Awards and Imposter Syndrome (Updated for 2017)

I wrote the following on an older blog in February, 2015, so coming up on 3 years ago now. I was thinking about it the other day in the context of new developments in my life and thought it might be worth re-posting and updating.

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I’m not often one to get on board with popular culture or internet buzzwords, trends, or movements. It might be my sarcasm or my cynicism, but my skin crawls a little bit at some of the clichés that have been floating around over the past few years. However, there is one term that has gained popularity over the past couple of years that I really think warrants the discussion and attention it has been getting — and that is imposter syndrome.

A few weeks ago I was listening to the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” and in episode 17, hosts Ann and Amina start talking about imposter syndrome. They read a letter from a 23 year old listener in Philadelphia who just finished her master’s degree and secured her first “real job.” The letter says she is in a “decent apartment in the city,” a “serious relationship with a man she loves” and “even manages to take care of two cats.” She later goes on to say she “Can’t stop thinking about what the hell she’s supposed to do now,” noting she feels it’s too soon to start thinking about marriage or a doctoral program, but without the busy-ness of school, multiple jobs and internships she feels stagnant. She also feels as though no one should be allowing her to work with clients at her job “without supervision,” or even let her handle her own finances. The letter asks if the hosts had any similar experiences transitioning from academia into the “real world” and asked when they started feeling like a “competent adult” and for tips and tricks on “adulting.” (Side note…I feel like I wrote this letter several years ago — minus the cats; #teamdog) The hosts go on to share their own stories, making funny jokes along the way, but then Ann comments, “All the research shows incompetent people don’t worry about being imposters. Imposter syndrome only afflicts people who are good at what they do…you have imposter syndrome because you are good at what you do.” This was a really interesting take on the imposter syndrome idea, which I feel is too often discussed through the lens of female empowerment, even though men can also experience it. This idea really stuck with me. But, it wasn’t until this week that I realized just how true this is, at least in my own life.

A few months ago, the university I got my master’s degree from was putting out a link to nominate people for their third annual “40 Under 40” awards. The qualifications were minimal; the nominee basically had to be under 40, a Drexel degree recipient, and “should have achieved demonstrated success in business, the private or nonprofit sector, the arts, community involvement or advocacy.” You had to answer a few questions about the nominee and send in their resume, and you were allowed to nominate yourself. On a whim, I decided to do just that — which, as a sidebar, nominating yourself for an award is an exercise everyone should go through at least once because it forces you to think about just how awesome you are.

I answered the questions, leaning heavily on the “success in the nonprofit sector” and “community involvement or advocacy” ideas, attached my resume, and didn’t think much about it afterwards. I have seen the past two years’ lists and I really didn’t think I would be selected; although I recognize the importance of my accomplishments, they really don’t compare to other people’s on the list…or so I thought.

A few weeks later I got an e-mail saying I was chosen, and my first thought was “That’s so awesome! They must have not gotten many nominees” because for whatever reason it would be inconceivable that they would choose me out of a wide applicant pool. In an old blog where I highlighted “10 Spectacular Things Happening Right Now,” to go off a theme that a friend had blogged about, I actually wrote: “10. My graduate school was recently accepting nominations for a “40 under 40” award and I nominated myself. They’ve been doing the award for the past 2 years, and while nominating yourself is allowed, it was a very interesting exercise to have to go through. I highly recommend nominating yourself for something as it makes you really think about how awesome you truly are! I am still back and forth with them about a few things, so I don’t want to say anything for sure, but if the 2013 and 2014 winners are any indication, to even be considered among such an impressive group is an honor!” When I wrote that, I actually already knew I had been selected, but I thought there must have been some mistake and I didn’t want to put it out there until I saw it for myself in print. Let me say that again: I was confident enough in my own work to nominate MYSELF for an award, but upon finding out I won, I assumed there was a MISTAKE.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a mistake, and when the full list was posted, I noticed the introduction paragraph said they received over 200 applicants, and upon reading that my first thought was “Wow, 200, that’s WAY more than I thought, I can’t believe I was selected in the top 40 of over 200 nominees…I bet they really have been pressured to include more applicants from their online programs since many people feel online programs are the future of higher education.” So, let’s recap again…when I first found out I won, I figured there must not have been many applicants. When I found out there WERE a lot of applicants, I figured there must have been some other political-correctness reason I was chosen. AND THIS WAS FOR AN AWARD I FELT CONFIDENT ENOUGH TO NOMINATE MYSELF FOR.

