted child” who has failed to live up to expectations due to various mental and physical health issues, I want to echo the letting go of perfection piece that others have mentioned. It’s ok to make mistakes, and to “fail”. I’ve found learning about the growth mindset to be really interesting.

    Also, I have found that becoming really familiar with what my own values are has helped to live/work in a meaningful way despite being unable to feed my perfectionist/people pleasing tendencies as much as I want to. So, for example, what is important to you? If it’s being a good employee, why is that important to you? (ie: you want your career to be meaningful? You thrive on recognition? etc.) There are usually deeper values that can be uncovered and applied more broadly/specifically than just being really really good at one’s job. For example, I realized that one of my values is kindness, but that what I was doing was trying to never upset anyone, ever, which is not actually how kindness is defined. I’ve found this has also been helpful for quieting the “but people will be disappointed in me” voice because I’m living my values and I’M not disappointed in me.

    Also, these tend to be lifelong endeavors, not quick and easy (like, “it’s ok to fail” is a lesson I’m still learning after several decades of literally failing at various things)…

  86. Chelsea*

    I think if you’re both good at your job, you respect deadlines, and you’re a pleasant person, that will carry you and will ensure that even if you screw something up, people will usually be willing to give you another chance. Competent, communicative, and affable is a great recipe for success.

    “Superstar” in the workplace is subjective anyway.

  87. Josephine*

    At one point in my career I figured out that what one manager considers “good/great” isn’t necessarily “good/great” to another, and if you let someone else define “good/great” for you you’re in for a disappointment at some point. For example, I had jobs where what my manager wanted most (work that made them look good) wasn’t good for the company (they didn’t acknowledge others’ work, for example, leading to an exodus of talent). So I’ve done a lot of soul searching to define the kind of employee that I want to be – for example I personally want to be known for doing what I say I’m going to do (including meeting all deadlines I’m given or being upfront as early as possible if I’m going to miss one), being clear about my boundaries and protecting my mental health, and being a source of positivity and support for my team, among others. If at the end of the day I know I lived according to these principles, I’m doing good work no matter what anyone else thinks. I’ve learned the hard way that trying to mold yourself to someone else’s expectations is just a recipe for misery.

  88. Ben Marcus Consulting*

    It’s a terrible thing to have peaked so early. I was a TAG student, I get it.

    The reason that academia tends to have well defined metrics and goals, is that it is much easier to control variables. You are in an idealized environment were many times the outcomes of your work can be at least buffered all the way to having zero impact on any real world outcomes. (Yes. This isn’t always true, but does fit within the LW overview of their last year and half).

    The real world doesn’t work that way. Something that would have failed you on a project/test in school could actually be a respectable approach once on the job. Part of doing the work, instead of studying the work, is learning when to take risks, how to read people, and mastering the nuances. It’s difficult to do all of that in a controlled environment, if not impossible.

    A mental health counselor could be great for helping with what I suspect is a bit of imposter syndrome. However, I think seeking out a network of mentors would be more valuable for what you’re experiencing.

    I’ve been doing my thing for 20 years. I still have network of mentors that I can trust to confide even the weirdest of questions and thoughts. As time goes on, your mentors will also come back to you for the same level of confidant. More than anything, this has helped me learn how to recognize when I’m truly performing at a high level and what signs to lookout for burnout and arrogance.

  89. Completegratitude*

    As a person with a lot of anxiety, I can totally appreciate the position you’re in.

    From an outside and hopefully more objective perspective, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I don’t think the praise you’re getting is undeserved—it’s not just about the tests you’ve passed. It sounds like you’re a hard worker, smart, understand the job, and exhibit incredible leadership. To some extent, I think you need to trust that the people in your company that have been there for a while know what traits are needed for success and are competent to recognize them in you. Keep doing what you’re doing.

    Another point is that you don’t have to be perfect and can appreciate that they already think you’re great, which sets up some biases in your favor. When you do make mistakes, your coworkers are way more likely to accept them as minor and one-off occurrences because they know you to be a solid employee. As long as you don’t use this as a reason to slack off, I think you will be fine.

  90. Rocket Woman*

    Something I try to be conscious of is a lot of people in our society (in the US) ask “What do you do?” and everyone responds with their job. We tie our profession as the main part of our identity, and I would encourage you to try to decouple it a bit. The way I counteract this is when someone asks me what I do I saw “I’m an engineer AND I like to read, hike, and watch Marvel shows.” I always try to add my hobbies or interests in conversation so the focus isn’t always work. Additionally, when I first meet someone, I ask “What do you LIKE to do?” Not only do you get wildly different responses, you get to know a person for more than just their title. It’s a small exercise, but it may help give you the space you need between being the “superstar X” and being “OP.”

  91. WantonSeedStitch*

    Ooof, some real FEELS in this letter, for sure, and ones I understand well. Big hugs, OP. First of all, I think you need to think about this like falling in love versus being in a long-term relationship. When you fall in love with someone, it’s all sparks and amazement and giddiness. When you’re in a long-term relationship, sure, there are moments like that, but it’s more about the warmth and appreciation and contentment. Same thing here. You might not always hear effusive, ecstatic praise like what you’ve gotten so far as a newbie, but you will get “hey, great presentation!” or “thanks so much for explaining that,” or “I know I can always count on you.”

    I think a big thing to keep in mind is that for almost everyone, it’s common for the line between “really good at your job” and “amazing rock star” to be one over which you have very little control, and one that most people will step across from time to time, but not always spend all their time over there. Often, the distinction seems to be more related to what kinds of challenges you have to handle, or what projects come your way: the opportunity to shine as going “above and beyond” is usually due to facing unusual challenges well or achieving success on a really big project. And even a really high performer isn’t always going to have those kinds of things happen with perfect regularity. When they do, though it gives you a chance to shine in ways that really stand out. The rest of the time, you might not get as many “WOW!” reactions, but…that’s normal! Even the highest performers in my office don’t really get that. What they DO get is the kind of “long-term relationship” praise I described above. And they get promoted.

    One thing you can do, that’s in your control, is to seek out professional development opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills. This could be field-specific stuff, or it could be stuff like how to manage projects or communication skills. That can make you a better candidate to receive challenging stretch assignments that can give you a chance to shine.

    Overall, though, as a fellow former “gifted kid,” I can tell you that one thing you will have to get used to (and you will, eventually) is that not being the biggest rock star around doesn’t mean you’ve failed or fallen short of your potential. It’s a hard thing to internalize. But it’s truth.

  92. Mynona*

    In addition to all this good advice: this job may not be the best fit for OP in the long run.

    I had similar professional success and reached the highest title in my field by my mid-20s–this was non-profit, so it wasn’t a ton of money or prestige. I realized about myself that I couldn’t just keep doing that work for the next 50 years, so I switched careers to something that was a lot more challenging and rewarding. I would advise OP to see how she feels in a few years. But it is possible that her job really is too easy for her, and her future self might be fine with that or want a change.

  93. sara*

    Lots of people have mentioned imposter syndrome and that’s definitely at play here. But I think a bigger part may be finding out how to find satisfaction and joy in the work itself rather than in the praise. You are going to get less and less praise in your work as the “milestones” disappear or get more spread out. So finding the parts of the job that you like and find fulfilling and basically giving yourself internal praise or recognition for them. Do you really like making extra training manuals etc, do you find it fulfilling, or are you doing it just for the external recognition? Not saying that either is better/worse, but at a certain point the external recognition will go away. And you could be “stuck” as the go-to person for all this extra work you’ve taken on, and realize too late that you don’t actually enjoy doing it for the sake of doing it.

    And for the regular day-to-day parts of your job, I’d really focus on finding which parts you find intrinsically rewarding. This will likely be different than the things that get you praise, but will hopefully lead to more sustainable motivation in your work. For these things, people might still think you’re a superstar, but they’re not going to be necessarily saying it out loud very often. But it will contribute to your overall reputation, ideally.

  94. Absolutely Not*

    As a Former Gifted Kid (hello undiagnosed ADHD and anxiety), I totally get this. My experience is that what makes you stand out is a flexibility and a keen eye. I don’t need to hit the highest metrics to impress my boss, but I’m always willing to stay late to help coverage (non-exempt), move my lunch break to make a meeting, etc. I’m also very active in our chat, constantly helping others troubleshoot and just being visible. For big picture, I loop my boss in on items of concerns I see creeping up with possible solutions and I work hard to maintain a good, friendly role with others in the organization.

    Remember that performance is largely a law of averages. One off week won’t kill you. Hopefully you have regular checkins with your manager. Mine do wonders to keep my worries at bay. Our org also sent out an info sheet that included things like the time of day you’re most productive and how you would like to receive praise if you want to include those in your check in

  95. Gojira*

    I was in a less extreme version of this position coming out of college, and would like to think I’ve found a much better place now. The best advice I can give you is to start getting comfortable with failure, because it’s simply a fact of life. Practice failure as a skill. When you fail, it will feel terrible. When you make a mistake it’s important to move past that initial feeling and proceed to the part where you fix things/make changes to avoid a repeat. That mental process is a skill you can practice, and the people around you will notice and really appreciate it. If you purposefully go and pick something to fail at that has no real stakes involved, like a video game you can’t play or an art medium you’ve never used, and do badly at it, that’s practice. The people I know who managed to get this down early on have all had great careers so far; the ones who took a little longer (me included) have all had some kind of awful struggle period, usually coupled with burnout. So please also cut back on working late!!! Genuinely, it’s terrible for you.

