Doesn’t everyone feel like an impostor, at some point?

Photo of a newborn baby with hospital ID braceletAfter I gave birth to our daughter, I remember sitting in the back seat of our car as my husband drove us home from the hospital. As I kept watch over our tiny baby, my husband commented that it seemed strange that we didn’t need a license to prove we had the basic skills for taking care of a baby and a safe place to raise her. All we needed was an infant car seat and matching wrist identification bracelets.

This was the first time I was aware that my husband could feel the Impostor Syndrome, a situation where capable people are plagued by self-doubt. Where they ask themselves, “When are they going to find out I’m not qualified?” When they hold themselves back from taking on additional responsibility because they haven’t yet learned to do that kind of work. When they don’t have confidence in their abilities.

Research on the Impostor Syndrome shows that women tend to feel it more intensely and be more limited by it than men. That’s certainly consistent with my experience.

In fact, I have a friend who asked a panel of male leaders about the Impostor Syndrome. In front of an audience of women, she asked the men about their careers; one of her questions was, “Tell me about a time you experienced the impostor syndrome.” When they looked at her quizzically, she realized she needed to explain it: “You know, a time when you didn’t think you were capable of doing the job. How did you handle it?” They still didn’t grok the question. They ended up sharing stories about proud moments of their career, when they surpassed goals or did the impossible. My friend turned to the audience of women and said, “They don’t get it. They’ve never experienced the impostor syndrome.” She couldn’t believe it.

I started wondering about their personal lives. Maybe they had never felt like impostors at work, but what about as dads? Did they ever feel unqualified to bathe their infant or take care of their sick child? And, is the opposite true for working moms? Do women tend to feel highly qualified to raise children, yet have an inner critic shouting at them all day at work?

All of this makes me wonder…Can women leverage their confidence in parenting to overcome feeling like an impostor at work?

I’d like to hear from you, my readers. Have you felt the Impostor Syndrome at work? As a parent? What’s similar or different between these experiences?


Interested in the research on the Impostor Syndrome? See the summary in Sheryl Sanberg’s “Lean In“, page 193.

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit:

A Surprising Twist of Events

Each week, Startup Edition poses a single question to a group of bloggers from the startup community. This week’s question is “Why are you working on your startup?” Karen’s answer? To multiply my efforts to help women in the tech industry. And the dudes as well.

Logo for AthenticaYou may have noticed that I’ve been writing less frequently for “Use Your Inside Voice.” While I wish I could post at least weekly, I simply don’t have the bandwidth. Why? I’ve gone through a significant and unexpected career pivot. I’ve joined Athentica, an early-stage startup.

Before Athentica, I was a leadership coach, speaker, and blogger focused on helping women have great careers in the software industry. And I wrote regularly about the intersection of leadership and parenting for my blog. I was doing what I loved, and I was happy. I wasn’t looking to make a career change.

Yet I did. Earlier this year, a friend invited me to lunch to discuss a business idea he had. Over the next six months, we met every so often, and I saw his business idea grow into what it is today—a social learning site that helps online learners identify and complete a curriculum of online courses to meet their career goals. Along the way, I started seeing connections between his idea and women I met through my speaking engagements.  These women were taking online classes to improve their technical skills. Many told me that they liked online classes because they could fit them into their busy lives, but they didn’t think they were learning enough to apply to a real-world programming need. They knew they needed to take more classes and get more experience building software, but they struggled with next steps. As a result, I knew my friend was on to something.

In a surprising twist of events, my friend asked me to be the CEO of his company. I wasn’t looking for this kind of role, but I decided to consider it seriously. As I evaluated the opportunity, I became really excited. I realized that, by joining the startup, I could help more women than I ever could as an individual. With the support of my husband and kids, I decided to lean into my career once again. I’m now the CEO of Athentica. And I’m having the time of my life.

Will I continue writing “Use Your Inside Voice?” Absolutely. Just not at the same frequency as before. If you have suggestions for parenting and leadership topics you’d like me to explore, please leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you!


