3. Impostor Syndrome
Pete asks Jen if she's ever felt like an imposter.
Peter: Hey Jen.
Jen: Hi Peter.
Peter: Do you ever feel like an imposter?
Jen: Um, every day.
Peter: Me too. I think this idea of imposter syndrome might be universal, and I think it might be worth unpacking.
Jen: Then let's unpack it. This is The Long and The Short Of It.
Pete: So here's the thing, Jen, that's crazy to me, is that someone like you, who I and many others look up to - and well, I actually look down to you given the height difference - but in the work that you do, in the assertions that you make, in the change that you bring to the world, I look up to you and see you as, you know, quote unquote "successful" in so many aspects of your life. And so it's crazy to think that you also feel like an imposter at times, and it also backs up this idea or this assertion that I have been sharing recently, that every single one of us is an imposter, and that imposter syndrome is universal. And so what I was keen to do is, because I think there's a tendency for us to all think we're the only ones that suffer from imposter syndrome, so I was keen for us to unpack this idea, and maybe share a story each about a time where we felt like we were imposters so that we can better understand what this imposter syndrome phenomenon is all about, and how it comes about, and what we should do about it.
Jen: I love this idea. I think we should definitely do this. I've got a million stories, but there's one in particular that comes to mind because it involves you. I'm happy to share, and also call myself out as an imposter, one: because I think it will take the pressure off of future episodes to just say it out loud now, and two: because there are probably many people out there who are listening that are suffering from this exact same thing who might get a little relief.
Peter: Yeah, I agree. Let's hear it. You go first, and then I'll tell you mine, because my story also involves you.
Jen: Oh, okay. So, well, you'll remember this: several months ago, I was scheduled to debut a brand new keynote, and I had been working on this keynote first by myself, then with you, and I had felt like I had gotten to a really good and exciting place with it. In fact, I remember we had done a sort of final run-through of this, and I had audio-recorded it, and I felt so good about it that I labeled the audio file "Mic Drop." Okay, so then I fly to the place where I'm supposed to give this keynote, and I meet the person who's organizing the event, and they say to me, "Are you sure you don't want to use any slides?" I'm like, "Yeah, I'm sure, I don't like using slides." "You sure you don't want to stand at the podium?" "Yeah, I'm sure I don't want to stand at the podium." "You sure you don't want to use any notes? All the other speakers have asked for us to preset their notes on the podium." "No, no, no. I don't need the notes." And then I went up to my hotel room and began a downward spiral. The tidal wave of imposter syndrome crashed down upon me and I thought, "Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm such an idiot. Of course I need slides. Of course I need to print out every single word I'm going to say, of course I should stand at the podium just like everybody else." And I literally sat down at my computer and started typing out my talk, and I opened up Powerpoint and started throwing some slides together; and then I heard your voice in my head which said, "Run toward the bang." So something that you have said to me in the past is: "When you feel your imposter syndrome kick in, run towards it. Don't run away from it, run toward it. Know that you're doing something right." And so I took a breath, I did my whole, "What would Peter say?" moment, and I imagined you saying, "You are doing everything right. You are doing things in a way they have never been done before. That's why you feel like an imposter. And once you've delivered this keynote tomorrow, you'll no longer be an imposter, because you will have done it." And so I closed my computer, took a breath, and I went to sleep. And the next morning I delivered my keynote without notes, without a deck, with a lapel mic away from the podium, and it was mic-drop-worthy. It really was. I felt great about my work, and I knew that it had a tremendous impact because people were lined up afterward to talk to me about some of the concepts that were in the keynote, and learn more about them, and figure out how they applied to them and their work. It was pretty exciting.
Peter: What's really cool about that is - what you mentioned - that this idea that you were doing something new, you're doing something for the first time, so almost by very definition, you are an imposter. So it's like, okay, I'm trying something new, I am an imposter. So what? Let's do it anyway. Which leads me to my story.
Jen: I can't wait to hear this.
Peter: I can't remember if I've told you this fully yet. I am one of the biggest imposters there is, which is just worth getting out there for the podcast listeners, and so the story that I have goes back to when we first met, actually - so we met through the altMBA, an online workshop that you were taking at the time, and I was coaching a cohort of students through. And I recall we were - so it's a five week workshop, we were in about week two, and obviously I'd read some of your work by this point - I had a bit of an idea of who you were and what you were working on and was, you know, naturally very impressed. And then I remember you sent me a message, and you said something along the lines of, "Hey Peter, I want to catch up with you, and I want you to just ask me all of the hard questions. I want you to grill me with as many hard questions as you can." I still remember where I was when I read this message.
Jen: I remember sending this message.