    Something that really helped my fear about mistakes is to ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen? And then, once you’ve thought up some terrible consequences to worry over, ask yourself whether it would actually matter. You have a shining reputation at your work; if you were to actually make a mistake, the worst case scenario would most likely be that you have to talk a little about it, do a little extra work to fix it, and life will just go on. The apocalyptic worst case scenario anxiety edition would be you getting dramatically fired, but if this happened, you would be able to go job hunting with a record of very nice accolades, and (depending on the field) probably get hired very quickly. I promise that in a few years, as you start to have worked longer, everything will begin feeling a lot less high stakes.

    One strategy to combat impostor syndrome that you might find funny is the “It John Smith.” John Smith (not his real name) is an actual real estate worker I rented a house from in college, who was famously incompetent. (“It John Smith” is the introductory text he sent me.) As an example, I asked if I could get a 13 month lease, say, May 2013-June 2014. The lease he sent me was for one month: May 2013-June 2013. When I let him know and asked for a new copy to sign with the correct dates, he sent me a one thousand year lease for May 2013-June 3013. Whenever my friends and I start feeling like frauds and imposters, we remind each other that no matter what mistakes we make, we are still doing better than John Smith. If he can hold down a job, so can we. (I look him up from time to time for reassurance, and in fact, he’s been promoted twice. It makes me happy. As a species, all of us are both very smart and remarkably stupid, and we all deserve such a career as John Smith.)

  96. st.j*

    I had a really similar experience after grad school (where I was a terrible fit and didn’t get praised for ANYTHING). My new boss couldn’t stop telling me how great I was doing, I got promoted in less than a year, etc. It was exhausting and terrifying and also a little exhilarating. I pushed myself to start work earlier (boss was a morning person), learn new things, impress my clients. And ran myself into the ground.
    What helped me break the cycle was a conversation with my boss when she told me that my bad days are still better than other employees’ good days. In other words, I didn’t have to try nearly as hard as I thought to continue impressing everyone.
    When you have high standards for yourself AND rely on praise to get motivation, it can be really self defeating. Recalibrating is critical. Good luck, OP!

  97. You've got this*

    The school to work transition can be hard! The milestones are usually farther apart and usually less conspicuous, which can make it seem really difficult to assess how you’re doing. You are coming out of a world where there are definitive right and wrong answers to a world where things are generally not that clearly defined. You are coming out of a world where you are assessed and graded regularly, and advance to the next level/stage like clockwork each year; that work cadence for assessment and advancement is much slower and less routine. It’s going to take time to adjust, and it’s hard.

    I suggest you explore internal ways to recognize and celebrate a job well done without needing external validation. In particular, consider writing all your accomplishments in a document every week (which will also help when you get to performance review time) and consider breaking your work up into small milestones that you make a point to celebrate. (e.g. go grab a fancy coffee or a donut when you’ve accomplished [x]). Good luck!

    1. Emdash*

      This is a great comment—and in fact, I am getting such pearls of wisdom from this whole thread!

      I also keep a “done and done” list for when I cross off chores, errands, personal stuff, cleaning—and I make it specific. So, say, instead of “cleaned the bathroom,” I will write “scrubbed toilet”, “cleaned tile,” etc. It helps me and often gives me more momentum.

      Also I set individual goals for myself. Let’s say I have to give a presentation at work to a pretty big group and some higher-ups. Independent of praise or reception, I try to frame it as a chance for me to practice or work on skills I want to developed. This may include developing better slides/PowerPoint; projecting my voice more or making better eye contact with the room. And if I feel anxious about said presentation, I try to book end it: tell someone I trust (loved one or even a therapist) ahead of time that I have a big presentation and express what I am worried about AND how I have prepared. Helps me admit my nervousness and areas I need to improve on while also reframing it as an opportunity for me to learn and grow.

      I also find setting goals for myself helps in job interviews, when the outcome isn’t something I can control, but my performance is. As an added bonus, instead of fretting about it I got the job or not, I can assess my own performance and say “I didn’t use any filler words”, as an example.

  98. Former Gifted Kid*

    Former gifted kid as well. I went through a similar situation (ish. It sounds like my industry is lower stakes and doesn’t have nearly as many test/licensing requirments) where I felt like I constantly had to push harder and farther than everyone else. I wound up burning out to the point I’d get home from work and cry, even on days where things had gone well, and every little mistake I made (cause hey, we’re human) would cause me extreme terror telling my manager, even though she was nothing but a kind mentor. I wound up having to seek therapy out for that and other anxiety-related issues and one thing my therapist recommended is talking with my manager about my fears and issues. It took time and work in therapy before I felt safe enough to open up to my manager, but when I did, I discovered I was the only one pushing myself that hard. Everyone of course wanted to see me grown and learn, but they had much more realistic expectations for me to do so. After all, it does a company no good to burn out a star performer, and if that is what they want, there are far heathier work enviorments to be found.

  99. She of Many Hats*

    How to be a “superstar” for the long run: Have an attitude that you approach the day-to-day with a positive mindset, a willingness to do the dull parts as much as the fun parts, maintain an eagerness to learn as much as possible about your role and the areas your role impacts, help others or take on stretch projects as you can AND if it doesn’t lessen your ability to do your primary role, figure out your strengths and use them. It does NOT mean being the one to do it all all the time, or to never say “no” to every request, to focus on every area of the company except your own, etc.

  100. Twenty Points for the Copier*

    I can totally relate to a lot of this. School was very easy for me and it took me a few years to really launch in the work world because the lack of structure and clear achievement targets left me wondering what I should be doing. Others have given great advice already on learning to move on from this, but I also related to something else in the letter.

    Licensing exams just to get started, lots of early-career hires not all of whom can last, highly regulated field… This sounds a lot like my industry as well as others I’m fairly familiar with. Whether it’s law, finance, or something else in a lot of these fields the skills requires to be really great at the beginning are very different from the skills required to get to the top.

    While I’m not 100% sure the field you’re in is like that, it’s worth thinking about it that way to either give yourself broader goals and/or permission to be who you are. In a lot of these fields, technical skills, logical reasoning, test-taking, etc. are the big obstacles to get into the field. They’re the price of admission. If you’re really, really good at the price of admission you can get noticed for it, but ultimately what is going to get you to the highest levels is the ability to work with clients, build a network, and generate revenue.

    That is a VERY different skill, just like kinetic or artistic intelligence is different than book intelligence. Nobody is fantastic at everything. Sometimes I think that it’s helpful to focus on things where you will never be the best, whether you enjoy them or just to practice skill-building in an area that doesn’t come naturally.

  101. Library Lady*

    I too was a “gifted student” who made an early splash in my first job out of college. I also had the benefit of a supportive manager who was willing to advocate for me and give me higher-level projects, but I think what set me apart were a lot of the things you mentioned in your letter – not only an aptitude for the technical aspects of the job, but the ability to teach and mentor others, a willingness to take on higher level responsibilities, and a strong work ethic. I also learned how to learn from my mistakes, and because I was able to develop an in-depth knowledge of my organization and the larger profession, I was often called upon to provide feedback to higher level management. I think you have not only all the makings of a “superstar” but the beginnings of a track record that PROVE you’re a competent, trusted employee. You’re doing great!

  102. Invisible today*

    Read up on imposter syndrome.
    Also, don’t overcurrent and let the praise go to your head – the others you meet will still have things to teach and value to add. You’ll earn goodwill against any potential future errors (and look that much cooler) if you demonstrate that you see the value in others as well.

  103. Hannah Lee*

    LW, what a challenging situation to be in. It sounds your uncertainty is coming from several different directions: you’re new to the workforce and transitioning from a educational/training environment to an output based one, you’ve got a bit of imposter-syndrome going on where you know you’re an ace at student-ing but fear you can’t live up to actual working and your management/support system – while doing a great job at training – may be pulling your training wheels too soon (or at least making it seem like you’re all on your own now)

    The first two IMO are just going to take time and experience for you to build confidence in what you’re doing. And there is lots of great advice about overcoming imposter syndrome here already.

    But the last one you can work to address, both by reframing things and by working with your manager/mentors.

    Because the thing is, in well run organizations, very few employees operate as tightrope artists, out on the line by themselves having to figure everything out on their own. Even mid-level or senior people frequently check in with their peers, managers, co-workers, staff as they are working, developing ideas, completing tasks, etc. Sure, there’s a certain amount of “individual contributor” stuff that most people are doing, but those deliverables usually have people who are data sources, subject matter experts, and end users who it may make sense to check in with as things are being worked on. (I think of it as “checking in before I get too far out on thin ice by myself”

    One of the most shocking things to me as I was gaining experience was a manager who explained that the real “superstars” weren’t the employees who came up with great stuff all on their own and presented it “Surprise! Here’s this big idea I came up with, did all by myself because I’m a capable star” to a room full of decision makers. The real superstars were instead the people who when they were making the big presentation with the big idea weren’t surprising anyone … because they’d already been collaborating, getting support from, guidance from just about everyone in the room already. Sure they had done some groundwork, research, analysis on their own, put in the work, but then very quickly looped other people in “hey, this is what I’m seeing? What do you think of that? What does that mean to you and your team/clients? What about if we did this to move things forward/fix that issue/capture that opportunity… would that make sense? What would we have to watch out for? If it was tried before, why didn’t it work? Is there a way we could do it better?”

