Ask MR: What If I Really Am Bad at My Job?

Hello and welcome to our advice column, “Ask MR,” where we answer your burning questions in the hopes of being the ointment to your life rash. Ask us questions by emailing with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or leave yours in the comments.


I’ve just started my first full-time, post-grad job in my desired field. How do I not let my fear of being awful at my job consume me?

This is meant to comfort you, I swear: You will be awful at your job at first. Just at first! It won’t be because you’re stupid or inadequate or unskilled, but because of the inevitable awkward phase that comes with starting any job, let alone your first one. I guarantee the printer won’t connect to your computer. Your desk phone won’t work. You won’t know what the deal is with the bathroom (there’s always a deal), you won’t know what to do for lunch and you won’t have a buddy to ask. You’ve never done this exact job at this exact company under these exact circumstances, so the learning curve is a giant arc. Your first day — your first week, your first month! — has the potential to set you up for an internal dialogue of what the fuck on loop. Accept this now. Take a deep breath in, let it out and let it go as best you can. Okay? Okay.

Now let’s focus on what counts:

You were hired on purpose. It was not a crapshoot. It was not luck. You were not a shrug and a strike off someone’s to-do lost. At least one person — but more than likely a whole web of people — decided that out of a pool of applicants, YOU were the best fit for this job. You!

No one owes you a job. No one was being nice. A company decided that you are such a valuable asset that it’s willing to give you some of its money. So celebrate that. Roll around in it. Bring yourself back to this reminder for a jolt of confidence.

Part of having a job is getting better at it as you go along. Like working out for months in sweaty agony until one day you realize you’re doing push-ups without sobbing, you will click into this new roll well before you’re aware you’ve clicked. You will come across problems and absolute messes that will, inevitably, unlock new skills. Know that mistakes are inevitable (and some are awful, embarrassing and truly scary), but it’s how you move forward that counts. You know how everyone says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” It’s true in the workplace. Take responsibility, take action and learn.

In January, I read an article about how to turn your stress into excitement. The short, over-simplified version is that because our bodies process stress (or fear) and excitement in the same way, if we just tell ourselves that what we’re feeling is excitement (as opposed to stress or fear), we can channel that energy into peak performance. Apparently Tiger Woods uses this technique to win; I tried it while learning to ski and it works. On day one of your job, as you’re walking into the building, picture the day as the top of a scary-ass mountain. People will zoom by you, pros and idiots alike. You might have a moment where you consider turning around. Rather than admit that you’re nervous, though, rather than think, “What if I’m really bad at my job?,” breathe in through your nose, yoga style, so that your belly extends like a balloon. Hold it. Then press your belly in and exhale all the air out. Repeat after me: “I’m excited. I’m excited. I’m excited.”

Here’s a high five in advance. You’re going to be great.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

Get more Mixed Bag ?
  • Adrianna

    I turned out to be really bad at my first job. I’m first generation to go to college. My grandparents worked in manufacturing factories. My mother works as a housekeeper. I honestly had no idea that 99.99% of my role would be reading and responding to e-mail, and that e-mails should start with “Hi” and end with “Best, Adrianna.”

    I had the cliche “bad boss” who yelled and assumed I deliberately made mistakes. Every single employee would later quit. I’m Senior in my current role, and manage a fraction of responsibilities as I did in this entry-level position.

    I’m not entirely sure what I would tell 23 year me in that situation, aside that it’s not as big of as deal as it feels in the moment. Not enough people talk about how it’s okay to quit and start over.

    • Lil

      Girl I feel you. I’m from a blue collar family too. First few weeks in the office felt like I was on a different planet. Coworkes discussed what shares they’d just bought and fancy vacations that were coming up. In my head I was like uhm, I just made rent for the first time without having to lose an arm and leg… lol

      • Adrianna

        I’m having that kind of experience more at my current job, which should have been expected because it’s a luxury e-commerce company. (That’s actually been linked on Manrepeller.) I met someone whose parents donated $20 million dollars to her Ivy League alma mater within the last five years….

        I was really angry and bitter about money when I attended NYU. A friend literally complained that she should have received financial aid because her family could no longer travel for the entire summer. We clashed about the morality of unpaid internships. (Ironically, I probably would have learn how to write an email!)

        Now that I’m older, I feel that I’m surrounded by a lot of people who feel unfulfilled. I paid my last college loan yesterday, and I’m surprised by how fulfilled, not bitter, I feel about paying for my own education.

        • ArtsDuMal

          Ugh same here. I make significantly less than coworkers who are my age/ have the same level of education because I kinda took a career detour (long story). I accept that as my reality, but it’s frustrating to hear them complain about renovating their new houses when I’m still struggling to make rent with four roommates. Def not a problem I thought I’d have at 28. Congrats on paying your loans though, I still have a long way to go, but the end seems nearer than it did a few years back.

