Pay-Check Imposter Syndrome: Why Working For Free Doesn't Devalue Your Résumé

I’m scared of being considered a fraud.

That’s the brutal, honest truth. I was once paralysed by the possibility of being thought of as a farce. I thought it was better to keep my mouth shut than risk someone I respect telling me that I am not “enough” at work.

Look, I’ve spent as much time on self-discovery and self-improvement as any other young adult with immigrant parents or a strange childhood. 

Enough time to know that my life gave me a gift, and a valuable one.

But it’s not a gift I can directly put on my résumé. Or…? 

Currently, I work in the sports industry. I’m a strength and conditioning coach, which is a fantastic job that often gets swept into the “Fitness” hashtags on Instagram and facilitates an actually noxious culture of “the grind never stops”. I’ve put in those 11:30pm exercise physiology study sessions and the 5am workouts with the best of the guys for years.

I am also member of the growing field of performance psychology. This world is developing rapidly; as a researcher and a consultant, I am thrilled by the newness and inspired by the potential. But, at the end of the day, it’s a new industry and I am not yet a Ph.D with more publications to my name than coffee mugs on my shelf. 

Everyone should contribute something of value to their community.

With the training world so established and the sport psychology field so relatively new, I have truly struggled to find ways in which I can offer value to these spheres of practice, both of which I truly enjoy and want to contribute to. 

To make a long story somewhat short, I grew up in a tiny town on the east coast where my father moved for work. Like 98% of my peers there, I was homeschooled in local co-ops which were taught by non-degree-holding, unqualified adults (I note this because it’s illegal in my home country — more on that later!). My passions were sports and reading; a sort of out-of-body experience of joy, if you will.

I played soccer until I lost the game to a gnarly knee injury. I owned and trained horses until I couldn’t muck enough stalls in a week to pay for board and feed. I read until 4am because I loved information and the world outside of mine. 

Then I met my first mentor. 

He was a physiologist, a personal trainer who took athlete care to a new, holistic level which I had never experienced as a player. I begged for his help with my knee and return to sport. We negotiated that I would intern for him and certify as a Certified Personal Trainer in exchange for his services. 

I worked alongside him for months before moving to college in big ole’ Washington, D.C. He wrote my recommendation letter to the department. He sent me off with pre-season training plans in case I decided to walk onto the soccer team. He called to make sure I had taken and passed my CPT exam.

That was my entry point into the world of performance sport staff.

From there, alongside going to school, I worked for free. I found mentors and bartered for their help, paying either in services or cash. 

I interned as much as I could, whether in the athletics facility or at private gyms. I trained and later volunteered as a counsellor in a trauma psychology workplace. I was a research assistant (lab rat) in the psychology department. I contributed to sport science studies. I acquired the necessary licenses for training professionally and ate up continuing education courses and conferences and networking events like philosophical Cordon Bleu. 

I also gave away my services for free by my own accord. When I wanted to practice or test my work, I would find an athlete or performer who needed something and give my time and help for nothing (or Chipotle). 

Because I love the work. 

And, in my early 20's and the first decade of my career, I didn’t mind doing those things alongside school or my full-time coaching job. It was experience.

Enter Imposter Syndrome.

About two years ago, I received a series of opportunities that completely changed my professional and academic life. Following a mentorship experience with a world-class coach, I had the opportunity to take over a pre-existing client base from him. 

Screeeeech!

Let’s revisit this unconventional scenario: homeschooled, worked for free, early 20's, small résumé, one post-grad job, graduate student. 

Even though he assured me I was capable, taking work from a master of the trade seemed like a complete joke. It felt disrespectful to the athletes I would now be responsible for. It seemed like a downgrade to his company. 

I felt like the class clown. Partially because I was too paralysed by insecurity to take a huge opportunity in my lap, and partially because I felt so severely under-qualified. At this point, I had only worked one paid position as a performance coach, and this new income would pay me that salary in a quarter while I finished graduate school.

A fraud. 

Someone with twice as much experience deserves this more than I do.

As much as I love learning, I don’t understand things very well until I (sometimes literally) trip over them dramatically. 

I was sure that I was going to decline this particular offer, but decided to actively hunt for a new (paid) coaching position that more closely aligned with my goals and values.

While trying to reformat my résumé, I was listening to a YouTube podcast playlist for the sake of noise. As if with a megaphone inside of my eardrum, I was able to make out Gary Vaynerchuk preaching the benefits of working for free as you work your way up in any industry. He immediately launched into razzing millennials who suffer paralysis by analysis for not taking chances due to fear of failure. 

It was truly a cartoonish moment of a poorly-animated lightbulb illuminating beside my head. 

…but more circa 1985-type animation. Or maybe comic batman slapping a villain. BAM! Thwack!

I had already worked for free. 

I had built a network. I had acquired both knowledge and practical experience. I had recommendations and reputation. I had unique chances as “The Intern” that I would not have gotten if I were a paid employee.

I only had two years of pay checks worth of coaching at that point. And, yes, to this very date, I still only have seven years of experience as a coach in the industry. I have even fewer as a psychologist and researcher.

And I think about that a lot. But every single minute of the past seven years has been packed with value, lessons, drive, and progress. That’s the gift.

I’m not saying it’s possible to acquire 20 years of experience into seven if you just work extra hard. That would be discounting many of the people I respect. 

However, I have come to recognise the value of working without a pay check, and can accept that it is no less valuable than a full-time paid position, even if there’s no dollar sign attached to it. In fact, perhaps working for free makes us work harder and smarter, to get more out of each experience, and to maximise each moment because it costs us something significant too.

In the end, I took the opportunity to merge forces with my mentor and build my own company. It has been a phenomenal experience and I have grown tremendously both personally and professionally. 

I also try to raise my voice and contribute more often to my fields, even if I feel like I am too young, too under-published, or too inexperienced. 

True fraudulence is intended deceit. My only intention is betterment. Even if I’m wrong on something, I could never truly be a fraud. 

Sorry, Imposter Syndrome.

If you are just starting out in your career, I cannot suggest enough the power of working for free. Nearly everyone I know needs some kind of help, so there are more than enough opportunities. As long as you align with the values of the person or company, I cannot recommend enough the experiences you will get in return. 

If you have been in your field “just long enough” to start contributing but are also unsure, let me remind you that you have experienced something in your life and work, no matter what it is, that no one else has. If you don’t feel comfortable starting a conversation, then add to a pre-existing one. When you are ready, share. The field and the world are missing out when you don’t.


Thanks for reading! I appreciate your feedback and responses more than you know! -Julia