    My point is that while yes, you need to be good at your core job and cover your responsibilities, it will help you to realize you don’t have to carry it alone. And that the best performers rarely do. Reframe it for yourself to accept you’re not in it alone … and when you have a question, hit a roadblock, ambiguity, it’s okay to … even expected and desired … that you raise it to other people to bounce options off them, ask for guidance, etc, especially while you’re new. Your manager is a good place to start as you’re still getting your bearings and transitioning into work mode vs school mode (and if they are tossing you on your own with no support, you’ll want to ask again or quickly find others to fill that role and recognize it’s a failing on your manager’s part, not yours. It’s not a fatal manager flaw, and it’s very common to give fast learners a lot of rope …because it’s easier and they can usually manage, and managers are humans with limited bandwidth) But asking for help reminds people you’re new, you don’t know it all, plus it gives them a chance to give support to someone who is already proven they can do well … who doesn’t want to team up with strong performer? And bonus, some of the people you ask for guidance may start to bounce their questions off of you (yes, even when you’re a newbie) and you’ll begin to build a network of co-workers you know and eventually trust. “Mutually helpful to each other” is a really positive relationship-thing in a work environment.

    The caveat (and incorporating this into your approach will help you build confidence) is a) don’t ask the same person the same question twice, at least without some context, and b) have a proposed approach they can react to so it shows you’ve put some thought in instead of just immediately raising your hand every time you hit a stopper (ie, I know you’ve said it’s best to use wide toothed combs when grooming the big llamas, but I’ve just got assigned mini-alpacas, and I’m wondering if I should switch to the thinning brushes for them, because their coat is so dense… does that make sense?)


    “Not that it matters, but the surviving new hires are all male—I’m a woman.”

    Oh, I guarantee it matters. That may subconsciously be playing into your insecurity. (for like a gazillion reasons … too much to go into here)

  104. Jules the 3rd*

    Also gifted student, with a 3.9 GPA in my MBA program (one A-, arrggghhh) and an ‘exceeds expectations’ my first year in a real career-style job. My recommendation? THERAPY.

    You have to switch from being driven by external praise and markers to being driven by internal goals and satisfaction. What do you want, long-term, from your life? The hardest part is knowing what you want; once you figure that out, you can make plans to get it.

    One of the biggest steps in growing up was going from pleasing others to understanding what *I* wanted, what *I* liked. It involved putting my career into place relative to the rest of my life, understanding when I’d need to do extra at work and when I needed to pull back. For example, I’ve been asked about being a manager several times, but at my employer, it’s a time commitment and sacrifice I’m not willing to make.

    If you continue to be driven by external praise, you will find our time increasingly consumed by work and related projects (industry groups, etc). It may be that works for you long-term, but you need to make that choice deliberately, understanding the costs in non-career areas like friendships, romance, parenting, health (sitting all day). Therapy is a great way to be thoughtful about your choices.

  105. Anon for this*

    You were a “gifted child” and now you are a gifted adult. It can feel very weird. Been there

    My best advice, 20ish years later… remember that everyone deserves praise for their good things and everyone has places they can improve or grow. This includes you. Seek out people who understand that and are kind enough to tell you both. Also, feel free to ask questions. What is the area I have the most room to grow in? It’s a great question. I’ve got a great junior staff person, but they still have room to grow despite performing wonderfully

  106. On A Train*

    I totally bumped on the idea that a year is the benchmark for feeling comfortable at your job. I am a firm believer it’s not until your third year that things feel comfortable! Your first year, you are learning the job in real time. The second year you are really doing it for the first time with the training wheels off, so to speak, and the third year is when you start to feel like things are old hat. You mentioned that so much of the first year was testing and passing levels; it sounds like you weren’t fully out in the real world doing the job even! I think many of us feel terrified the first time we do something “for real” or on our own, especially when it all went so well in training. It can be hard when you feel like everyone expects you to be perfect based on testing, etc, but I guarantee the people above you made it to that level having made mistakes. Take deep breaths, give yourself some grace, and don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it :)

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      Talking to someone honestly is a good note too–at some point you can probably just say a very abbreviated version of this to your manager if you have some kind of check-in.

      Tell them you were thrilled to do so well in all the training and licensing and proud to get all the usual requirements done on a quicker timeline, but that now that those more objective tasks are all behind you you aren’t as sure what “success” looks like in your job. Ask what kinds of things they look for in good employees and what kind of benchmarks you can expect to be judged by in your annual reviews.

  107. Retired Superstar*

    Dear Superstar: They aren’t paying you to be the best XYZ ever – they are paying you to do your job competently. Unlike in school, there are limited rewards for doing your job extra well. Often the best llama groomer works twice as hard as the OK llama groomer, and gets the same salary or a tiny raise. If you want to volunteer to take on additional responsibilities or things that aren’t being done (with your manager’s blessing), particularly at this point in your career, that can be a good way to advance. But remember, your company is paying other people to do THEIR jobs competently as well, so even if you think you can do better, don’t take on other people’s responsibilities, and don’t do management’s job. Most workplaces will just keeping adding to your workload forever as long you keep doing it. The reward for good work is more work, and eventually you will be overloaded and burnt out because everybody expects you to do everything.

  108. Found Mantainence*

    From a (former) manager of people: be as consistent as life allows, ask questions (this is a BIG one for me, if you don’t know something, please ask rather than panic or make a mistake that needs to be fixed later), when you make a mistake (and you absolutely will), admit it, own it and learn from it. Occasionally, agree to do the dumb thing I need done.

    As someone who went to high-performing/intensive school for undergrad. The kind where even when you did well, you got notes for how to improve the next time (no one feel bad, I absolutely loved my school): You’re putting in 110% right now and that’s gonna lead to burn out, especially now that you don’t have summer/winter breaks to changes tasks and recoup.

    Based on what you said, you can probably outperform the majority of people with 60-70% of the effort. Your default baseline is probably higher than the average bear. The rest is there when you need it, but you shouldn’t need it everyday. I had a similar problem when I entered the workforce. Lucky for me, a lot of people from graduating class had the same thing so we figured it out early and dialed our efforts back to mantainence levels.

    Part of it is also managing people’s expectations of you and its okay to have some boundaries on that. Unless it’s normal for your industry, working lunch AND staying late is a lot to maintain, pick one (I was a lunch girl, generally) or neither. Also, since this a mental health questions to a degree, find some stuff you’d like to outside of work, if you haven’t already? They don’t have to be huge, but try (and fail) at some stuff. You’re just figuring out how to be an adult in the world and what it is *you* like. (Coffee shops on Saturday mornings? Video Games? Bike racing? Tattoos? Travel?). Your job should be supporting your hobbies, goals and interests, financially and time management-wise. Work isn’t everything.

  109. Peppermint Moksha*

    It sounds like you are getting the support you need if you love your job, love your coworkers, and love your boss! You sound blessed to be not running into the dysfunctional horror stories you see here.
    Find gratitude in all that first.
    Based on what you’ve written, you sound self aware and grounded, and there’s some kind of missing support that has you terrified.
    The challenge for you to now as an established contributor – there are 2 parts. First, stay humble and stay open to learning. Nurture all the relationships you are getting positive feedback on. Those relationships are a phone book for all the resources that you have all around you for bouncing something off of, and resources you can share with other people coming onboard. Mistakes may come up, but be honest, and take ownership if something comes up, and get feedback on what can be learned – but don’t underestimate the value of your feedback to your manager (“Managing up”) if you see problems in the process. A good manager will listen and take your feedback into consideration.
    The second part of this challenge is to create a boundary for yourself and your well being. Others have mentioned impostor syndrome and talking with a therapist may help with finding out what needs you have that are not being addressed. Take the time to know what you want (big picture) and how you get there and how your job can help. You have a vote in determining the path you want to take in moving forward.

  110. StateWorker*

    Fellow former “gifted” child here. The comments about imposter syndrome don’t quite cover this, in my experience. For me it’s less about feeling worthy/smart enough and more about not being able to be human because you are letting someone down.

    I think the thing that helped me the most was working to reframe the idea that it is a binary success vs. failure. You can fail at succeeding (like not giving credit to people who helped you) and succeed at failing (like using the information to move forward more productively) and the whole spectum therein. I think it’s also helpful to acknowledge that eventually you will let someone down, it’s inevitable for humans. You just have to have faith that people know you and you know yourself so you will get through.

    Also, as many others have said, therapy. Especially a therapist who has experience with perfectionism and get help you acknowledge how well you are doing now and build skills for inevitable failures. It’s important that they can help you through the inevitable “oh no, I tricked you too” when they say something positive that you haven’t internalized yet.

  111. Dragonfly7*

    LW, I’m in agreement with the other comments about imposter syndrome, making sure your identity is solely wrapped up in work, etc. Two other things I’m still working on:

    1. Learn to ask for and accept help. A lot of people internalize needing to do things independently, my “former gifted kid” self included, due to unrealistic expectations for self or from others, punishment, ridicule, or other bad experiences with not being able to get the help they need. Raise hell to get that help, if necessary (medical stuff, especially). A decent barometer for myself so far is, “Would I jump to help a friend with this? Yes? Then why am I not asking for help with it?”

    2. Learn to seek as well as gracefully receive and respond to criticism. It sounds like your manager is great at giving praise. Some aren’t great at the opposite, and other managers, like mine, don’t give much feedback of any sort.

    Both of these can help you learn/continue to see yourself as a normal person, perfectly capable of making and recovering from mistakes, and reinforce it to any other folks who forget that their employees/coworkers aren’t superhuman.