I’m just going to say it — I am early in my career and I’m by no means an expert in it but I am pretty awesome at what I do. I work on challenging issues with challenging populations, in a field (education) that is often thankless. I have met with the Delaware Secretary of Education about issues facing the communities I work with, and I have gone to Washington DC and spoken to our senators and congressMAN (Delaware only gets one…update for 2017, it is now a CongressWOMAN, yay, although I haven’t met her) about these issues as well. I have turned around failing programs at nonprofits and have improved many others. I have purposely put myself in workplaces where I am the minority, in an effort to understand other cultures and the issues they face in this country. I sit on the board of a charter school and currently work at a university that has a lot of important history behind it. People on the ground doing the grassroots work aren’t normally the ones to be recognized, but we deserve it, and I know this — so why would I think that my alma matter would disagree? I should be proud to have graduated from an institution that thinks doing the work I do is just as important as starting major businesses, innovating new and important products, or creating documentaries and other work viewed by many — so why, instead, do I assume winning this award was some kind of accident?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. But I do think we all need to become more cognizant of imposter syndrome and how it affects our self-perception. I encourage everyone reading this to sit and write a paragraph like the one above, explaining just how amazing your accomplishments are and why you deserve to win and award — whatever award you want, even an imaginary award if you can’t think of an existing award you are interested in winning. Then I encourage you to put that paragraph online for the world to see. Maybe you won’t win this year or even in the next five years, but I bet if you put yourself out there enough, one day you will. I am amazing, and so are you! Happy “this-is-why-I’m-awesome” paragraph writing!

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Update for 2017:

Well, it’s almost 3 years later, and although I think I’ve gotten better about this in some ways, in other ways I am still just as bad. I am currently in the process of writing my dissertation and every time I get good feedback on my drafts from my chair, I think to myself “He must only be skimming it, he must not REALLY be reading it.” Why? Why do we do this? I know I am a decent writer, and while I think my drafts could use a bit of work, I know I know the topic and that the writing is good. So why do I think it is unfathomable he would agree?

I still think Imposter Syndrome and confidence overall is something a lot of people really struggle with. As I alluded to in my original post, it is often discussed in terms of women in the workplace and while I do think women experience this more than men, I think it can happen to men too. In this post I wrote a few months ago, where I actually quote from this Imposter Syndrome post, I talk about confidence overall and how it can be kind of a mindfuck for everyone. A quote from this article sums up why I personally feel we hear about it from men less, and why I think that if we really want to discuss women failing to advance in the workplace, we need to put more of the onus on employers and less on the alleged confidence issues women face:

So why do we still talk about impostor syndrome as a women’s issue? Cuddy suggests that men are less likely to talk about feelings of impostorism than women are because of “stereotype backlash,” or social punishment for failing to conform to stereotypes (in this case, the stereotype that men are assertive and confident). Clance agrees. “I think women are more likely to say some of their doubts and fears, and there’s more cultural pressure on men not to do so,” she said.

Impostorism also seems more political and potentially consequential when women experience it. We know that women don’t reach the upper echelons of management in the same numbers as men, but we don’t always agree on why — and women’s insecurity is an appealingly simple explanation that takes the blame off employers. The author of a 2011 book called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It acknowledged in an interview that men and women experience impostor syndrome in equal numbers but said she decided to aim her book at women because “80 percent of my speaking engagements come at the request of women for their female employees or students. More importantly, I aimed the book at women … because chronic self-doubt tends to hold them back more.” Whether women are more held back by chronic self-doubt than by discrimination and systemic obstacles is open to debate.

Since writing this post, I’ve also read more research on the topic which basically confirms what the Call Your Girlfriend hosts were saying all those years ago: People who are bad at their jobs don’t worry about it, and actually often think they are doing well.

I say all that to say, even advancing further in my career and becoming more aware of the research surrounding these issues has not completely got rid of the problem for me. It has taken a conscious effort on my part to try to avoid these types of thoughts when they enter my mind. After the third or fourth round of positive dissertation feedback, I had to convince myself that maybe I was actually doing a good job. Friends (and twitter) help with this, as I can say a bunch of sarcastic and self deprecating stuff and everyone can tell me I am being ridiculous, but ultimately it comes down to changing the language you speak to yourself with in your own mind.

I still encourage everyone to take a minute and write something positive about themselves and share it with everyone! (Or at least with me, because I am nosy and I want to congratulate you!) It is an interesting exercise and I think we could all use a little positivity these days.

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Lover of dogs, food, coffee, bourbon, and exploring new places.

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Sarah

Lover of dogs, food, coffee, bourbon, and exploring new places.