Some jobs aren’t there to teach you anything about your career but are there to teach you some hard-earned life lessons instead. My first job out of college was one of them.
I’ll paint it by numbers. I spent close to 3 years running corporate events for a tech company all across Europe, of which 8 months in the year I was away from home. In total, I went to 15 countries, over 40 cities, and had close to 12,000 visitors of all types to the all-glass, clinical mobile exhibition space we just called “the truck”. Lots of different people, lots of different places, and lots of stressed-out assholes with a god complex to deal with.
The tour turned out to be a crash course in how to go from chronically anxious people-pleaser with impostor syndrome to confident professional with relatively healthy boundaries. Here’s what worked for me.
Note: I take no blame if any of these backfire, because these are definitely thinly-veiled roundabout coping mechanisms disguised as advice.
Dress for the job you… nevermind
At the beginning of the tour, my suitcase looked like I’d stolen the wardrobe from a budget-conscious extra in Suits. By the end, it was closer to that of a 90s sitcom mom. Because sometimes, in a stiff corporate environment, not following the dress code will work to your advantage.
I started noticing early on that each and every time, almost without exception, the most important visitors were also either the most eccentrically dressed or the most casual – government officials being the exception to the rule. You could always tell how important someone was considered depending on the size of their posse and the discrepancy between their outfit and everyone else’s. In would walk in some guy in an ironic t-shirt and jeans, orbited by fifteen people in suits, and I’d know immediately that that was the big boss in charge.
As long as what I was wearing was clean, inoffensive, and didn’t show much skin, people still treated me the same, and many times even better than when I was in full business attire. By showing agency with my clothing choices, I was somehow perceived as having more agency in my job, which led to being treated with more respect.
Although there is a line to toe, so if you’re going to try this out, start with some funky pants or fun earrings instead. Don’t go full Helena Bonham Carter in one go.
Fake it ’til people leave you alone
There is a special circle in hell reserved for people who relieve their stress by stressing other people out as much as possible. Because, as is common knowledge, you only do your best work when someone’s breathing down your neck, asking you “Is everything going good? How is everything going? When will everything be ready?” every two minutes.
Turns out, you can sometimes make these people go away by refusing to be stressed by them. Don’t just take your time to do your thing right, but make it clear that you’re sorting it out, and that you’ll have it done when it’s done. It may drive them nuts, but it will save you from getting to the point where you start debating if you should bill them for the therapy sessions you’ll clearly be needing if they keep this behavior up.
If this fails, there is an alternative way to fake it so that people treat you like you have authority. All you need are a pair of good stomping-around shoes and a well-practiced expression of determination, confidence, and thoughtfulness. For the latter, it helps to think about a fake argument in your head, where your efforts are concentrated on totally verbally destroying the other person. Just speak like you know what you’re talking about (even if your statements are pure guesses), walk around with purpose, and keep your brow furrowed.
People will be convinced you’re on your way to solve Very Important People problems with your Very Important Thoughts, steering clear from your path.
Know your audience
Here’s another tip to alleviate the pressure from the stress-inducing micromanagers of the world.
I am of the belief that looking busy is not the same as being busy and that approaching your work with the serenity and mindfulness of a Buddhist monk can make it easier to do your job well. But for some, this concept is difficult to understand. If they don’t see you running around like the whole place is on fire, they’re convinced that either you don’t care enough about your work or that they’re not giving you enough to do. Either way, your value has now been diminished and they will believe you’re overpaid, despite the reason that you’re able to be calm in the first place is that you did your job well and now you don’t have to worry about busywork.
To avoid this ticking away of dollar signs with every second they see you as idle, just exaggerate how busy you are. If something takes you fifteen minutes, tell them it’s at least double. If they’re asking you how your workload is, stress that you’re so so so busy and couldn’t handle another task. And if you need to get something done and want to keep that idle time, get out of their line of sight, get your work done, and enjoy the absence of their incessant nagging.
If you like to avoid headaches, it can be worth putting in the effort to look busy in front of customers who put too much value on it. But, only do this if you know it’s a temporary situation. Do it too often and the bar for ridiculous expectations of busyness will only be set higher. Find the balance and keep them on their toes.
Kindness, people, kindness
It shouldn’t have to be said but, because there are a select few who still need to hear it: be kind and respectful to everyone you meet, no matter who they are. Being nice and polite always pays off – as long as you’re not stupid about it.
Be it a colleague, client, or the person cleaning, being kind pays off. Even if you’re feeling grumpy, tired, hungry, and over-worked, being bitter will only sour everyone around you, worsening your initial mood. Kindness can be a catharsis. Most of the time, reminding yourself that you’re all trying to do your job the best way you can, helps gather that little bit of energy left that it takes to be nice.
Be grateful, too. If you’ve got an issue on-site, the security guard will be able to help you out way more than the CTO of whatever company, so be sure to show some gratitude and sneak an extra freebie their way before it’s time to go.
But, don’t let people abuse your kindness. I employ a two-strike system. The first time someone’s rude I try not to think the worst. But if you’re rude or hostile twice, I don’t care the reason anymore. All you’ll be getting out of me is malicious compliance from here until the sun swallows the Earth whole.
You’ll make your life easier (and much more pleasant) if you put your best foot forward and treat everyone with respect. Just be ruthless the moment someone tries to take advantage of you.
Sometimes not knowing is better
Knowledge is power, but they do say that ignorance is bliss and if I’m being totally honest, power can be intimidating.
I have the nerves of a distressed chihuahua anytime I become aware that the person I’m talking to has the same decision-making power as the ruler of a small country. To solve that, if I can avoid it, I now have the habit of first avoiding asking people their names or what they do. Turns out, asking people questions about themselves, unrelated to their title, is a great way to connect in a meaningful way.
I’ve seen enough employees tripping over their feet trying to get the attention of C-suites and high-level consultants and diplomats and the rest of the who’s-who. But in the end, people are more likely to remember the name of the person they had a heated discussion with about whether or not Golden Retrievers are the Pumpkin Spice Latte of dogs, than the one stumbling over their words just to get 2 seconds of flattery in.
If you’re prone to getting in your head and being nervous around anyone deemed important by the powers that be, start asking people for their names midway through a conversation. That way, you can always give yourself the chance to connect with them as human beings first.
Unless you’re trying to be strategic with your networking, in which case, why are you here? Who told you I was the person to go to for strategic career choices and why do they hate you?
Are these tips helpful for everyone? Definitely not. But they might be for other chronically anxious people-pleasers riddled with impostor syndrome who need to come up with different ways to trick their brains into thinking that they’ve more than got it.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing that helps getting rid of impostor syndrome like realizing that most people don’t actually know what they’re doing either, and that we’re all just winging it anyways.
Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday/Monday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.