  112. Rae*

    It sounds like you have imposter syndrome. You’re crushing it, just relax and enjoy. You can take a load off because people already have a good impression of you. I was struggling with being unsure if I was or would be good at a new job and my sister said, “ you don’t realize how many incompetent people there are in the world. The fact that you care and answer your emails puts you a leg above most people,” and she was right. I’m crushing it just by being nice and responsive and reasonably smart and interested in learning. That’s all anyone wants in an employee.

    And stop staying late.

  113. Emdash*

    Firstly, congratulations on graduating, landing a job, entering a new position and doing great work. The transition from the classroom to the office is a big adjustment and new landscape to navigate.

    A lot of great suggestions from others that I echo—from self-care; reading Dweck’s “growth mindset; pacing yourself and taking a proactive stance by asking a work manager or colleague for mentorship, to name a few.

    In regards to your questions, a few points come to mind. For starters, you can be doing really great work consistently AND not always hear verbal or written praise. Unlike, say, in school, where you write a paper and get a grade with feedback and/or praise, in many work places you can be doing great and not receive a ton of verbal accolades. (This can be due to the company culture and/or manager style but I think it’s important to note that some people or places may be more effusive than others). Performance in work is measured differently than school by many metric is, as in think marathon v. sprints. Often performance in work (see annual performance review) is viewed more from a longer period of time or more macro lens, which underscores the emphasis on consistency and pacing.

    In regards to job expectations and excelling in a role,
    there is (generally speaking, more often than not) the work equivalent of a class syllabus. So there is a greater degree of managing changing deadlines, projects, personnel and expectations that may rely more on interpersonal skills such as communication (and adjusting to communication styles or preferences) than a traditional classroom.

    In regards to your questions, these would be my suggestions:

    1. “How can they prove that they really are that good at the job?”

    Every job and company has a lot of dynamics that come into play. But by and large, I think—as you already have demonstrated a lot. Continue being eager to learn; willing to work hard*; being proactive (if you see a need or area that needs improvement, taking appropriate initiative to address it); thinking of how your skills and work help your supervisor and the organization (and make them look good and/or make their own jobs easier); and being polite, professional, on time will take you far.

    If you are feeling unclear, set up an uninterrupted time with your supervisor to talk. Your eagerness to learn, succeed and grow are attributes they obviously have recognized and want to continue to harness. You can directly ask him or her about short, mid and long term expectations of the role; organization’s goals and how your skills can best aid them in the latter. Frame the questions as more of how you can help them.

    2. “And conversely, what behaviors indicate that they’re going to crash and burn and squander all the goodwill they built up?”

    *I mentioned working hard. This needs some parsing out. By that I mean working efficiently and smartly but not driving yourself to the point of burn out. Make sure you are taking care of your physical and mental health. Not every work week can be akin to the weeks leading up to college exams finals.

    Please note that workers are humans and none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes and this happens in the office too. Just because one makes an occasional error or mistake does not mean they will “crash and burn” or “squander good will.” If or when you make an error, take immediate steps to rectify it, mitigate any damage and double-down on making sure it won’t happen again. Reasonable managers know mistakes happen (and make them themselves).

    Perhaps you can also think back to a time when you maybe made an error in school—how did you handle it, learn from it, process it and move forward. So sort of preplanning on if or when this happens, in particular to your own sense of self-worth/confidence and esteem, to not let a setback or error derail you from all the other great work you have done.

    3. “More broadly, how does one transition from the first stage of their life, where achievement is all about passing tests/getting grades—essentially, one big expenditure of effort, then it’s over and you’re done—into a job, which seems to require fewer splashy big achievements and more constant, low-level maintenance and consistency in order to be considered successful?”

    I think this question speaks to intrinsic motivation (v external). In addition to performing/excelling in said role, what motivates you and helps you stay driven? In taking the long view and gauging your skills and interests, what skills can you further cultivate or learn that can help you in the present and down the road? Praise (and paychecks) aside, can you brainstorm personal attributes you already have in spades (from your letter, I infer you are clearly curious and love to learn) that you can apply to your job and goals. And by goals and learning, they can be more long-term as an “I want to become a Python expert” or “I really want to develop an approachable management style.” In other words, in looking at your current job and what field/role/work you want to do, what goals can you set for yourself that meet those—independent or interdependent of external praise? What steps can you take so you feel you personally are learning, growing, doing good work, feeling as though you personally are succeeding?

    In my long and varied career, success can be subjective and my own definition of it changes. But I think focusing on your own goals and values and doing self-inventory now and then can go far regardless of job title or status.

    I hope this helps!

  114. Beth*

    Sometimes being a superstar in others’ eyes can mean just consistently doing basic things. As a project manager, I get plenty of compliments about things like taking/publishing notes, following up on action items, etc. that to me are the most basic and not intellectually challenging part of my job yet it’s something other people value. Being conscientious, organizes and responsive can go a long way with people. Don’t sell yourself short!

  115. LR*

    A successful job performance is one in which the job doesn’t eat the rest of your life, and doesn’t hang over your head when you’re not doing it like a late-capitalist sword of damocles. It is not at all the same as a successful school performance, artistic/athletic performance etc, and assigning work a similar narrative as these other things does a real disservice, especially to smart folks with high ambitions who aren’t able to actualize them right out of college (speaking from experience).

    I felt catastrophically bad that i couldn’t will my chosen job into being (right after the ’08 crisis) and told myself it was my fault as a way to deal with the inchoate-ness of it all. In reality, it was just a bad economy and i needed to make a living wage, so the independent film sector was not a good place to be with student loan debt. A few years down the road, i’m working exactly where i wanted to originally – and if you’d told me 7 years ago, when i was at rock bottom, that all this was in my future i 100% wouldn’t have believed you. Because i thought everything was a meritocracy, and a story, and my inability to make the world how i wanted it meant only that i had failed, and that my narrative was doomed from the start. not just that i had failed; that i was a failure.

    Turns out, this is a narrative i inherited from a family rife with alcoholism (surprise!), and with some therapy and some time and sobriety, i’ve been able to unravel it much of the way. The narrative wasn’t reality; reality was itself, and i could choose how i wrapped my own narrative around it. You can, too.

    Also turns out, the longer you live and the more experiences you have, the broader your perspective will be, and the less weight you’ll put on things — like your first job out of college — that don’t really deserve it.

    Go forth! Worry less! None of this will matter in 15 years, and that will feel great. trust me.

  116. OrigCassandra*

    Hi, OP. Also a former gifted kid. Lots of great ideas above that I won’t rehash — instead, here’s one thing I haven’t yet seen mentioned.

    I actually disagree with a fair few commenters above that all the pressure you’re putting on yourself is internal. It may not be! You may have parental figures, mentors, professors, and other important older (than you, not necessarily old-old) figures in your life either actively pressuring you still… or living rent-free in your head. If you don’t, that’s great! but if you do, that’s something to work out how to deal with.

    Sources of active pressure may need to be put on information diets, gray-rocked, or otherwise backed away from. Anyone living rent-free in your head needs to be evicted; therapy can help with this, but you may also be able to learn on your own to notice and interrupt the thought patterns until they lose power over you.

    Good luck. I think you got this, I really do.

  117. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I had a few thoughts cross my mind.

    1) Praise starvation. I made up the expression. I worked in a harsh place. Praise almost never happened. I was told that if no one was yelling at me then I was doing a good job. I had to think about this one. Why do I need praise???
    Really think about this, OP. I asked myself why does any praise I receive have to be EXTERNAL? Why don’t I just praise myself from time to time? [Insert long answer here.]
    I went on to think about how do I feel rewarded at work? Well, I need a sense of accomplishment. OP do you allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment or are you working through an endless check list with no gratification in sight? (Your letter reads like a checklist, tbh.) Truth be told I have been praised/thanked for things that were something close to nothing. And other times I put out a huge effort only to hear silence. We don’t get to chose the timing on when others praise us. With this in mind, we have to congratulate ourselves from time to time.
    Now is a good time to figure out what you will do when you hit a dry spell with little or no praise. This comes up often enough on the job that it’s worth working through. Congratulate yourself and/or give yourself little treats for your own accomplishments at work. The best idea is to set life goals and work on them. Seeing ourselves move ahead on our goals in life can be the biggest reward.

    2) Watch out for dangling carrots. I am kind of looking at this employer of yours cynically. Because I have seen employers use this technique to burn people right out. When you get to be a superstar, REALLY? You already are. To me this sounds like they just want to get more work out of a workhorse. They have figured out a way to bilk you for more effort. You have jumped their hoops and they are saying that you will be a superstar? wth. Employers have so many ways of extracting more and more work from people it blows my mind. So you’re not quite there yet. but if you work harder then you will be? BS.
    If this line of thinking resonates with you then your next step might be to talk to the boss about how to advance with the company. You do not say, “how can I be a superstar?” you say, “what do you see as a career path for me with this company”. Watch that answer very, very closely. Depending on the answer you may decide to move on from this place.

    I set two groups of goals. Work goals and life goals. If one felt like it was stagnating for a bit, I turned and looked at the other group for a bit.
    The other thing I believe is that there are two different approaches to work. In the business world, there are managers who launch new business and there are managers who maintain established businesses. It’s two different mindsets. Just my opinion, but launching can be very energizing and maintaining can be very tiring. It takes different strengths to launch vs maintain. Drilling this down to the individual level, starting a new job can be very energizing and we can go from thing to thing and be super achievers. What happens 6 years out, or 8 years out when the job is no longer fresh, no longer exciting, then WHAT do we do?

