Feel Professionally Insignificant Sometimes—Here’s What to Do About It

On many days there is a moment, and sometimes moments, where I underwhelm myself. I’m pretty dorky, and socially that can make for some strange interactions at events or in zoom rooms. It’s not helped when I juggle too many demands. And there can also be external triggers for those feelings of professional insecurity. 

Feeling professionally insignificantIt is at these moments where a visitor, the feeling of insignificance, shows up. And the question is how long I allow this visit to continue. The feeling of insignificance tends to spread out tendrils and overstay its welcome for too many of us. Often, it is best to shuffle it quickly right out the door. But it is a feeling I come across often as a career coach. 

I have had a number of conversations this week, and back-to-back sessions that have inspired this piece. I spoke with Virginia, who lives in Seattle, first. She grew up in a loving and affluent home and received Ivy League undergraduate and graduate degrees. While only in her mid-30s she has received public accolades and continues to have access to opportunity and financial resources. My next conversation was with Alex in Miami, a thirty-something trans man who had grown up in unwelcoming foster care homes. Through hard work he recently earned his BA & MA in policy while serving as a consultant to a number of national organizations that aspired to do better in serving his community.  

Clearly, these were two impressive people. But speaking with them, one after the other, served as a potent reminder. No matter the setting we have come from, how loved we were as children, how many opportunities we were given, or how much we have achieved, tremors of feeling professionally insignificant can still arise. 

Both Virginia & Alex arrived at the same place:

  • “I don’t feel like I’ve achieved much.”
  • “What can I do next?”
  • “I’m nervous about the social capital lost if I share how I’m feeling.” 

It felt worth noting that these two journeys led to the same destination. I think the key parts of my work are to recognize what I am seeing based on what is shared, normalize that fact that there are very few things that are not held by many, if not most, people, and then offer a way forward. Perhaps I will mention the value of considering broader therapy depending upon the totality of what I hear. But here is the path ahead for your battle with feelings of professional insignificance. 

There are a few exercises that can help move through these feelings quickly. They are part of the first step in being more comfortable with these feelings. 

I want you to own your prior accomplishments. These remain available to you when the tremors shake. Often, I will ask someone struggling with their strengths to go through the process of making a written request for feedback from 5-10 people who know you and your work well. Individually write each person that you are giving thought to your strengths and would love to have them write a response to what you do best. Make a document you keep on your desktop with the collective feedback and notice where you see strengths shared repeatedly.

  1. Compile a master resume, or exhaustive internal document that includes in glorious full detail all of the roles, paid and unpaid, with measurements of the scale and impact of the tasks you did at each. Include any published writing, public speaking, honors, and recognition that you have received.  
  2. Develop a current elevator pitch that is authentic with a friend or coach that has your buy-in. This can be something you utter at those moments of self-doubt. 
  3. I am a huge fan of asking the question, what would you have said to a good friend experiencing that same situation? Without fail, people are much more capable of being kind and generous with their friends than themselves. 
  1. Finally, consider your greatest supporters. Who are the people who are accomplished who continue to align themselves with you and make themselves available to support you and your success?  

I hope these tools help you to better see the full picture of what you have done in the past. Beyond your foundational confidence I want to ensure that you are also setting yourself up for less frequent visits of feeling professionally insignificant in the future. 

When it comes to moving forward, the best ways to do that are setting goals for the future and having your support system in place. 

Having measurable goals that you thoughtfully set and move forward on is a way to feel great about your ability to see your effectiveness. It is often the case that some work may proceed slowly but seeing progress on other goals is a way to feel like you can make the things happen that matter most in your world. Next, remember that we all need trusted people that have standing in our lives. And they are the safety net when we are plummeting in our professional self-assessments. 

You may be feeling professionally insignificant now, but you can set yourself up so that the feeling departs more quickly, the next time it arrives. You can do it! 

Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021.  

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