NOTE: This post is part of Startup Edition, weekly wisdom from founders, hackers, and designers who answer a single question each week. Click here to see other answers to this week’s question: ”Why are you working on your startup?

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Learning to recover from mistakes

I remember coaching a client who had accepted a new position at her company. As she told me about the role, she was clearly excited. She wanted to make a good first impression, showing up as confident and capable. The only problem? The Impostor Syndrome was alive and kicking. Yep, she was concerned about being qualified for her new role. She was doubting her abilities and letting her inner critic speak much too loudly.  

The Impostor Syndrome is getting a lot of press these days. Sheryl Sandberg writes about it in Lean In, and cites research showing that women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it than men. Like Sheryl, I’ve felt it more than I care to admit. I definitely could relate to my client.

Outside of work, my client was a talented performer, often onstage in front of large crowds. When I asked her if she lacked confidence during her performances, she immediately answered, “Not any more, because I know I can cover any mistake I might make. The audience never knows if I sing a wrong note.”

Brilliant! As a performer, she identified her key to confidence: Recovering from mistakes so quickly and naturally that no one notices a thing.

We then talked about how to apply what she learned as a performer to her corporate job. We discussed how she’d been singing since she was a kid, and over the years, every time she sang a wrong note or lyric, she learned. She had trained herself to take responsibility for the mistake, learn from it quickly, and push it aside to continue with the piece of music. How empowering it would be to do the same thing at work!

As I drove home after the appointment with my client that day, I started thinking about my family. As a mom, I’m wired to protect my kids from making mistakes to save them from hurt, discomfort, or regrets. I ask them if they have their homework as they leave for school, I remind them to wear a raincoat when the skies are gray, and I tell them to check how much gas is in the car before pulling out of the driveway. Sure, they don’t always listen, but that doesn’t stop me. I want to intervene so they don’t make mistakes.

However, from mistakes comes learning. And, as I saw with my coaching client, knowing how to recover from mistakes can build confidence and combat the Impostor Syndrome.

Do you have other techniques to combat the Impostor Syndrome? I’d love to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

My Lean In Story

Lean In LogoA few months ago, the Anita Borg Institute asked me to write a story about a time I chose between fear and leaning in to my career. They wouldn’t tell me why, except that they were working on a confidential project about women leaning in, and that it would be announced in March. Right away, I knew the project was for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement. And I was thrilled. I wanted to show my support for the movement, and I now had the opportunity.

Here’s the guidance I received for writing my story:

A Lean In Story is a tension point in one’s career that offers two possible outcomes: “leaning in” or “leaning back.” Examples are: asking for a raise and getting it, realizing a need to switch departments and doing it, motivating yourself to reach a difficult work goal, etc.

And here is the structure I should follow:

First-person account that follows a traditional story arc, in 500 words or less.

a) Set the stage – offer a short account of details leading up to the tension point

b) Introduce the tension point – this is typically when fear, vulnerability and doubt appear.  Make sure to outline what the paths of leaning in and /or leaning back looked like

c) Decide to lean in or lean back – stories are more likely to be about leaning in but they could also be about leaning back

d) Share the resolution – how did you feel after the decision was made? How did the situation play out?

e) Show the future – how did your decision impact you, both personally and professionally.  Share a positive ending about what you learned from the experience.  Don’t be afraid to weave in some closing advice or words of wisdom.

While I have dozens of examples of both leaning in and leaning back over my career, I knew immediately which story to tell: when I decided to move from a great part-time job into a full-time role with a lot more responsibility. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I wanted to share all the reasons I didn’t think I should lean in, and why I finally did.

You can read my story at While there, be sure to read some of the other stories. Each one is a pocket of inspiration in 500 words or less.

If you have a story you would like to share, visit the Lean In site and follow the steps to submit your story. I look forward to reading it!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Confessions of the time-starved generation

Book cover for The Feminine MystiqueI just finished reading The Feminine Mystique, published 50 years ago by Betty Friedan as an exploration into why so many American housewives were unhappy in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s credited with starting the feminist movement in the 1960s, and I was curious to understand more about it in light of the Lean In Movement that’s taking hold today.