    For me self care became super important. And that was because as the years went by I had to get more sophisticated in my approach to the job. I had to think deeper and broader. I needed rest and healthy foods to sustain this approach. I also had to think about the company I was working for and did I believe my efforts mattered at all, not just for the company but in the greater scheme of life. Checking off the boxes on a checklist became less and less important to me and it became more important to believe my work actually meant something.

    I think you have all your eggs in one basket. You can add more baskets (volunteer work, hobbies) and/or you can find a bigger basket (a different position possibly in a different company). This may not be totally about praise and it might be about an internal voice saying you need to set some long term goals, it’s time.

  118. The Peach*

    Just chiming in that a friend of mine who got a post-law-school clerkship at the Supreme Court (several years ago, now), said that every year, at least one of the incoming clerks would have serious problems with this very adjustment. Everyone who gets one of those clerkships has made Dean’s List/summa cum laude/law review/etc., scoring high on test after test–which meant that, inevitably, some people’s entire psychological framework was based on climbing the rungs of a ladder that no longer existed (or, rather, becomes much more multidirectional, long-term, etc.) She said the justices fully expected that, at least once per court term, one of their clerks was going to have this kind of existential crisis; while most managed to adjust, some actually couldn’t, and every once in a great while, one would flame out spectacularly. (My friend witnessed one of these, where one of the clerks, staying late, somehow managed to get into Sandra Day O’Connor’s office–despite not being her clerk–and lived in there for the weekend for reasons unknown, meaning when O’Connor came back to work, she found a lot of candy-bar wrappers and a couple of dirty T-shirts and socks strewn about. Apparently she was fairly understanding about it, all things considered, but the clerk was phased out early by mutual agreement.)

    The point of my anecdote: Congratulations on recognizing this, OP, and kudos for getting out in front of it right from the start. Many, many very successful students find this adjustment difficult, but have failed to recognize it as early as you have.

  119. Allonge*

    LW – keep working of course, but please let yourself have a bit more of a life. You can afford it, really, and you are young enough to learn how to.

    Frankly, it sounds like you spent your entire childhood and school years and now the work-life start measuring up up up up. You don’t need to be a superstar every minute. Really.

    I promise there are better things out there. Read books that make you angry, go to a movie or make one, talk to people, learn to swim if you don’t know how to and have the opportunity, feed a dog, plant a tree, adopt a park bench, travel or whatever – work on things that are never done. Try to take care of a small child for an hour or so if you have access to one! Learn about the world and yourself by doing things not by the school / test method.

    Your identity will take care of itself. Or a therapist can help. You are smart as hell. You will figure it out.

  120. MCMonkeyBean*

    Oh goodness, OP I totally understand why you are worried about keeping this up but you are majorly “borrowing trouble” by worrying about this already!

    Honestly my main piece of advice would be NOT to try so hard to be a superstar. If you are already skipping lunch and staying late and then you feel that the amount you get done by doing that is the minimum you have to keep up to keep your reputation, this sounds like a recipe to end up burning out quickly.

    It sounds like you know what you are doing, you are willing to put in the work and take on whatever they ask of you–and really that’s all they need! You don’t need to be anything more than that. Spend some time figuring out a balance that works for you, where you feel like you are getting *enough* done at work but still taking time for yourself outside of work! Don’t let the job become your life because you feel like you have to live up to that 100% score you got one time.

    Coming from some one who was also given a high rating in her first year and was told they almost never do that but I had so exceeded what they expect from new hires… and then I never hit that score again. At my company I learned that the scores are done on a curve and they are only allowed to give out so many 4 ratings each year, so I was basically told once “this was your best year ever, but it was also several other people’s best years ever so you get another 3.” I decided after that not to care about those scores any more as long as I feel good about what I am contributing. I set more boundaries (I’m one of two people on my team who have refused to put the MS Teams app on our phones) and it has been very freeing–and I still receive plenty of good feedback! My boss tells me she is grateful for me all the time and I feel very secure in my place at the company. I’m not a superstar, but I’m still valued *and* I get to have time to live life outside of work.

  121. Emdash*

    A piece of advice that helps me is to remember that personal best changes depending on the day, context and circumstance.

    So if you say, have a minor cold for a few days, you may not be operating at your peak level—because you understandably are not physically feeling your best. This doesn’t mean you are failing or flailing. Or if are doing something you have never done or learned before (say when you first learned chemistry), there is a bit of a learning curve. Learning doesn’t mean getting it perfect out of the gate—in fact, making mistakes are part of the process. And if one does make mistakes or doesn’t grasp something instantaneously, that isn’t a reflection on their intelligence, capabilities or work ethic.

    Any pressure to perform at a rock-star level day in and day out—whether that is coming from oneself, parents/family/culture, a supervisor, another entity or another combination—is an expectation that isn’t reasonable or sustainable for the long-haul. So please be sure to give yourself credit for all you have accomplished and are doing apart from external praise and regardless of it being A+ work in your mind or someone else’s.

    I also really want to encourage you to developing an awareness around decoupling self-worth from the pressure of having to be a rock-star day in and out as well as realizing that your job and job title is one part of your multifaceted identity.

    If I may offer a cautionary tale: I used to eat lunch at my desk; work really late; got external praise and promotions for years and when the Great Recession hit, my company and field laid off tons of workers, including myself. This really derailed my sense of identity and I internalized that experience to an unhealthy degree. I also am a recovering perfectionist.

    What helped me (and still does) for peace of mind and self-worth are developing hobbies that I do for enjoyment. Period. I love to paint and draw. I don’t care if someone thinks my drawing looks like a drunk monkey made it with its feet—I do it for fun. (Also I don’t show it to people). Painting has been a great way for me to try and let go of my inner critic, need for external validation or need to do something “productive.” Am I going to attempt to sell them on Etsy? No. Do I think I am “good” at painting? The latter question I deem irrelevant because I am doing it for fun.

    Wanting to learn, grow and succeed in a new job and in your career is great—and I am also sure there are many other parts to your identity that are also great. (Perhaps you make insanely delicious cookies or can do a funny impersonation or a celebrity.)

    The painting hubby idea was suggested by a former therapist: to do something you enjoy for fun; unrelated to work and not to master it or put it on my resume. It also has humbled me—learning to paint—while also simultaneously building my self-esteem.

    At the end of the day, think “I am a human being” v
    “I am a human doing.”

  122. Chilipepper Attitude*

    This might be hard to believe, but
    1. Just showing up and doing the job is 95% of it. You are showing up and doing a great job, that makes you a rockstar. Just keep doing what you are doing. Truly!
    2. And what feels like probably 75% effort (or less) to you LOOKS like 110% effort to everyone else. It’s a bit like the frog in hot water metaphor. You cannot feel it because doing a great job just feels like breathing to you, but to everyone else, it would feel like breathing at high altitude.
    3. Work and life are like school in that there are always opportunities to learn new things if you see them and go for them. And a big part of school success is being organized and being able to see how to organize or chunk information into manageable sections (when training others, learning new things yourself, general functioning at work, or presenting to others). What you describe yourself doing is just that! Keep doing it!
    4. Experience is a part of this too. You are still so new, you cannot see the forest for the trees in terms of your own performance or how you will move forward. Give it some time and you will, I am sure!
    5. I got a lot of praise when I was young and both enjoyed it and pushed back – it can be overwhelming and it focuses you on external rewards. External rewards like raises and awards and praise from others are great. But you also need to find your internal motivation for work and life and everything. See if you can focus on that so you know you feel balanced.

    In the meantime, enjoy the success and praise! It sounds truly well-earned and despite your fears, you will move forward successfully!

  123. OP/LW*


    Hi y’all! I am the OP/LW. First I just want to sincerely thank everyone for their thoughtful responses. This community is outstanding and it’s so refreshing and wonderful that people will put so much time and energy into helping a stranger on the Internet. I fully intend to respond to all of the comments I can (because I am me), but wasn’t able to get to them until just now (because, work). I actually left early today (GASP) for a hair appointment, which felt a little bit like I was committing a crime, not gonna lie. There are a few things I wanted to clear up or expand on, though it’s a bit late now, so here goes:
    The former gifted child thing sure struck a nerve! My story is a little more complicated than most though. I think a lot of people assumed I’m afraid of failure because I have no experience with it…quite the opposite! I will disclose here that I have a merry band of diagnoses: bipolar disorder (predominantly depressive), reeeeally bad ADHD, general and social anxiety disorders, and some elements of OCD. All of these are currently being very effectively managed with medication. And those of you suggesting or outright demanding that I get therapy: you are correct! I have been thoroughly therapized since I was 12, with a variety of different specialists, and one of the things I am consistently working towards is a healthier relationship with my internal sense of self, rather than relying on external feedback. Clearly still have work to do, but rest assured I am working on it.
    Anyway, pursuant to the above, I’m older than I think my graduation year suggests; I will be 30 next month! I really struggled in college, and it took me 10 years to finish my BA. This also isn’t my first job, I used to be a graphic designer/customer service rep for a tiny and deeply dysfunctional family company. I was not great at it, mostly for mental health reasons, and I was “let go” (bet ya didn’t see that coming!).
    THE LUNCH THING. I sacrificed clarity for brevity on that point, my bad. Okay, so, my job is extremely fast-paced and client-facing. A lot of days are just putting out one fire after another and moving from urgent thing to urgent thing; there are cutoffs and deadlines and large amounts of money are involved. My team has two (exemplary, patient, wonderful) senior members who also eat at their desks. We work on basically a big campus with a cafeteria/coffee shop in the middle, so when I say I eat lunch at my desk, I walk down to the caf to get it and bring it back and snack on it while working. I’m not tethered to my desk all day, don’t worry! And it’s a very common practice for people at all levels of my job. On my two WFH days, I do often take a full hour lunch, usually a half hour nap and then half hour of walking or reading or yoga, since all my fun stuff is available in a way it’s not in the office…but I hear you all. Definitely going to try to make my lunch break more of a break, even if it’s just browsing AAM on my phone while I eat. Hopefully that helps clear it up!
    Last thing, and I’ll address it more individually, but suffice it to say, like many an ADHD gifted kid, I have creative hobbies coming out of my ears. I act, write, draw, craft, bake, and so forth. I have a supportive and devastatingly attractive partner of 10 years with whom I spend a lot of time, a diverse and delightfully weird friend group, and a stunning and very demanding small cat. She is perfect and I cuddle with her often. So I’m not lacking for non-work things to occupy my attention! Just, you know. Obsessive tendencies.
    Thank you all again! I’m going to try to address some specifics now…stay tuned, if you’re interested.

