On Professional Anxiety

Not to be overly dramatic but: Six months ago, I got one of those phone calls that changes your life. I was offered my dream job, and I was moving to Southern California. Party on, dudes!

Now I’m three months into the gig, and it’s lived up to expectations, and more. I’m working on substantive instruction- and technology-related projects, have two amazing mentors in my department, and there’s an office cookie stash. There’s no short supply of positive, encouraging feedback. Basically, it’s excellent and the excitement of being here hasn’t worn off.

So why do I feel so anxious all of the time? And what can I do about it?

The problem with caring about what you do is that it can easily become all-consuming. What am I doing right now? Watching the latest season of The Killing? Looking at adorable cat photos? Well, shouldn’t I really be working on an article that will CHANGE THE FACE OF LIBRARIANSHIP itself? Why am I not networking like a madwoman, positioning myself to join ALA committees? Or planning the most amazing instruction session OF ALL TIME? Turn off that TV, woman, and shove aside those kittens!  I mean, I’ve been a librarian for three months already!

And those are just my professional development anxieties. At work, I worry about coming up with the Super Cool project that will cement my position as the “right person for the job.” What if everyone realizes that I’m a giant fraud?! Three months into the job, the clock’s ticking, right?

Really, Dani? It’s time to check yourself, and cut yourself some slack. I’ve been thinking of some strategies to combat this professional anxiety, which I am 100% certain is not limited to librarianship, or to me. As of this week, I’m trying them out.

Step 1: Take a Reality Check

My boss, my co-worker, my fiancé, random strangers: “You’ve only been in your job three months. You’re still learning!”

Truth, but hard to hear when you’re so excited to do big things. Last week, my boss told me to think about the things that I’d already accomplished—once I listed them out, I immediately felt better. All those smaller projects add up, and in each one, I’m learning new things about my library and my campus. Eventually one of those things is going to lead to that awesomely amazing project (I hope).

Being new has its perks too, even though I forget about them on a regular basis. I started around the same time as our new library dean, who told me, “The first six months are an amazing opportunity. Basically, you can be like a consultant, seeing things with fresh eyes. After that, you’re part of the system.” Good advice.

Step 2: Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

This is probably the most challenging thing for me to do in the entire world, and it’s probably where most of my professional anxiety stems from: “But she had 17 publications by the end of her first year in the field! I have to do that too!”

No, I don’t. We have different thoughts, different goals, different things going on in our lives. There is no one path to professional success, and drawing these comparison inevitably makes you feel bad about yourself. I’m going to start trying to measure myself against…myself. No more oppressive “should”s based on what other people are doing.

Step 3: Shift Your Mindset

In his post “On Hard Work,” Kevin briefly discussed Carol Dweck’s Mindset in terms of providing students with metacognitive strategies for academic success. Some of those same strategies are going to be really helpful in this context too.

Dweck proposes that there are two types of mindsets that a person can have: A fixed mindset, based on the belief that you have intrinsic smarts and talents that you can’t go beyond; and a growth mindset, which acknowledges that hard work pays off, even if you aren’t “gifted” at something. Growth mindset values the process: “Becoming is better than being. The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They already have to be” (25).

Some days, I recognize that fixed mindset in myself—I will never be a success, I’m not smart enough, I don’t have enough gravitas. Those are the days that I just sit at my computer, frozen. Some days, I feel like hard work pays off; I’m not a born coder, but the day our new departmental website launched, after a few weeks of working on it, I felt really good and like maybe I could become a good coder. It’s daunting, but also comforting.

On the other hand, thinking about the growth mindset also makes me a bit, you guessed it, anxious. If I can always work harder to get better at something, even with failures along the way, then why I am not WORKING HARD ALL THE TIME?! That’s why there’s more than one step to this process:

Step 4: Deliberately Practice

It takes a super-long time to become an expert. Those 10,000 hours I talked about in a previous post? That’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, meaning focused, deep engagement of the discipline. You can really only engage in deep practice for a few hours a day, because it’s exhausting. 10,000 hours is probably going to take a lot longer than I’m imagining.

So the important thing here is to keep deliberately practicing and keep moving forward. Things like reflecting on current practice, planning and teaching new classes, and engaging with current literature and trends in the field are going to keep things on track. And there’s no point in trying to do this all day, every day: Our brains can’t handle it.

Step 5: Take a Run/Bake a Pie/Do Whatever Floats Your Boat

Starting out in a new profession, it’s easy to lose sight of everything but ambition. That’s a huge part of me, sure, but what happens after I achieve this “success”? Better hang on to those hobbies, people, and eccentricities that make you happy, otherwise there are just new anxieties waiting for you down the road. And the stuff you like to do makes you, well, you and not Robo-Librarian.

Will this 5-step plan work? I’m anxiously (haha) anticipating reevaluating this in another three months. The key (pace Kevin Klipfel) will be not to let these things turn into a brand-new set of “should”s.



Filed under On Being Human, Posts by Dani Brecher, The Library Game

6 responses to “On Professional Anxiety

  1. Diana

    Glad you brought up Impostor Syndrome. Almost every woman in academic with whom I have got to talking about issues of anxiety has discussed struggles with it (even if not labeled with that term). Every mentor I have had in academia has also talked about it (which should alleviate my stress but somehow doesn’t). Great post!

    • Dani Brecher

      Thanks for the comment, Diana! For me, hearing that other people have the same struggle with Imposter Syndrome is momentarily consoling (“I really look up to that person and know she’s an expert–clearly Imposter Syndrome does not reflect reality!”), but ultimately I lose sight of that every time. Maybe we just need to talk about it more?

  2. Lindsay

    Great post Dani! I started my job a few months ago and I’ve been feeling the same way!

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