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If I Was a Grownup, This is the Essay I’d Write

Level 17

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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.

9 Comments
Level 14

I think there's a lot of truth here.  We never stop learning and growing.  Thanks. 

Level 13

Thought provoking.

Level 13

As always, very thought provoking and interesting post adatole​.  I'm in the same boat with you on exchangegoddess​'s Imposter Syndrome post.  I keep going back to it and thinking about it.  I'm definitely in the "I'm still a kid" category in a lot of ways.  Mostly trying to stay curious, interested in everything and trying to avoid hardening of the attitudes.  I'm definitely going to mull this one over more.  Thanks for the post.

Leon, your words put MANY images in my mind.  Here are a few that happen to have Youtube videos to reference against:

  • "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."

School of Rock the Musical UK - You're in the Band - YouTube

  • If nobody is actually an adult, then what are we? The obvious answer is that we're still kids wearing grown-up suits."

From The Partridge Family:

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  • " . . . 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."

Mrs. Beasley, from Family Affair, had that down pat:

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  • Your link to a great "Imposter Syndrome" quote was much appreciated:

"if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for."

Thank you for this thought-provoking topic that has long been on my mind.  Until Thwack, I'd never heard the term "Impostor Syndrome", but I've known the feelings that come with it, from way back in the 1960's.  Maybe it's just another part of being human.

MVP
MVP

Level 14

It's really wierd how we all feel this way.

It touches all phases of our lives...

Thank you Leon.

Level 20

For some reason this makes me think of this Haribo candy commercial lololol:  2017 Haribo Gummy Commercial!!! HD - YouTube

Level 14

I don't want to grow up.

If only some people would admit they don't know something instead of saying they do then completely messing things up and leaving me to pick up the pieces.

I am all too aware of my limitations but I am also aware that I can learn new stuff and I don't let my limitations hold me back.  I do let them make me stop and think before I rashly plough on and wreck something.

MVP
MVP

Very good article. Thanks for the post and the article you referenced.

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.