    1. allathian*

      Thanks for clarifying!

      I’m glad to hear that you’re in therapy. You’re already privileged compared to many people in that you’ve had access to therapy since you were a child. The fact that you’ve been able to perform consistently excellently even while dealing with severe mental health challenges is amazing, and I hope that you can give yourself plenty of kudos for that.

      It’s also a rellief to hear that you have a life outside of work, and it sounds like you’re enjoying it, not just performing it.

  124. LMB*

    It’s a big transition for everyone, especially people who were really good at academics and always on that track. The good news is it sounds like your job is very organized and well managed with clear tasks and goals and operational processes. I wish I had had that experience earlier in my career rather than the highly wishy washy world of consulting (at least as it was 20 years ago). It takes a while, but you WILL eventually learn to let this stuff go. Work is not school. Success looks very different at work than it does at school. Women who are academically successful tend to focus on conscientiousness as their core value because you have been trained to since birth. This IS important the earlier you are in your career and/or for the first year or so after starting a new job. However, as you go you will hopefully feel more and more confident in your ability to do your job while putting in fewer hours and stressing less. It will also be valued less as you move through your career. You will see people succeed who don’t work as hard or make mistakes or who frankly seem incompetent and you will wonder how on earth they are doing so well. Work is not as fair as school in this respect. The most important thing you have to do is remove the “personal” from work. Work is work. Focus on what you need to do to complete a task and achieve the desired outcome. It’s not about how smart or how talented or even how conscientious you are—in fact none of it is about you at all. If you make a mistake it’s just a mistake—it does not mean you are incompetent or stupid or a bad person and very rarely will a mistake be so big it can’t be fixed (and there are hopefully other people you can ask for help or who will serve as checks and balances in your processes so everything is not riding on you alone). In fact the way you react to and handle mistakes will say more about your leadership abilities than never making mistakes. Learning from others, leaning on others (appropriately), and developing the confidence not to have to work insane hours on everything are also going to lead to success. The more you internalize praise and criticism and the more stock you put into it the worse you will do. Again, it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you achieve. It’s really important to let go of relying on feedback from others define you.

  125. El l*

    The short answer to your question is, “Your goals will change.” They naturally will.

    The long answer: Because impressing people is temporary. What you want is to build working relationships based on trust. That is much harder, and much longer lasting. In the working world and in my experience, that means doing as a habit: Show up to meetings. Anticipate questions. Do favors without an explicit quid-pro-quo. Keep promises.

    That’s the first mindset change I’d recommend for you: Focus on building those habits, rather than the training montage or final performance.

    Next, If you’re doing anything worth doing, there will be struggles. The good is rarely easy. Things will happen that will be your fault. Things will happen to you that aren’t your fault. Things will happen that will take forever. You have to develop some way to not take this all personally. What’s worked best for me is the mantra of an old Winston Churchill quote, which if I remember right is, “Any mistake can be forgiven, so long as you are generous, true, and also fierce.” Helps you to not sweat the mistakes so much.

    And that’s your final mindset change: Stop caring about the rockstar label. The longer you’re out in the world, the more you’ll see that the world is full of former rockstars. Perhaps they got into situations they could no longer deal with (e.g.: The Peter Principle). Perhaps they were made weak by time and fate. Whatever the case, view them with sympathy.

  126. LMB*

    Also there is term for people like you (and like I was after college/grad school): insecure overachievers. Certain industries (ahem consulting again) specifically look for recent grads who fit this description, and not for good reasons. They know they can manipulate you easily because so much of your self worth is wrapped up in being the “A student.” They know insecure overachievers (who again, tend to be women) will put in whatever it takes to get praise from senior managers (mostly men) while also lacking the confidence they would need to be a threat. I’m not saying this is at all what is happening at your company or in your industry but once you understand this dynamic you can understand why it’s important to make sure you don’t fall too far into it.

  127. Oblique Fed*

    You’ve gotten a lot of great advice here!

    You are right that being a top performer at work and in school are very different. School is about your individual achievements and has a lot of very limited “this is your only chance at this” milestones (tests, etc.) Work is much more about what you do as a team, and about things that you will do over and over.

    As a manager, here are the kinds of traits that would make me consider someone in the 2nd or 3rd year of working a “superstar.”

    1) Proactive and appropriate communication. They aren’t pinging me a million times a day, but when I need to know something, they make sure I know it as soon as they do. They don’t let me get blindsided by something they knew about. They monitor their own workload and let me know if it starts to get out of balance. They keep me updated on the status of their projects. (“The meeting for Project A got rescheduled to next week. Would it be okay to move my internal presentation on Project B to the 16th so that I can finish up my presentation?”)
    2) Appropriate initiative. They don’t require excessive amounts of handholding but they also don’t charge ahead and do something ill-advised because it seemed like a good idea. (“I made myself a checklist for doing this task. Would you like me to put it in the template we use for our job aids so we can add it to the toolkit?”)
    3) Reliability. If I give them something to do, I can trust that they will either do it OR they will tell me as soon as it becomes apparent that they aren’t going to be able to do it. Hint for all of us gifted-child-perfectionists out there: I think much more highly of someone who realizes they are in over their head and tells me in time for me to make other arrangements than someone who silently flails and then turns in less than great work.
    4) Thoughtfulness. They show evidence that they think about their work beyond their immediate tasks. When they bring up a problem, they have thought of a few potential solutions. When they suggest something, they have a rationale. When they aren’t sure, they ask questions.
    5) High quality of work. Note that I don’t say perfection – but high quality. They pay attention and follow instructions; they use provided job aids; they check their work as appropriate. If they know that they struggle with a certain type of work, they use strategies to help mitigate that. They are timely in completing their tasks; they work with me to set realistic deadlines that they meet the majority of the time (and when they can’t, they let me know in time to make other arrangements.)
    6) Ability to take correction/feedback. When they DO make a mistake, I don’t have to worry that any feedback I give them will result in some kind of emotional scene that I will then have to deal with; they listen, ask questions if needed to make sure they understand, and then they show in the future that they are applying what they learned.
    7) Synthesis – They pay attention to things they learn in one context and apply it in others. They understand the big picture or at least are working towards doing so.

    None of these probably seem all that glamorous or important – they aren’t things you can get a perfect score on in the same way you can a test – but they are a lot harder to find than you realize. The higher up the management ladder you go, the more things you are trying to deal with. Any employee who takes things OFF your plate instead of putting more things ON is a gift.

  128. Another 2020 grad*

    Another shout out for solidarity with LW! I’m in what’s been described as a “mid-career” manager role despite being a 2020 grad with no prior full-time work experience or related degree, and I totally understand the fear of failing to live up to expectations. I think this fear is getting a bit better because I’ve made some mistakes and learned from them, and didn’t seem to lose any standing with my coworkers. I’m planning to seek therapy to deal with some of my perfectionism/overachiever issues, and I hope LW considers this if it feels like it could be helpful. One thing that has definitely helped with dealing with the pressure of work is to remember that I’m so much more than my job. Even if I have a sucky day at work and make mistakes or don’t work as much or as hard as I feel like I should, that doesn’t define me as a person. At the end of the day, my job is something I do for a paycheck and while I’m passionate about my work and do my best to be a good employee, there’s so much more in life that it’s just not worth letting stress from work take up that extra headspace. Spending my spare time doing the things that I enjoy and learning new skills unrelated to work help me put work pressures into perspective and have a fuller sense of self where my job is just a fraction of my identity and self-worth instead of the whole pie.

  129. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

    Imposter syndrome seems to be the name of the problem here.

    You have proven yourself and can settle down and do your job.

    What you have done is not evaporating, you’ve made it. And maintaining it seems very achievable, do your job well, be friendly with others and don’t sweat it. You don’t have to keep improving at the same rate, once you hit the top you can’t improve further, you can only maintain your work level and maintain relationships.

    In fact some people are not superstars but are great networkers so have a reputation for excellence in qualifications becasue they are social and well liked and not because they have superstar qualifications.

    So just keep things at this level and your good to go. You don’t need to prove yourself or keep levelling up further, there comes a point where you can’t level up further and can only keep moving forward on the work your employer gives you to complete. You have to transition from moving up to keeping it stable and getting your assigned work done.