I found myself chuckling as I read Chapter 10, where Friedan wrote about housewives who unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available. Why would anyone do this? Because the feminine mystique taught women that this was their role, and if they ever completed their tasks they would no longer be needed. Based on that line of thinking, I know I’ll always be needed; my household to-do list is never-ending!

For today’s working parents, there are never enough hours in the day. We develop coping skills to make it all work, some more extreme than others. Do we allow our household duties to expand to fit the available time? Maybe, but that time is next to nothing. What I’ve seen in myself and my friends is that we’ve mastered the ability to shrink our household duties down to the bare minimum.

Our strategies include:

Embrace the sleight of hand. Tend to common areas more than the bedrooms to create the effect of a tidy home. Don’t mop the whole floor, just wipe up the spots. Have places to quickly hide clutter before guests arrive.  I especially love closing the doors to my kids’ rooms. I’m a neat freak, and I keep telling myself that what I can’t see shouldn’t bother me.

Rethink your standards. Only do the housework that’s important to you. Do the beds really need to be made every morning? As your children help with household chores, don’t expect the same level of quality that you might do yourself. Every Sunday when my kids do their laundry, I think of a good friend who warned me that my kids may decide to “live” out of their laundry baskets, never bothering folding their clean clothes. Unless you’re going to a fancy event, let them wear wrinkled clothing! Remember, your house is an active, lived-in house. Make it as clean as you need it to be, and don’t worry about what others think.

Assemble meals rather than cook them. Look for healthy, pre-prepared food to use to make a meal. Pair frozen entrees with fresh vegetables. Heat left-over chicken with a jar of Indian simmer sauce. Buy frozen risotto and serve it with a salad. Turn breaded, baked frozen fish filets into fish tacos. There are lots of these options for saving time in the kitchen. Don’t feel guilty about using them.

Master extreme efficiency. Simplify meal clean-up by grilling, using a slow cooker, or keeping pots to a minimum. Serve meals straight from the stove to avoid using serving dishes that will need to be cleaned. Do chores like unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry while your kids eat breakfast so that you can talk to them but still knock something off your list. Wash clothes only when they they fail the “smell” test or are stained. Buy stamps at the grocery store or online to save a trip to the post office. Set up auto-pay for your regular bills. You get the picture.

Delegate as much as possible. If you can afford help, hire a housekeeper, gardener, accountant, and others. Split chores with your partner. Enlist your kids in cleaning activities at an early age. Train your family that when they make a mess, they clean it up.

Simplify your life. Get rid of things you don’t need. Less stuff means less to tidy and clean! Keep a “to donate” box in your closet or garage to collect things as you come across them to avoid a big cleanup. Unsubscribe from unwanted email as it comes in. Sort your postal mail next to your recycling bin so that you can get rid of junk right away.

Have fun! Invite friends over so you have reasons to de-clutter and accomplish some of that housework that never seems to get done.  Blast your favorite music or listen to podcasts while cleaning. And then enjoy sharing your home with friends!

What are your strategies to shrink household duties to the bare minimum? Please share them in the comments. We’d all like to hear from you.


To my good friends: thank you for sharing your strategies for this blog post. Remember: if you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot, hang on, and call one of us!

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

My “Lean In” Checklist

Lean In Book cover
There’s hype, there’s controversy. Personally, I’m ready to be part of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement! Are you interested as well? Here are some things you can do to participate today:

  • Pre-order a copy of “Lean In” from Amazon or your favorite bookseller.
  • Clear your calendar for March 11, when your book will arrive. You know you will want to read it right away.
  • Join the movement. Enter your email address at
  • Show your friends that you are leaning in by liking the Lean In Facebook page.
  • Contribute to the professional conversation by joining the Lean In LinkedIn group.
  • Tweet with the hashtag #leaningin.
  • Share your personal story of a time you chose between fear and leaning in. Post it on the Lean In site.

My next steps, once I read the book:

  • Write about the intersection (or perhaps collision?!) of parenting and leaning-in.
  • Start or join a lean-in circle.

What ideas do you have for contributing to this movement? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.