We’ve all read about imposter syndrome, ad nauseam. Some argue that it doesn’t exist, that we’re right to experience self-doubt because we’re grappling with the reality of our limitations, that there will always exist things we know and don’t know, and our paralysis comes from confronting that fear. We’re taught that women experience imposter syndrome more than men because we’re told, straight out of the womb, all things we are and not. We’re taught to recede, to stand behind, to support. We watch old shows and movies where women are diminutive and deprecating, where they either pander to their beauty or folly. We tell our girls that they’re pretty before we praise their intellect, curiosity or artistic temperament. Even now, even after all this supposed change and time, women are still, in some respects, considered lesser than. I had a significant other who once tried to explain derivatives to me as if I was a small, developmentally-deficient child while I quietly reconciled his financials and made all his numbers foot.I have a journalist friend who studied engineering and she’s routinely talked down to by people who have nowhere near the amount of education and experience she has. In my last job, I spent more time trying to appease and be liked while my male peers’ acerbic and abusive behavior was tolerated and even accepted. And I’m not the only one. Women have to balance respectability with likeability on top of all the actual work they have to do.
I hate the word “ladylike” because it implies limitations, a way women should behave. So is it a shock that we doubt ourselves simply because we’re reconciling all the ways we should and should not be before we even evaluate our level of acumen and experience?
The things we carry.
I’ve been privileged in the sense that I’ve had a lot of wonderful professional opportunities and I’ve made a career over the past twenty years based on what I can build. I’ve built companies, brands and mentored hundreds of people. I’ve published books and a literary magazine and started an impact organization that aided disadvantaged women in Bed Sty, Brooklyn. And yet, whenever I start something new–an article, a book or a new project–I suffer from crippling, abject terror. Even if I’ve done what I’ve been asked to do dozens of times before, I still get anxious. I still wonder: can I do this? Still.
I read somewhere once that women won’t apply for a job unless they meet 90% of the criteria while men will apply if they have at least 60% of the required experience. I’ve built my career on overcoming fear and, on paper, I was never qualified for every job for which I’ve applied. I was all about positioning and side hustles. I was hired for a marketing role in book publishing because I had built and marketed a successful literary magazine online. It also didn’t hurt that I was a writer who was a voracious reader. I won a senior role at an agency because of my curious, non-linear CV. I tell people that I go to the challenge, even though it momentarily terrifies me. What did I know about managing clients after spending over 11 years on the brand side? What did I know about marketing business and diet books when I never read or enjoyed either? What did I know about starting an impact organization or a literary magazine? I’d start every venture taking inventory of all the ways in which I wasn’t qualified for the challenge put in front of me.
The one thing I truly know how to do, the one thing in which I have confidence is my ability to tell stories. Stories always start with a fixation–writers exorcise their obsessions–what gets them hot. A kind of primal attraction. Then there’s an outline for the three acts or movements, and the realization that although you may have an idea of where the story will go, it never goes where you intend it. The mark of a confident writer is the acceptance of the unknown, of all the factors that are beyond your control once you dive in and wade your way through your fixation. So I like to think of every new opportunity in the same light–I focus on the aspects I do know, the things I can control, and then I play it as it lays. I’ve also come to realize that failure is part of the process. There will be books you will write that will end up in the bin. There are projects you will take on that will be a disaster, and it’s important to separate your self-worth from what you do because who you are is not what you do.
It took me forever to realize that.
When someone says they’re an expert or a guru, I do this squinty thing with my eyes. Both imply there’s nothing left to learn, that one is now and only a teacher while I believe that everyone, regardless of age and tenure, is always a student. There’s always more to learn. A yoga teacher told me once that the mark of an advanced yogi is someone who repeatedly returns to the basics classes to re-visit and re-learn the foundation poses. After twenty years of practice, they swallow their ego and re-learn downward facing dog from the ground up.
I think I’ll always panic right before I start something new, whether it be a writing project or a project. However, what comforts me is that this feeling inevitably passes because like writing a book, I break down the story and tackle what I can, day by day. If you consider the whole the possibility of you being subsumed by it is greater than you saying, ok, today I will do this one thing. I break everything down to its component parts, and I’ll tackle each part knowing that I’m moving to the whole.
What also gives me comfort is the fact that I go into everything with the perspective of a student. At the moment, I’m bidding on a major brand project and I’m also downloading newsletter marketing tutorials and listening to podcasts about how to build Facebook ads. One would think that I’m at the point in my career where I’m passed the tactical. Yet, I don’t see it this way. I see it as coming back to the mat and re-learning my poses. I see it as always taking the role of the open and receptive student instead of the arrogant, closed teacher.
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