There was this moment and it honestly should not have been a big deal, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in the airport. I was traveling to some academic conference and I was in the lobby area. It was a busy airport, and I was listening to my iPod (gives you and idea as to this timeframe) with one earbud off so I can listen out for announcements. I remember that I was specifically listening to the Oasis album, What’s the Story Morning Glory. As I am standing there, I can hear other people in the cue talking on their phones. There is the one guy speaking with his lawyer and discussing a real estate deal for their expansion, another discussing the long-term benefits of restructuring their division, and a third woman speaking with her graphic design team for a project they were about to launch. Everyone in the cue seemed so important, they all seemed taller than me, more adult, more attractive, more well put together. I felt like a fraud like an imposter. Everyone around me were adulting way more than I was. I was 45 years old.
I mean sure, I was on my way to a professional conference where I was chosen to present. I had my doctorate and had the title of Executive Director, but this voice was just there, whispering to me, “Michael, you don’t belong here.” In many ways I looked the part. I had on my business travel attire, I had just slapped down my laptop after approving several documents, one of my first goals when I arrived at my location was to write more for a chapter I had been selected to contribute to a book. I know I am not a fraud, but why did I feel like one?
Well, because Imposter Syndrome is real. Imposter Syndrome is well known but it is generally understood to be where you doubt your abilities and qualifications and you feel as if at some point those who know better are going to discover this about you. So, there is a need to either overcompensate or try to hide in plain sight to shake folks of the imposter scent trail. And I am good at this. I tend to use humor and be self-deprecating as a defense mechanism to not be found out. I also appeal to others and often defer power to keep myself hidden from other’s radars. And for years this sense of underselling my worth seemed to work. I would make up for my personal sense of shortcomings by working my butt off and taking on the most work with the lowest profile.
Imposter syndrome can hit anyone and almost everyone has suffered from it but there are groups who often disproportionally suffer from imposter syndrome. Minorities, women, low income, and first-generation students often find themselves doubting their place and worth. I fell into the last two descriptors growing up. What tends to happen is folks like ourselves grow up with few models for the lives we are destined to live. Both of my parents were inspirational. Hard-working blue-collar parents but neither went to college and they punched a clock their entire careers. And I admire both for it, but I wanted to go to college and eventually work in higher ed. This route meant I had few people in my life who understood what I did and how to help me get to the next phase of my career.
So, what I did for most of my life is to imitate those around me to fit in. When I was a kid, I wanted others to think I am smart, so I always carried books with me. I would scour over newspapers and magazines to learn to speak and act more adult. I got so good at it that I even had a family friend gave me a book one Christmas titled; “How to Act Like A Child, a guide for kids who act too grown-up.” It was a literal manual for kids who acted too grown up. I know it was parody, but it certainly sent a message.
I think that was when I started regressing. Until then I used to think I belonged at the adult table and playing Trivial Pursuit along side the adults. Afterall I often got more answers right than they did. But I remember feeling some sort of way about being given that book, like maybe I needed to defer power to the adults. I was 12 at the time, I think. So, I did, and I do not think I ever looked back. From then on, I would use humor as a defense, I would defer to those who were older and whom I felt were wiser. I did not want to make people feel like I was acting above my raisin and that I knew my place and respected authority. I did this regardless of the setting. Academic, social, family, I always felt it was better to be second than left off the team entirely.
So, there I stood, sinking once again at that airport. Feeling like just because I preferred listening to Wonderwall than to get on the horn with my finance department that all these men and women, who were all around my age and experience. And I must admit, I still feel this way often. There are still many moments where I do not feel like I belong, but that day gave me resolve to try harder.
My current role in the Florida Consortium is a perfect storm for imposter syndrome. I am placed in rooms with Presidents and Provosts and Deans all the time and most of the time I am expected to be the leader of the meeting. They are looking to me for guidance and often I meet that challenge with a crippling fear they will see me as a fraud. So, I overprepare and up until about 18 months ago, I always planned to under deliver. Better to roll conservative than to show boldness and get chewed up. But it was a President’s Council meeting before the pandemic, and I made a strategic change. I instead of being at a podium with a PowerPoint, I sat at the table and had a conversation. I decided to look people in the eyes, speak with the authority I have been granted to listen to what our leaders need and to absorb those things I do not understand by asking questions and following-up. Because I have learned more recently that Imposter Syndrome is less about what you do not know that exposes you, its more about what you fail to listen to because you have decided you were not worthy of receiving the message.
I am sure I will always suffer from some sense of imposter syndrome. But what I have learned is that there is not shame in feeling unsure. If I do not know something, I ask. If I am not the right person, I step aside. But what I do not di is assume I am not the right person. I figure out how I can help, I tone down the humor, and I get to work. And I have been more confident ever since.