    And consider some counselling for the imposter syndrome.

  130. Cynical Tech Crone*

    As a senior woman in a male dominated technical field a couple decades into my career, here are some thoughts that might help.

    The intensity of effort you describe sounds like a recipe for burnout – it probably depends on the industry but it’s usually better to take your lunch breaks and not do too much overtime. Some of the top notch remarkably good people I’ve worked with have been the most serious about holding strong work-life boundaries. If you excel at the work that matters it won’t be a problem if you do the normal amount of hours for your field/employer (I say normal for your field because I know some industries just expect huge amounts of overtime, especially from juniors). In fact usually when I’ve seen (mostly female) employees work all the hours there are they just get taken for granted, not rewarded.

    The way to maintain this balance is to do less. Horrifying idea I know, but I bet your male coworkers aren’t going to the same lengths as you. Because of sexism you probably still need to be more conscientious than them (sorry) – but look at what people around you do and don’t prioritise. The trick is to identify the things that are actually important for career advancement and prioritise those over other stuff. Keep in mind that often a high volume of “good enough” work beats a low volume of perfect work. It’s going to be a judgement call for you about which things actually matter. It’s easy to sabotage yourself trying to be perfect and waste a lot of time on details that don’t matter to anyone else.

    Which brings me to the really shitty thing. A lot of stuff junior women do to add value where they work isn’t valued by the people making promotion decisions. I used to do a lot of training and mentoring stuff for more junior staff and sadly it was only when I dropped it and focused on technical skills and visible project work that I was promoted. The same goes for a lot of D&I work (which it sounds like you’re already involved in with the LGBTQ+ stuff) – this work is generally highly undervalued, especially when women do it. Look up “glue work” by Tanya Reilly and read some of the articles/blog posts about it.

    At more senior levels again this mentoring etc can be recognised, and eventually is expected, but for junior women it’s a trap. I’m not saying don’t ever help anyone or don’t ever work for D&I efforts! It’s good and in fact ethical to do those things. Just manage your time doing those things carefully and make sure you’re focusing most of your time and energy on whatever the core achieveables are for your role. Also a lot of companies say they value this stuff but actually don’t – spending a lot of time, energy and social capital on it only to discover it can all be undone in an instant by a bad senior manager is extremely disheartening. Again this is work that needs to be done, but it’s OK to share it with other people, and leave some of it for more senior staff. If you notice that senior women or PoC in your field never touch D&I work or mention it that’s a clue about how hard it might be – I’m not saying don’t, because if no one does the work it never gets better, but at least use that information to adjust your expectations.

    Anyway, I guess my TL:DR here is to be a top employee (especially while junior) actually means being very tactical with your efforts. It means picking a couple high value things and pouring your energy into those, rather than trying to do everything and burning out.

    Also, keep in mind that being a top employee might not be the best way to spend your limited years on this earth and that it’s actually fine to be an averagely competent employee with a thriving social life and hobbies you enjoy.

  131. LetMeWrite!*

    Been there! I was the bright new employee at my first three jobs out of college. Lots of kudos and appreciation. Now I’ve been with my third job for 10 years, and it’s just an unspoken expectation that I’ll do good work…usually with no thanks. I work to stay internally motivated, and accept that I’ve reached a new level/plateau common for mid-career. I’d say keep learning and build your reputation and confidence. Work is work, and at some point, personal satisfaction is more important than external praise.

  132. LittleMarshmallow*

    I would say… try to tone down the competitiveness. You should still strive to do your best and such, but you don’t need to be the “best [job title] that ever existed”. I worry you will miss out on opportunities to learn by trying to be better than everyone else. No one is the best at everything. Learn from others. Ask question about the actual work. I have no idea what field you’re in, but in my field… academics only teaches you so much about the job. I’ve seen some straight A, 100% on tests type of employees that had zero practical real job skills. But unfortunately they had a very arrogant attitude because of their “test scores”, so they refuse to learn from others and then inevitably fail. Don’t do that if you want to be a superstar employee. After about 6 months to a year, literally no one will give a crap how you did in school or training. Always be learning from others and focus on learning to do your actual job not just updating training materials (caveat that I do think that good training materials are important so I’m not saying don’t do that… but don’t spend all your time doing that) and riding out the glory of doing well on tests.

    Maybe this isn’t the answer you wanted but one last thing. A little fear is good. Keeps you humble, but don’t let it paralyze you. Learn what “fireable mistakes might be” and slow down and pay a little more attention when doing those things (and get some collaboration going if your job allows for it – again learning from others), but don’t not do them because you’re afraid you’ll do it wrong.

    Also, watch your surroundings. Pay attention to how others interact. Figure out who else is viewed as a superstar (usually there’s not only 1 especially on larger teams) both from managers and from more equal levels and note what behaviors gained them that respect and strive towards that.

  133. RedFraggle*


    I see what you’re going through in myself, and in my children (who are only slightly younger than you, my oldest is a 2020 high school grad).

    When you’re capable of doing excellent work with what feels like not much effort, and you’re getting praised to this extreme for it, it feels like you’re not really deserving of the praise. Internally, it starts to feel like you need to do work that *you* would praise to this level.

    Yes, this is the “former gifted child” effect.

    I don’t know that I have advice to give you as far as how to make that switch – I still have difficulty recognizing that what I do is out of the ordinary, because I feel like the work I produce is what everyone should be producing.

    I can, however, give you some warning.

    1. Don’t expect everyone around you to produce at your level. You’ll end up either incredibly frustrated, incredibly critical of others, or both. Try to remind yourself that your normal is everyone else’s superior. Also, don’t let that go to your head.

    2. Don’t let yourself become the person everyone asks to do things, because you can do them faster / better / more efficiently / whatever than everyone else. Limit yourself to what you can reasonably put on your plate, and maintain a good work / life balance.

  134. LilyP*

    As another former gifted kid and current high performer, one thing that took me a few years to really realize is that there are some skills/traits/habits that I take for granted in myself that are actually FAR from universal. There’s probably stuff that is completely second nature to you — understanding a concept the first time it’s explained, taking good notes and referring to them later, thinking through the consequences of an idea and asking thoughtful questions, creating a schedule for yourself to make sure you finish work on time, volunteering to help a colleague, writing clearly and concisely — that you will be shocked to discover how many people just can’t or don’t do well in their day to day work. Give yourself credit for the many “basic” “obvious” things you’re clearly excelling at!

  135. nnn*

    Being successful early career is not just on you, it’s also on your team and your management and your employer’s structures to set you up for success.

    The way to avoid making a big, fireable mistake, the way to prove you’re good at the job, the way to avoid crashing and burning and squandering all the goodwill you’ve built up is to ask questions when you have them, ask for help when you need them, listen to and incorporate what other people tell you, and just keep doing the work and learning and developing. The disasters tend to happen when someone is in over their heads and embarrassed to ask for help, so just make sure you ask when you need it.

    As you’ve already recognized, this phase calls more more maintenance and consistency, and that’s okay! Sometimes all you have to do to be a superstar is meet your deadlines and answer your emails.

    A current fictional character to look at is Uhura on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. This is the same Uhura we know and love from TOS, but this series is set earlier, so she’s a cadet who’s serving on a starship because she’s a linguistics prodigy.

    Sometimes she gets to save the day with her linguistics genius! Sometimes she’s frightened and intimidated by being in a situation where the day needs saving, and needs support from her superiors! Sometimes she doesn’t know how things work and needs to be told! Sometimes she doesn’t know the etiquette of a situation and makes a faux pas! And sometimes all she gets to that day is say “Hailing frequencies open.”

    And over the course of the show, we see how all this adds up to a successful career.

  136. RinaL*

    I am not the classic gifted child (school was more of a burden for me because I hated most of it), but when looking back at my life, I am the classical „How could you possible manage ALL that“ type of person. ;) Highly functional perfectionist, coming from a familiy, where even a noble prize would be frowned upon because a) too late in life (I am not longer 25, which is apparently the agreed age limit to be proud of that achievement) and b) in the wrong field (who wants to have a noble price in biotechnology/biology/medicine anyways -those are easy fields..)

    So yes, I feel your pain! All I can say is that it gets easier over the years, IF you put the work in and try to change your mindset. One task, that my therapist suggested, is try to picture yourself at the age of 80, sitting somewhere nice and reflect back on your life. What are the things, that you are THEN really proud of? That you aced test X? That you have worked so hard, when everbody else was on lunchbreak? Probably not.. ;)

    Try to identify, whats really important for YOU. I truly get it, external validation is addictive, especially if you struggle to give yourself internal praise. BUT, if you are always striving for external validation, you will probably end up really disappointed. Not even the best boss in the world will praise you once a week for the next 30ish years.

    I also second the idea to find a hobby where you can‘t be perfect. It is refreshing to know from the start, that the outcome won‘t win a prize, and it makes doing it so much more fun. Personally, I will forge a sword in summer. I am pretty sure I will fail spectacularly, because I am lacking skill AND strenght, but guess what – I will just forge a smaller sword than the rest of the group and be extremely proud in the end for powering through and taking SOMETHING with me home!

    Additionally, find some friends, that like you for who you are and not for the things, that you can bring (workwise) to the table. It was a strange concept for me at the start (I am used to being liked for things that I do and not just because I exist), but it will get better over time. And it makes your life a lot easier in the long run, because you can power down around them and can be, for once, not the top performer in the group.

