Three Lessons When Starting a New Job

We are each a collection of the experiences and interactions we’ve had over our lifetime. If we’re lucky and smart, we remember the important lessons and carry them into new experiences.

Don’t touch the stovetop again. Be aware of the speed limit on this seemingly quiet and low-trafficked road. Double-check the “to” and “CC” field in every email.

I started my new job as Director of Digital Strategy at United Therapeutics about 45 days ago. The two weeks before starting, I reread The First 90 Days. I also reflected on how I’d started previous projects and jobs. I’ve written about many of them on this blog.

Yet, now fully into my new role, three specific lessons have had lasting effect. They, along with a calm disposition, are what have helped me gain the momentum needed to make progress. If you’re starting a new project or job, they may help you too.

  1. Find the balance between Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
  2. Become an investigative journalist.
  3. Writing for yourself will you make you a better communicator with others.

Find the balance between Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the first 3 or 4 months of a new job, imposter syndrome can be nerve wracking. This was true when I was hired at Skookum. Being dropped into unfamiliar territory with high expectations is a recipe for feelings of inadequacy. In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Gill Corkindale defines imposter syndrome as:

… a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence. In fact, some researchers have linked it with perfectionism, especially in women and among academics.

Corkindale offers advice for combatting this feeling. However, speaking from personal experience, imposter syndrome is cured by time, experience, and resilience. Practically, this means becoming adjusted to new terminology, ways of working, and the personality of colleagues and clients.

Conversely, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is marked by overconfidence. In the ambiguity and unknown territory of a new job or assignment, one may tilt this way, as opposed to imposter syndrome, to overcompensate for the vulnerability.

Psychology Today defined the Dunning-Kruger Effect as “a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.”

I’ve seen people fall into this trap. Overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, they puff up an air of unearned confidence, and make unfounded claims and foolhardy decisions. It transcends the cliché, “Fake it till you make it,” to the point where the individual no longer believes they’re “faking it.” Like Kanye, they’ve made it and you can’t tell them nothin’.

There’s equilibrium to be found between Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We don’t have to be debilitated by feelings of inadequacy or cross over into delusional confidence. There is power in accepting that you don’t know everything and that no one expects you to know everything.

Be honest, be humble, be kind. Then, follow it up with the next lesson.

Become an investigative journalist.

While not knowing everything is okay, accepting ignorance is not. I learned that the best way to start any new project or job is to act like an investigative journalist. Listen, ask questions, repeat. Strive towards uncovering the truth of the current situation, a well-rounded understanding of the facts, free from judgement, blame, or a quick solution.

When I started my new role at United Therapeutics, my boss sent me a list of 15 or so individuals that I should set up introductions. Over the course of a month, that list grew to around 40. Each person I met with would mention someone who might know the details of a project or system that I needed to know. I’d jot down their name, send a follow-up, and continue uncovering new understanding in the great unknown.

These conversations resulted in pages of notes. Towards my 30-day mark, I began synthesizing the notes into subject areas, themes, and common sentiments. I learned what people thought was working well, where they felt we needed improvements, and what we should stop doing. I met institutional historians, connectors, culture keepers, and subject-matter experts. This all framed my understanding of the company and how I would approach the broad and ambiguous job of digital strategy.

Writing for yourself will make you a better communicator with others.

Most of us are not professional writers. That means that my writing is likely more beneficial for me than it is for you. I write every day even if it is just a few lines in my journal. Sometimes I write for this blog. But in both cases, the act of writing primarily edifies the writer. That’s okay. This is a good enough reason to write.

When you start a new job, there is a wealth of information. On multiple occasions in the past 45 days, I’ve described it as “drinking from a firehose.” Fortunately, writing has a clarifying effect. It helps distill thoughts, process information, and generate some insight that may have stayed behind the shadows in your mind.

Also, like any skill, the more you practice, the better you get. Writing for yourself will make you a stronger writer in other contexts (email, PowerPoint slides, a community petition, etc.). Yet, as you position what you write away from yourself and towards others, the purpose changes.

In the humorously titled memoir, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sht, Steven Pressfield writes, “Sometimes young writers acquire the idea from their years in school that the world is waiting to read what they've written. They get this idea because their teachers had to read their essays or term papers or dissertations. In the real world, no one is waiting to read what you've written.”

If you want someone to read what you’ve written, give them a reason to care. In the professional world of presentations, white papers, agendas, and memos, this means getting to the point. Put your thesis front a center. Do not bury it under 15 slides or at the end of page 2. Tell me why I should believe, invest, or care in what you have to say.

When you start a new project or job, there’s a certain period of time to learn. Then, you’re expected to synthesize, reframe, and create a plan (for yourself, your team, your department). Finally, you have to execute. This requires building coalitions and buy-in from people around you. Becoming a skilled writer goes a long way in the process.