on imposter syndrome + being a student

writing

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.

Image Credit: Gemma Correll

Image Credit: Gemma Correll

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.

Top Image Credit: Pexels

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the whole stretch ahead of you (deliberate randomness)

Death_to_stock_photography_bonus_floral_3

Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, -or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily comprehended. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable. –From Rilke’s Duino Elegies, 4th

I read a moving piece that intertwines fiction and life, a move to another state and the stories we carry to get us through the shifts we feel between A and B. Part of me lies a cheek against her cool words and then I remember she’s still young, still starting out, and this loneliness, this wide-eyed affection for New York will be replaced by other affections, other loneliness, possible company. When I read her piece I still see the possibility, hope and desire, but if I were to write something similar you would feel the amphibian chill of a loneliness that sustains. The days repeat themselves with minor variations. My words might feel like flesh wounds. So I don’t write them. I just draft a list of books I’ve read and a few words that remind me why I read them. I finished Fates & Furies yesterday, and I wish it was the sort of book I could write had I had the knowledge of a marriage–the in of it. They smell that blood in the water, they’re going to hunt the bleeder down. Not their fault. They can’t help it. What kind of shark is a shark that doesn’t attack?

I read this and think that I need to learn to be a shark, but I tried that once and the graft didn’t stick. Instead, I became the thing that was circled, consumed. George Saunders says that a “real writer makes you feel uncomfortable.” Maybe I’m doing something right?

Today I arrive a half-hour early for my follow-up, post-surgery appointment. I’m forever early because I fear being late, so I stop at a Le Pain Quotidian and decide on a jam scone because I haven’t had a scone in over a year and why not a scone? Behind me, a woman taps her feet, impatient, because the line is moving slower than she’d like it to, and she looks at my scone with such disgust and inquiries in a loud voice if there’s anything in the store that’s low-fat. The man behind the counter shakes his head and says these are organic pastries. There’s not much by way of low-fat. Ten minutes later I sit in a dermatologist office, eating my pastry while a woman who is perhaps too thin for her frame is prepping for her latest procedure. And I wonder what’s left after fat? Marrow burrowed within bone? Why does this fucking scone bear more weight than it should? I think about this as I walk the seven miles home to Santa Monica.

On the way, I read an essay on my phone. Who we become physically moves faster than how our minds perceive us. We play a game of catch up between the world in front of us and the story of ourselves that plays out in our head. Manson writes:

People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.

I think about that a lot, and what Manson writes rings true. I harbor massive steamships and I move like glaciers. This week I told someone that one of my greatest fears is being average, mediocre, second-rate. That all this work has been for naught. That I’ll write books that mean nothing, posts that don’t translate, take on jobs that do nothing but encourage people to consume. That I’ll let the noise drown out my need to find wonder and purpose. So I write down all the things I’ve done, everything I’ve created and I try not to judge it. I try not to say oh, that book wasn’t that good. I try not to say, oh, that person who used to work for me is more successful professionally–even though she’s earned it, deserves it. I try not to give what I’ve created context because I start thinking about competition. I start reducing what I’ve done to its parts–phantom limbs–and I tell myself to keep writing down what I’ve accomplished. Read this list out loud whenever you’re blue–regardless of how fatuous you feel in doing so.

After viewing Sylvia Plath’s childhood manuscripts, I’m sad that so much of what I created in childhood is gone or scattered in Long Island or hidden in stacks of paper in my closet. And if I drew a line through my work, chartered that life, I would see a girl in various stages of undress.

If I want to create maybe I should get off the internet? I’ve already made a conscious choice to dial down my rage blackouts on twitter because I’m learning that it’s getting me nowhere. Even when I read stories like these and brilliant articles like this, I collect and learn instead of spew. I’m thinking my energies could best be channeled into creating things that matter.

Years ago my friend Nicolette gave me a copy of Rilke’s Elegies for my birthday. The inscription was from 2001, I had just turned 25. Perhaps she sensed my despair and how I started to drift away from God–returning to a belief that this life is all that we really have. And therein lies the tension of living a life, filling your days with words, knowledge, and beauty instead of simply allowing them to pass. I’m in this space that feels paused (but not really, because time inexorably passes) and I know I could be doing more. I could be moving to B. I could be creating.

Tomorrow I’m turning 40 and I’ll be offline for most of the day. This is all strange and weird, and it’s okay to feel this while listening to this.

 


Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

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