    Taken together, please take care of yourself. I was on the road to burnout a few times over the years (apparently some companies take advantage of high performers ;)). Looking back, there were always people in my life, who pulled me back in the right moment, so that I don‘t lose track of what’s important. Hint: As long as you are not the boss of a company, it is nearly never the company, which should come first.

  137. Thanks for asking*

    A few comments that I’m not going to compose into paragraphs.

    If you’re even just average from now on, people who have the impression you’re amazing will probably still think that, since it’s a lot of work to change your impression of someone and most people aren’t paying enough attention to be bothered.

    Are you in an industry where you’ll leave the company in a few years for a better position? Will your admiring coworkers similarly move on? Those can be ways for reputations to naturally wear off.

    If you allow the random pieces of luck have helped you at least somewhat here, you can expect that component of your success to experience regression to the mean.

    You might benefit from learning about a growth mindset and cultivating it. It can help you move away from labels like “high performer” in your self-concept.

    I personally feel like in the past few years, about a decade out of school, I spend a lot more time seeing myself as part of bigger systems than my workplace. I’m a resident of my city, a citizen of my country, an earthling, part of the story of humanity, that sort of thing. On that scale, I’m nothing remarkable, and that’s totally fine. It frees me up to be joyful about things like loving relationships and the beauty of nature. I do a good job at work and take care of my career. Afte all, I’m on this site, learning! But even there, it’s more about cultivating a career that integrates well with my whole life. I work full time, so I do want to be intentional about how I spend all those hours each week. Not sure how this happened, but maybe just exposure to this perspective is useful to you.

  138. OP/LW*

    Hi y’all! I am the OP/LW. Tried to post this yesterday, but had some trouble getting it to go through.
    First I just want to sincerely thank everyone for their thoughtful responses. This community is outstanding and it’s so refreshing and wonderful that people will put so much time and energy into helping a stranger on the Internet. I fully intend to respond to all of the comments I can (because I am me), but wasn’t able to get to them until just now (because, work). I actually left early today (GASP) for a hair appointment, which felt a little bit like I was committing a crime, not gonna lie. There are a few things I wanted to clear up or expand on, though it’s a bit late now, so here goes:
    The former gifted child thing sure struck a nerve! My story is a little more complicated than most though. I think a lot of people assumed I’m afraid of failure because I have no experience with it…quite the opposite! I will disclose here that I have a merry band of diagnoses: bipolar disorder (predominantly depressive), reeeeally bad ADHD, general and social anxiety disorders, and some elements of OCD. All of these are currently being very effectively managed with medication. And those of you suggesting or outright demanding that I get therapy: you are correct! I have been thoroughly therapized since I was 12, with a variety of different specialists, and one of the things I am consistently working towards is a healthier relationship with my internal sense of self, rather than relying on external feedback. Clearly still have work to do, but rest assured I am working on it.
    Anyway, pursuant to the above, I’m older than I think my graduation year suggests; I will be 30 next month! I really struggled in college, and it took me 10 years to finish my BA. This also isn’t my first job, I used to be a graphic designer/customer service rep for a tiny and deeply dysfunctional family company. I was not great at it, mostly for mental health reasons, and I was “let go” (bet ya didn’t see that coming!).
    THE LUNCH THING. I sacrificed clarity for brevity on that point, my bad. Okay, so, my job is extremely fast-paced and client-facing. A lot of days are just putting out one fire after another and moving from urgent thing to urgent thing; there are cutoffs and deadlines and large amounts of money are involved. My team has two (exemplary, patient, wonderful) senior members who also eat at their desks. We work on basically a big campus with a cafeteria/coffee shop in the middle, so when I say I eat lunch at my desk, I walk down to the caf to get it and bring it back and snack on it while working. I’m not tethered to my desk all day, don’t worry! And it’s a very common practice for people at all levels of my job. On my two WFH days, I do often take a full hour lunch, usually a half hour nap and then half hour of walking or reading or yoga, since all my fun stuff is available in a way it’s not in the office…but I hear you all. Definitely going to try to make my lunch break more of a break, even if it’s just browsing AAM on my phone while I eat. Hopefully that helps clear it up!
    Last thing, and I’ll address it more individually, but suffice it to say, like many an ADHD gifted kid, I have creative hobbies coming out of my ears. I act, write, draw, craft, bake, and so forth. I have a supportive and devastatingly attractive partner of 10 years with whom I spend a lot of time, a diverse and delightfully weird friend group, and a stunning and very demanding small cat. She is perfect and I cuddle with her often. So I’m not lacking for non-work things to occupy my attention! Just, you know. Obsessive tendencies.
    Thank you all again! I’m going to try to address some specifics now…stay tuned, if you’re interested.

  139. bopper*

    Don’t stay late just to stay late and not take a lunch break.

    Do Keep learning. Ask other senior coworkers about tricky cases they had…say you learned all of the training but that covers the “sunny day” scenario…what are some tougher cases?

    I had a coworker friend that was always the “go to” person for their boss…would always take on a new project…but she would be working during her vacations. She got breast cancer and was having issues with getting short term disability …her boss said “you don’t have to take disability” so she worked through her chemo/radiation.
    Don’t be that person.

    Your goal should be to be reliable, ask for new projects when you finish your old project, look for leadership opportunities (but not to the expense of your regular tasks), take on chances to present before upper management, Your reputation from training will be with you for some time.

  140. Fangs*

    So much great advice in the comments! I’m coming in a bit late to add one more thing: I’d try to think about how your expectations for yourself compare to those you set for others. I was/am a high-achiever who burned herself out working through every lunch break and pretty much never saying no (I also work in a high-pressure client-facing industry with pretty far-reaching impacts–it is hard to say no!).

    What changed things for me was a bunch of new grads getting hired who I realized were looking at their colleagues to figure out work norms/expectations. In my ideal world, we’d all work 32-hour weeks, leave early on lighter workdays, and take much more PTO. Now, it’s really important for me to model good boundaries and a relaxed attitude—I wouldn’t want someone, say, dealing with an invisible disability or stressful family situation to think they had to work the way I was working. By being easier on yourself and others, you help create a more comfortable work environment/culture.

  141. sarah*

    Something that was helpful for me is realizing that not living up to other people’s unrealistic expectations is a failure on them for having unrealistic expectations, not a failure on me for not meeting them. If your boss really expects you to be the best at everything of all time because you did well on a training exam, you have a bad boss.

  142. Dude with ups and downs in performance*

    I am not in the same industry nor at the same stage of my career as OP. And it’s going to depend on the company and their coworkers and management. But in my experience, a good first impression goes a long way. Once you have established yourself in people’s minds as a high performer, people slot new information into that model. If something takes a long time, it must be really hard, good thing they assigned to their best team member! If you make a mistake, it’s just an exception to the rule. When you transition from one manager to another, your old manager will probably sing your praises to your new manager, propagating the original good impression.

    The flip side is true too – if you start out with a bad impression, every bit of slowness or mistake will fit into the model they have in their head of you as lazy and incompetent, and every burst of productivity or avoided mistake will be dismissed as an exception.

    I’ve got ups and downs in my performance, and I’ve been fired from 1/3rd of my jobs. It’s not enough data to not be anecdotal, but it’s enough for me to say that a good first impression goes a long way.

  143. Lyon*

    OP, it definitely sounds like your managers set you up for gifted kid burnout (similar to all the teachers, principals, etc. who undoubtedly said “OP is headed for great things” or “OP will save the world one day” because you were good at tests – talk about an unrealistic and terrifying set of expectations to live up to!)

    Recently I took a class for fun and when I was worrying about not having time to do all the assignments, my partner said, “C’s get degrees.” It did not really apply because it is not a credit class and I’m not going for a degree, but I found it oddly comforting.

    I also find it helpful to make an effort to put myself first. Who benefits if I work myself to the bone to be the best? Mostly not me.

  144. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    OP having always had glowing reports at school and being told that getting into the very selective school I went to (a constant feature in the top ten schools in the UK, very often top three if not top) meant that I was the cream of the cream and a future leader of the country… I promptly left the country as soon as school was over. In a foreign country, nobody expected too much of me because nobody knew I went to *that* school, and I was able to quiet forge a reputation doing things that interested me rather than having to live up to expectations.

    I would say that it’s best you simply do you, to the best of your ability. As you rise in the company, remember everyone gets stuck in the job they do worst (i.e. they no longer get promoted because they are no longer doing a good job), at which point it’s best to reassess, maybe transition from management to being a subject matter expert instead, or vice versa depending on your strengths.

    You’ll have plenty of choices, don’t let management bully you into doing something you don’t want to do.

  145. Just Me*

    First, OP–know that it’s normal to feel this way after you leave school. I can also tell you that if you’re worried about making a big fireable mistake…you are probably not the employee who is going to make a big fireable mistake.

    If you haven’t, I would recommend sitting down with your supervisor and asking for a performance review. That’s the best way to get feedback on how you’re doing and how you can improve, but in the work world, success is less about how you perform in one specific job and more about whether you prove yourself able to receive a promotion, a raise, a new job title, more responsibilities, etc. (assuming you want those things). A constructive conversation with your supervisor could be, “I love my job and being part of my team, and long-term I would like to do [my job with more money and more complex cases, supervising for new hires, be promoted to department head in a few years, starting a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, you name it.] I’m wondering if we can talk about what that would look like and develop a roadmap to get there.” If you are enjoying your job and want more (and want to feel more like you’re working toward something, rather than just doing your job functions) this could be one way to do it.

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