“I need an adult!” can be a versatile joke. Millennials made a new verb, “adulting,” common parlance. Both imply that when a hard or grownup thing needs doing, that’s separate from the regular us. It needs special skills or, ideally, someone else to take care of it. 

But what happens when something comes up and your initial reaction is “I need an adult”... but there isn’t one? Or, rather, you’re it? This will happen to most folks at some point.

This can happen in a lot of ways. The good news is that most people are a lot more qualified than they think they are, at least in a work context. The bad news is that if you really aren’t qualified, it likely means those in charge don’t realize it or don’t care. And there are some big potential problems there.

If you have that knee-jerk reaction that you’re not qualified and need an adult – for a project, a job offer, an invitation to do something new – stop. Don’t respond immediately. Sit with it and really think about why you don’t think you’re the adult for the job. 

If it’s something you’ve never done before, it’s fair to feel uncomfortable with your lack of knowledge about the issue or opportunity. But there’s a big difference between “I am not already an expert on this specific thing” and “I am of no use to anyone.”

Maybe you’re young and don’t have a tonne of experience generally. Or maybe just for this specific thing. That just means you may need more mentorship and have a bunch of learning ahead of you. Both are good things in the long run.

Like so much in life, the best way to really learn is to do it. The first time I was approached about joining a board, I didn’t think I was at all qualified. My only concept of being on a board was corporate ones, and this wasn’t one of those. I decided I was the adult for the job, and several years of board experience later, I’d learned far more than I ever could have from the outside.

You may think you’re not qualified because the other people who’ve previously done the thing are very different from you. And those around them are also very different from you… in similar ways. 

Thing is, if everyone previously in a role or hierarchy or organization seems kinda cookie-cutter, it’s unlikely they got there because they’re absolutely the most qualified. But that’s another column.

Those who don’t “match” are probably desperately needed and long overdue. But realistically, you will likely face additional challenges if you decide to wade into the fray. Sometimes overwhelmingly so.

As noted earlier, if you don’t think you’re the adult for the job, and you really aren’t, you could be in trouble. It’s not always a scenario where folks know the project is doomed to fail and are looking for a scapegoat. Did you get the assignment because someone thinks you’re qualified, even if you aren’t? Why did they think that? Is your bluff getting called?

If you got the assignment because no one else was available or wanted it, there are good odds you’re not going to get much support or resources. If it’s high-profile but they’re mistakenly assigning the wrong person and giving them no support, well… you’re screwed. 

If someone’s just dotting i's and crossing t’s to make some senior person happy, well… perhaps they’ll forget about it in a while and move on. That happens to a fair number of corporate projects.

But what if you are a genuine adult – and really are the right one for the job – but you’re just not confident about it? That’s different from lacking qualifications. It’s more like a cold engine that will run smoothly when warmed up. 

A lack of confidence can stem from many sources. Perhaps it’s a new direction for you with a lot more responsibility. Or you haven’t been doing the thing professionally, so don’t consider it part of your core knowledge or skill set.

It could be because you haven’t had enough people (or any) who’ve believed in you and listened to you and pushed you and mentored you. Unfortunately, there are too many folks like that, and the result is often a huge waste of substantial talent. Pay attention, companies that are supposedly in a talent war.

Here is where you can fake it ’til you make it. Because you’re not actually faking it. You have the knowledge and skills. Maybe not 100 per cent of the hard skills you’ll need yet, but so what? You just need to say yes. 

The best way to start believing you have what it takes is to start doing. Some people can only develop confidence through substantial accomplishments. But you can’t start accomplishing until you say yes at least once. (And the longer you worry or waffle, the higher the artificial barriers you’re likely to build in your head will become.)

It’s easier to get someone in gear when you can just tell them they are now the adult for the job, rather than having to coax and convince them to apply or accept or whatever is needed to get started. Not all those who could be lifting have the bandwidth or care enough to do so.

Thing is, people who don’t think they’re the adult for the job have usually had that belief reinforced by many years of experience. Dislodging isn’t likely to be a quick or one-off thing.

Have you noticed that imposter syndrome hasn’t come up yet? This is because I don’t believe in it.

I believe that the ways that people think and feel, which we label imposter syndrome, are real. But that label hands you responsibility for those thoughts and feelings. But you didn’t do anything wrong. You’re not lacking anything. How did you come to feel like an imposter? Sit with that, too. 

Imposter syndrome is the result of those many aforementioned experiences. People are taught that they are lesser by those who are in positions of power and privilege – who want to remain there. (And want to be surrounded by others like themselves.)

So when an opportunity comes along for which you may be the right adult for the job, or even vastly overqualified, but you don’t “match,” you’ve been programmed not to realize it. You’ve been programmed not to expect good opportunities. You’ve been programmed to be grateful for scraps.

Not enraged that someone with half your brilliance is dangling it in front of you. Not enraged because you haven’t had myriad opportunities above and beyond those whose main qualification is that they “match” better. Grateful people are much easier to control. They enable bad systems to remain strong.

People who don’t feel grateful, who know what they’re worth and know that they need no other adult, are hard to control. They don’t do what they’re told. They give orders and make changes. Generally changes that further distribute power and catalyze more change. 

Imposter syndrome may not be the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, but it’s been an effective one. You don’t need an adult. You probably just need to get out of your own head, and then for everyone else to get out of your way.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca