Young, and feeling like a total impostor
My first year in business, I made a grand total of $20K, which was enough to pay my bills (barely). To eat, I would go to the upscale pizza restaurant down the street from where I lived. I would bring my computer to the bar and work from there, drinking nothing but water, hoping some guy would come in, sit next to me and ask, “Why aren’t you eating?” To which I would respond, “Because you haven’t ordered for me yet.”
Believe it or not, this happened twice, and both men just seemed to know that I needed help. Not only did they buy me lunch, which I ate half of and saved the rest for dinner, but they’d text me almost every morning, “Are you hungry?”
One of the guys worked for a law firm up the street that bought lunch for their employees. He got into the habit of texting me, “We’re getting lunch from ___. What would you like?” This went on for more than a year. We also went for walks during the day and chatted. They never asked about my financial situation or had other expectations. They just helped me.
Given my (relatively desperate) financial situation, I knew that I needed to either
- find a new full time job, or
- find a way to make money helping leaders engage young employees.
My first opportunity to be an impostor
A few short months after starting my business, I was asked to be a speaker on a panel of entrepreneurial women. While my head leaped at the marketing opportunity, my heart screamed out, “You can barely spell the word entrepreneur! You have no business being on that stage.”
The opportunity to help leaders get the best out of their younger, newer employees was driving me to step up and serve on this panel. Being on the panel would mean that I would have a chance to gain visibility, which could lead to doing the work that was calling to me.
I felt desperate to land the opportunity. So desperate.
Losing my sense of Purpose
I had lost the sense of purpose I once had in athletics and in college. When I was in school, successfully completing a project gave me a sense of accomplishment. But I had recently left a fellowship with the National Institutes of Health, as well as a short stint working for a government contractor, because those experiences seemed to be lacking, significantly, in clarity of completion or contribution. Being in those positions had left me reeling for a sense of accomplishment.
Having spent the first fifteen years of my life feeling like a waste of space (sports ultimately turned this around for me, giving me goals and a clear destination), I was terrified of going back to that place. As a child, I had learned that the only way to have a sense of worth was through accomplishment. As an athlete and as a student, the goals were clear, and so were the timelines. But as an adult, I didn’t know how to establish my own goals.
I thought (and hoped) that serving on the panel would give me a clear goal. Perhaps it could also give me that greater sense of accomplishment again. I hoped that maybe I would even land some speaking opportunities from it.
Then came the loud voices.
The voice of impostor syndrome crept it.
Here’s what the voice was trying to tell me:
- “As much as it could help your business, it could also harm your reputation if you don’t get it right.”
- “You’ve never moderated a panel, and you don’t know what you’re doing.”
- “What if you mess this up?”
- “What if they can see that you don’t know what you’re doing?”
- “You don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, speakers, moderators or even business owners.”
- “Back up and get some experience first.”
What if my past becomes my present and future?
I was also afraid the end result might make the words I’d heard from many adults growing up, true:
- “You’re pretty, but not very smart…”
- “You’ll have to work really hard to become anything in this world.”
And, I had just come out of a job that triggered all my old fears of worthlessness. I was afraid this could be the nail in my coffin (so to speak).
The voice of impostor syndrome told me that if I took this on, and didn’t get it right, I was done. I would be valueless, and therefore worthless.
I didn’t know a thing about business back then. But something in me knew this experience on stage had the potential of helping me land my first big contract.
Because I was desperate to gain the visibility, and possibly land an opportunity from being on this panel, I said “Yes,” and quickly began doing research on entrepreneurship.
A Shifted Opportunity
Fortunately, just a few days later, the organizers came upon a bit of a challenge. They needed someone to step up and moderate the panel I was on.
To some, such a shift in position (from speaking on a panel to moderating a panel) might cause more panic. For a while, it did the same thing to me.
For weeks after I agreed to moderate the panel, I worried incessantly. I even called the planning committee and suggested that I might be better as a panelist. Fortunately, they were supportive, and encouraged me with, “Misti, by moderating (instead of being on the panel), you’ll look like more of an expert.”
Look like an expert
Look like an expert were the words I held onto as I spent the following weeks reading and learning about my panelists. I also spent time researching how to moderate a panel.
“Being perceived as an expert could mean someone in my audience might actually think I’m capable of helping their leadership team,” I thought, as my excitement intensified. In fact, that perception was what I clung onto. Simply being the moderator gave me instant credibility, and left me feeling slightly more secure in playing the part.
The more I learned, the more excited I got. “I love to ask questions, rephrase and relate to what people are saying. This experience could be fun,” I thought as prepared.
Of course, my fears kept popping in too. I had plenty of mini panic attacks as I imagined the catastrophe of anything less than perfection. And, I didn’t even know what perfection looked like. I just knew I needed perfection, or else I might fail, and therefore, be worthless.
Was I actually an impostor?
On the day I moderated the panel, I was nervous at first, but I soon found that I didn’t have to be. Questions were easy to generate, and digging beneath the surface, on stage, was a blast!
Considering my level of experience in entrepreneurship, I was in the perfect position to moderate a panel of experienced women entrepreneurs.
My passion, intrigue and willingness to ask the deeper questions led to a lively discussion on stage that naturally translated into conversations with a few senior leaders in the hallway in between sessions. “What do you do, and how can you help our team?” were questions that came my way.
Feedback From Being An Impostor
Having never moderated a panel, I had no idea how to evaluate myself that day. However, one lady came up to me and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m impressed. Tell me more about what you do.” I hugged her! Her name was Zenia.