    • Abby

      Yeah, reading this article my first thought was, “She actually might be terrible at her job. She might even get fired. But that’s okay too!”. Shit happens, you know?

      I got fired from my “dream job” in my field and guess what? It was fine. My dreams grow and change as I grow and change and I would consider my current position to be my “dream job”. I wouldn’t have felt that way four years ago, and I definitely thought my life was over when I got fired. It was all for the best, in the end.

      • Maddy

        This makes me feel better, thanks for sharing! I’ve had many many jobs in corporate writing and as a journalist but recently decided to break into interior design which has always been a dream and I got a job at a retail store I admired but was promptly fired 5 weeks in. It was devastating and especially as their reasons were they basically didn’t like my personality! Ouch.
        I turn 30 in three weeks, am unemployed and seriously don’t know what I’m doing with my life and it’s hard to not to feel excluded and rejected from an industry I want to be part of. I think same as you, this experience is a right of passage and will lead to something better, i think like you, my dreams are already changing! Now I just need to turn this stress in to excitement!

        • Adrianna

          I’m in my late 20s. I’ve started to feel anxiety about how I kind of backed myself into a corner with my current job, because I don’t see a career path. (And also, my manager reminds me every performance review that there is no opportunity to take on new responsibilities.) The kind of web image production I do is very limited, and I generally only see entry-level positions. I have the kind of job where almost everyone I meet, socially and professional, responds with “huh. I didn’t know someone actually did that.”

          The good thing is, I’m no longer casting a wide net for entry-level jobs. I was unemployed for an extended period of time when I quit that first job, so I can relate to your struggle. Looking back on it, I wish I spent more time *networking* and less time talking myself into and applying to a various range of jobs.

  • tmm16

    I’ve totally been (and still am) where she/he is. I’m at my first job out of school, luckily in my desired field as well, and lately I’ve been feeling like I have imposter syndrome/have no idea what I’m doing even after 7 months of being here. Idk if it’s lack of confidence, fear, imposter syndrome, or just normal being 23, but it’s very, very real for myself and apparently a lot of others around my age.

    • Allison

      A mentor of mine once said that if you not uncomfortable in a new job for at least the first 6 months, you are in the wrong job. I’ve only had 2 “real jobs” but I find this to be true. So good news! You are still on track.
      One thing you might consider is asking yourself why you feel the way you do. Are people not seeking your help with projects you think they should? Do you feel left out of meetings you think you should be included in? Or do you need more training? Think about this and then figure out what you can do get over the hump. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As Ms. AD says above – they hired you! They are invested in your success. If you do not feel you are set up for success then take action now.
      Also if you haven’t had a check-in with your boss, schedule one asap. This will give you the chance to address any concerns you are having and hear from him/her any constructive criticism.

      Good luck!

      • Adrianna

        “A mentor of mine once said that if you not uncomfortable in a new job for at least the first 6 months, you are in the wrong job. “

        Hm, I dunno about that. Six months? That sounds like you’ve got a bad manager who isn’t providing proper feedback and guidance. (I’ve been working for ten years.)

    • Jolie

      Ugh, same. I’ve been at my job (in my desired field) for 6+ months already and I’m still feeling like this in a way. I actually feel like I’m good at the job—really good, in fact—but the imposter syndrome is so real in every other way…I feel like I haven’t made friends, don’t know how to fit into the office “culture,” just don’t fit in in general, even though everyone is around my age and really funny/interesting. Maybe it really is just being 23.

    • Sam

      I feel the Imposter Syndrome thing so hard. I made a career change in my mid-twenties (the teacher/education thing just wasn’t gonna work out) and constantly go through the “oh shit I have a new project I’m gonna fail oh god”/”oh that wasn’t so bad” cycle.

  • Sheila T.

    Amelia is the cool big sister I never had

    • I agree. Amelia you’re the best !!

  • Meg S

    My first job out of school, I was terrible at it. No,not just terrible. Terribad. There’s no other word for it. It wasn’t something I was interested in, but I needed a job. I couldn’t bring myself to come back from lunch on time one day, and that was apparently the last straw. I was never comfortable in this job, even after the six month mark had passed. Usually by 6 months, the job discomfort goes away and that was a clear sign I wasn’t a good fit in that office. I was fine with it, but I was, ultimately, fired. I lived with my parents so it didn’t matter at the time, but getting fired always ends in crying. It was the only time it’s happened, and I’ve learned my lesson about taking positions that don’t suit me.

    I’m afraid I’ll mess something up so badly at the job I have now (that I really like), but nothing is beyond fixing. It just takes a little legwork and everyone chips in like a good team should.

  • Stefania

    Great advice !!!! You learn more from mistakes than you’ll ever learn by smooth sailing. In no time you’ll be a pro.