Peter: I read it, and - you talked about tidal wave of imposter syndrome - I just like, I felt like a cold sweat run over me, and I was like, "Who do you think you are to sit there and ask Jen Waldman a bunch of questions? Who are you going to, well, what are you going to have to say? You've got nothing to contribute. You've got nothing that she's going to get any value out of." This overwhelming imposter syndrome kicked in immediately, and so I thought, "Okay, what am I going to do here? What am I going to do here? What am I going to do? Oh, I know what I'll do. I'll get a piece of paper and I'll write as many questions as I can possibly think of." So I wrote - it must have been close to a hundred questions, like anything. There were no restrictions on what questions I was writing down. I was just getting down as many questions as I could possibly think of. And I went around and around around and thought, you know, I'll really over-prepared for this, which for those who know me, it's not something I usually do. I'm not an over-preparer at all. I like to take things in the moment very much, and show up, and see where things land. Regardless, I then had a conversation with my co-coach at the time, and she basically shook me and was like, "What are you doing? Snap out of it. You're okay. You got this. Just be Pete. Just show up and be Pete," - something that she's really good at reminding me of still to this day. And so I looked - I was like, "You know, I think you're right." And I looked at my list of notes and I was like, "Who wrote these notes? I don't, I don't write pages of notes before a twenty-five minute call with a student. This is like, it's just Jen, I'm just going to show up and we're going to have a chat and it's gonna be amazing." And so I stood there and I tore my notes in half, threw them in the bin, remember logging onto Zoom at the time with a blank notepad, and I was like, "Hey Jen, what's the hard part right now?" I think that was the opening question, and then the rest unfolded, and we had an amazing conversation that ultimately leads us to us being here right now, recording this podcast.
Jen: Peter, the thing that's going through my mind is: What if you had let the imposter win in that moment? Because I remember that conversation; I think of it as a pivotal moment in my personal development, and the moment in our relationship becoming something beyond "coach/student," like becoming a collaboration, and I can't even imagine - like I literally can't imagine what I would be doing in this moment in time if you hadn't actually made it past that moment of imposter syndrome to show up for me in the way that you did. Whoa.
Peter: It's crazy, right? And what's even more crazy - let's not overuse that term - is: you think about that moment where both of us, or both of our moments, where we were able to overcome to some degree the imposter syndrome that we face, and then you think about all the moments where, you know, the imposter got the better of us. And I don't want to harp on experiences that I might have missed out on - old relationships that may not have formed because I didn't show up in a way that I should have - but the message being: if you show up and see your imposter and run away from it, I think there's a potential to miss out on a bunch of stuff. I think that's, that's almost acting with a fixed mindset, to some degree, of like, "Oh, that thing's a bit new and a bit scary and I'm - it makes me feel like an imposter. I'll just go back here and keep, you know, go back and do the thing that I know how to do comfortably."
Jen: Wow. So, I have a dear friend who shared with me that he was watching - I can't remember what the television show was - but one of the characters said, "I've allowed myself two regrets for this lifetime, and I'm not going to waste one on this." And so when I think about looking back at all of the moments when I let the imposter beat me, and all of the missed opportunities, rather than framing them as regrets, I think I'm able now to look at those things as growth opportunities, because I now know better because I let the imposter win in those earlier moments of learning how to dance with my imposter. It's like, well, that was too scary, so I gave in or gave up or I pretended like I didn't notice what was happening, but now connecting that dot to this dot of I know what is possible when you run toward the bang, when you decide to dance with the imposter, when you say, "yes, and..." and you move forward, that you can commit to these learning moments and reframe all those past regrets as opportunities to do better the next time.
Peter: Yeah. I think the word that you used with "dance," which I think is so applicable to imposter syndrome because it's never ending, right? There's always going to be moments, if you are acting with a growth mindset, there should always be moments where imposter syndrome comes up, and so it is a dance. It's not something that you, you know, "crush," you know people say "crush your fears," which is cool, but I'm also kind of like, I think you need a dance with your fears. I think you need a dance with your imposter because it's not going to go away. It's not going to go anywhere. And then the other term you used, which I love, was "growth." And what I sometimes refer to imposter syndrome as is almost like growing pains. So for those who don't know, quick story: for those who don't know, I'm six foot seven. When I was sixteen, I grew something like fifteen centimetres in a twelve month period (and for you North American-folk, that's around about six inches). It's a whole lot of growing in a twelve month period. And I still, to this day, I remember the growing pains that I went through that year of like the pain in my shin, the pains in my back, the pains in my hips, I couldn't - I basically couldn't do exercise for a year, such was the growing pains that I went through. But I came out the other side as this six foot seven beanpole to be honest. But my point is that growing pains exist physically when we go through something like getting tall, but I also think growing pains exist mentally when we go through something like a growth opportunity. So it's almost like when you hear that voice of imposter syndrome, when you feel that doubt, that fear start to come, it's almost reframing that as, "Oh, okay, this is a necessary growing pain for me to get where I want to go," and so I need to get through that in order to get there.
Jen: I think it's really important to double down on this idea, because I heard it go by, and then I wanted to back up. Say that again. So, a growth mindset essentially requires that imposter syndrome be present, because if you are committed to growth, you are committed to putting yourself into situations we've never been in before, thereby requiring you to be an imposter until you've gone through that thing, you are no longer an imposter, and now you must seek out the next opportunity to step into imposter syndrome.
Peter: Exactly, yeah. Well, you just summed it up so much better than I did. Thank you.
Jen: I don't even know if there's anything else to add there. I felt the urge to say, and that's The Long and The Short Of It.
Peter: Then you know what, Jen, that is The Long and The Short Of It.