I was grateful that she was able to draw on her experiences with dozens of panels, and help me see that I had done a good job.
An Opportunity To Be An Impostor Again
Fast-forwarding just a few months. I found myself sitting in the senior vice president’s office (at the company where Zenia worked). I was excited to learn about their challenges with getting new, ambitious, nervous, and often a bit overconfident employees collaborating with their knowledgeable, and often annoyed, experienced leaders.
Asking questions, listening to their challenges and offering ideas to increase retention, engagement and collaboration among the generations, was exciting. I was feeling charged up and ready to work with them. That is, until they asked me to submit a proposal.
A proposal, what’s that?
I had honestly never submitted a proposal.
In fact, I had to use Google and call on a mentor to figure it out.
Once again, I felt like an impostor.
Two months later, I pulled up to the building where I was to begin coaching a half-dozen leaders, and I freaked out. What would normally take five minutes to get from my car to the lobby took me fifteen minutes. Panicking, I kept going back to my car thinking I’d forgotten something.
Of course, I hadn’t, but that didn’t stop me from doing it three times.
Finally, I got into the building, checked in with security and made my way to the conference room where I’d be coaching for the next few hours. My stomach was in knots and I kept downing coffee, thinking somehow that was going to help.
Of course it didn’t.
Coffee made me talk faster and less patient to listen (the key to great coaching is great listening).
What do you know about it?
(A.K.A. Are you an impostor?)
Then, a senior leader asked the question I unknowingly feared. “You’re young—what do you know about the challenges I’m facing in leadership?”
Yes, she was that blunt. And… she was right.
I didn’t know the first thing about what it was like to be in her position.
After spending a few minutes defending myself with my education and experiences, I finally said to her, “You know, you’re right. I don’t have a clue what it’s like to be in your position. I’ve never led a team, and I have no idea what you’re struggling with.”
Then, I said, “But I can tell you what it’s like to be led by someone, and the actions those leaders took (or could have taken) to get even better results from me.”
A Conversational Shift
With that, the direction of our conversation shifted.
And she felt like she could take my coaching to heart and implement it within her team. She started getting better results, and she wound up advocating that her colleagues go through my coaching program.
“The Impostor” Lands More Deals
Six months later, we signed another contract, and I had a chance to continue working with a half-dozen more leaders.
Early on in my career, I had people who were, fortunately, very supportive of me.
I say “Fortunately they were supportive” because a decade later, I wasn’t so fortunate. The perfect speaking opportunity landed in my lap and I scared it away, literally.
10 Years Later, Still An Impostor
The audience was a group of CEO’s in a demographic I enjoy learning about and working with. They wanted me to speak on giving and receiving candid, compassionate feedback, but they wanted me to do it for four hours.
I only had forty minutes of content at the time.
“Don’t worry about it, Misti,” the gentleman responsible for the training said, promising to help me expand my content into the four-hour time slot.
Moments before we signed the contract, he asked if I had any last questions. I said, “I’m just scared.” With that, he said, “This isn’t the right fit.” Then he concluded the meeting, and the opportunity was gone.
Does Impostor Syndrome Ever Go Away?
That said, nearly fifteen years into my career, I still find myself with butterflies in my stomach when I set out to deliver a speech or coach a new leader.
- “Do I have something they actually need?”
- “Has their organization already heard from someone like me?”
- “Can I hack it, or am I really just fooling myself?”
Questions like these often scare me into self-doubt.
Ultimately, I end up in a phone conversation with my business coach, or I draw on the earlier experiences of my career to help me remember what to do to overcome my own impostor syndrome.
Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
I’m not sure if all of these will work for you, but here’s what I have learned from these experiences, for how to overcome the sense we all sometimes have of being an impostor.
- Be honest with yourself and others about what you have to offer. It’s easy to lure yourself into thinking you should know something you don’t or be someone you’re not.
- Do your research. By gathering information on the people you’re meeting with, you set yourself up to focus on helping them, rather than concerning yourself with… yourself. The more you focus on them, the less you will worry about what you lack.
- Focus on your assets. By focusing on sharing your unique skills, experiences, and relationships, you give yourself (and them) a chance to benefit immediately.
- Request (and re-read) testimonials. Keep track of your accomplishments in an easily accessible folder, and refer back often to remind yourself of the value you bring.
- Be authentic. As I heard one pod caster say, “People who want your stuff, want your stuff.” So simple, and yet it’s easy to get sucked into thinking you need to be someone you’re not, or force your way into opportunities. Be you.
- Get good at asking questions. The more you know about their unique challenges, the better you’ll be able to help solve them, or point them in the direction of someone who can.
- Listen, listen, and listen some more. It’s easy to begin creating your response while the other person is still talking. It’s exceedingly more valuable to focus on what they’re saying, repeat what you heard, and then ask more questions.
- Help them. Make a connection, offer a resource, or simply send them an encouraging quote. Doing this every time will help you keep focused on giving what you have to offer, while shrinking the time you have to worry about what you don’t have.
- Be gentle and patient with yourself. Mistakes, lost opportunities and frustration are a part of the learning process. With time and practice, confidence replaces the once-crippling fear.
Have you discovered any strategies for overcoming impostor syndrome?
If so, I’d love to hear about them.
Here’s to your greatness,
Misti Burmeister has been helping leaders boost productivity and engagement across generations for more than 15 years. Help your team reach its highest potential at https://MistiBurmeister.com