Recently, my friend Phoummala Schmitt, aka “ExchangeGoddess” and Microsoft Cloud Operations Advocate, wrote about her struggles with imposter syndrome (https://orangematter.solarwinds.com/beating-imposter-syndrome/). It's a good read that I highly recommend. But one element of it stuck with me, like an itch I couldn't quite reach.
I knew this itch wasn't that someone as obviously talented and accomplished as Phoummala would experience imposter syndrome. It's been well-documented that some of the most high-achieving folks struggle with this issue. It wasn't even the advice to "strike a pose" even though—because I work from home—if I did that too often my family might start taking pictures and trolling me on Twitter.
No, the thing that I found challenging was the advice to "fake it."
Now, to be clear, there's nothing particularly wrong with adopting a “fake it till you make it” attitude, if that works for you. The challenge is that for many folks, it reinforces exactly the feelings that imposter syndrome stirs up. The knowledge that I am purposely faking something can work against the ultimate goal of me feeling comfortable in my own skin and my own success.
Then I caught a quote from Neal Gaiman that went viral. The full post is here (http://neil-gaiman.tumblr.com/post/160603396711/hi-i-read-that-youve-dealt-with-with-impostor), but the part that really caught my eye was this sentence:
"Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people [...] doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."
Maybe there weren't any grown-ups.
This gave me the nugget of an idea. If nobody is actually an adult, then what are we? The obvious answer is that we're still kids wearing grown-up suits. We're all playing pretend.
Yes, I know, "playing pretend" is almost the same as "faking it"—except, not really.
When you play pretend you acknowledge the reality that Mrs. Finklestein is really a bear wearing your wig, the necklace you stole is out of Mom's jewelry box, and that there's no tea in the cup—but you simply opt to not focus on that part. You’re focusing on how Mrs. Finklestein just told you the most interesting bit of neighborhood gossip, and that this tea is just the right temperature and delicious. When you play pretend, a magical transformation occurs.
The movie Hook had a lot of drawbacks, but this scene captures the wonder of imagination pretty well.
Imagination can carry us to an important place. A place where we give ourselves permission to go with our craziest guesses, or invest fully in our weirdest ideas. To explore our wildest ramblings and see where it all leads. And more importantly, imagination allows us to run down rabbit holes to a dead end without regret. With imagination, it truly is the journey that matters.
I remember a teacher talking about one of her best techniques for helping students get "un-stuck." When a student would say "I don't know," she would respond, "Imagine you did know. What would you say if that was true?" Sometimes, imagining ourselves in a position of knowing is all it takes to knock a recalcitrant piece of knowledge loose.
As adults, we may feel that imagination is something we set aside long ago. That may be true, but it wasn't to our benefit.
As Robert Fulghum wrote:
"Ask a kindergarten class, ‘How many of you can draw?’ and all hands shoot up. Yes, of course we can draw—all of us. What can you draw? Anything! How about a dog eating a fire truck in a jungle? Sure! How big you want it?
How many of you can sing? All hands. Of course we sing! What can you sing? Anything! What if you don't know the words? No problem, we make them up. Let's sing! Now? Why not!
How many of you dance? Unanimous again. What kind of music do you like to dance to? Any kind! Let's dance! Now? Sure, why not?
Do you like to act in plays? Yes! Do you play musical instruments? Yes! Do you write poetry? Yes! Can you read and write and count? Yes! We're learning that stuff now.
Their answer is ‘Yes!’ Over and over again, ‘Yes!’ The children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources, and eager to learn. Everything is still possible.
Try those same questions on a college audience. A small percentage of the students will raise their hands when asked if they draw or dance or sing or paint or act or play an instrument. Not infrequently, those who do raise their hands will want to qualify their response with their limitations: ‘I only play piano, I only draw horses, I only dance to rock and roll, I only sing in the shower.’
When asked why the limitations, college students answer they do not have talent, are not majoring in the subject, or have not done any of these things since about third grade, or worse, that they are embarrassed for others to see them sing or dance or act. You can imagine the response to the same questions asked of an older audience. The answer: no, none of the above.
What went wrong between kindergarten and college?
What happened to ‘YES! Of course I can’?"
(excerpted from “Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door” by Robert Fulghum)
So, I want to fuse these ideas together. Ideas that:
- We sometimes feel like imposters, about to be discovered for the frauds we feel we are
- "Fake it till you make it" doesn't go far enough to help us avoid those feelings
- Maybe none of us are actually grown-ups, but instead are still our childlike selves, all acting the part of adults
- Imagination is one of our most powerful tools to get past our rigid self-image and gives us permission to playact
- And that the childlike ability to say "YES, of course I can" is infinitely more valuable than we might have once thought
Maybe we need to take to heart what Gaiman said. There aren't any grown-ups. Every adult you know is a little kid wearing a big-person suit, muddling along and hoping nobody notices. But we need to take it to heart, accept it, and own it. Own the fact that we're little kids. Reclaim the brash, the bold, the brazen selves we used to be. When you’re experiencing an attack of self-doubt, I encourage you to imagine you’re 8 years old—your 8-year-old self—doing the same task. How would that kid go about it?
Sure, in the years since then we've all had a few scrapes and bumps.
But that doesn't mean we should stop imagining what it would be like to fly.