Musings + Essays

Nobody and Somebody.

By: Jen Shoop

Several years ago, one of Mr. Magpie’s dearest friends, Andrew Harnik (a celebrated political photojournalist who works for the Associated Press and routinely travels with the president — it’s because of him that I own a pack of Air Force One branded M+Ms), was asked to serve as a judge for the prestigious RFK Journalism Awards.  At the time, I was traveling every other week from Chicago to D.C. for work, and Andrew asked if I would attend the awards as his date, as I happened to be in town.  I accepted his gracious invitation.  The day of the event was a particularly tumultuous one: at the time, I had just stepped into the role of interim executive director for a non-profit organization after the sitting director had rather abruptly stepped down.  I was still getting my bearings and felt at once ill-equipped for the job and determined to deliver.  I’d flown in that morning from Chicago to a stretch of back-to-back meetings.  The staff was at an all-time low from a morale standpoint given recent transitions and dislocations, and I’d decided to put together a somewhat schmaltzy surprise “awards ceremony” of my own that afternoon, where I designed a slideshow featuring every staff member, calling out their strengths, and awarding them with t-shirts emblazoned with inside jokes/names on the back–things like “Hawaii Joe,” “That Guy in the Corner,” etc.  You know–nicknames that are amusing within the context of the occasionally strained dynamics of a young workplace.  That afternoon, we had a good time laughing at each other, and I felt I’d accomplished something material.  Then I shifted gears entirely as I returned to my office for an impromptu meeting with the head counsel of the non-profit’s chairman, who was an inscrutable, daunting fellow — one who tended to stop by unannounced to check in on things, leaving only after he’d made me feel thoroughly ill-at-ease in my new role.  (“Can you get a P+L statement to me?”  “I’ve never done one –” “Here’s the accountant’s number.  Connect with him and then get it to me as soon as you can.”  “OK.”)

By six o’clock, I was fried.  I’d been awake since 5:30 a.m., then jerked up and down the emotional and intellectual confidence spectrum, and I felt — as I often did back then — as though I was a little girl dressed up as a woman, playing charades, just waiting for someone to stop me and say: “Wait a minute!  Who are you and why are you pretending to run this organization?  You shouldn’t be here!  Who let her in?”

Later, I would realize that I was suffering from a serious case of imposter syndrome, something common among women in positions of authority.  That said, I was, on reflection, poorly equipped for the role.  Well, that’s not entirely true–I was industrious, dedicated, and good at managing the team.  Through trial and error and the observation of a string of very bad managers, I’d learned, over time, to be a mindful manager.  The team seemed happier, more at ease, with me at the helm, and we got a lot done together.  I managed to improve team morale while demanding — and receiving — a high level of productivity.  But I was woefully inexperienced and naive on the business side of things.  It would take many years and two additional executive roles for me to learn to think like a businesswoman — to weigh the economics when making a decision, to orient myself around the customer, to understand that no decisions in business are impersonal.

I remember shutting myself into the narrow bathroom of our small Georgetown office — a charming stone building with exposed wood beams and creaky stairs — and wriggling awkwardly into a cocktail dress to change for Andrew’s event.  I looked in the mirror and heaved a sigh of relief: “OK, finally a venue you’ll feel comfortable in: a social one, with a good friend, and no responsibilities.”  I looked forward to a night “off duty,” without the onus of my newfound responsibilities dangling over my head.  I’d recently attended multiple networking events on the non-profit front and found myself intimidated by the other directors I was meant to build rapport with.  So many of them were tenured, educated–and over 50.  I was young, green, still learning the patois.

I cabbed downtown to the Newseum and, early into the event, found myself shuttling back into the zone of discomfort.  I was, once again, an outsider — awkwardly making small-talk with smart, accomplished people in the media, clumsily asking what people did and where they worked with no clue as to what it entailed.

Caroline Kennedy was presiding over the awards, and I marveled at how confident and well-spoken she was, honoring the many talented journalists who paraded in front of me.  She was graceful, but with gravitas.  When will that be me?  I wondered.  Meanwhile, I felt as though I should have known all of journalists, but I knew none.  I clapped as if I did, grimacing at my lack of sophistication.

At the end of the event, Andrew and I were preparing to leave when Caroline Kennedy paused to thank Andrew and exchange some pleasantries.  I stood awkwardly next to him, and was unprepared when she turned to me, smiled, and shook my hand:

“And who are you?” she asked.

“Oh, I’m nobody,” I said with an awkward smile, looking at Andrew.  I think I might have also bowed at the waist in a bizarre gesture of servitude, but I can’t be too sure.  I might have blacked out for a second.

“What?!” she asked incredulously.  “Of course you’re somebody.  Let’s try that again.  I’m Caroline.  Who are you?”

I have often thought back on this watershed moment.  I’ve re-told it a few times for comedic effect, miming my graceless, robotic bow at the waist to poke fun at myself–but the truth is that Caroline Kennedy changed my life that evening at the Newseum.

I had intended to say “I’m not in the media,” or “I’m not a journalist,” or “I’m just a guest here,” as I assumed she had been trying to match a face to a name or determine who I was in the industry — but the words spoke volumes about how I felt about myself at the time.

Later that evening, as I washed my face, I looked in the mirror and thought: “You’re not nobody.  You’re not somebody yet, but you’re not nobody either.”

Earlier this week, I tuned into an interview with the singer Lauryn Hill, who, after winning Grammys and amassing astounding fortune and celebrity for her work as lead singer of the Fugees and then as a solo artist with her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (incidentally, Mr. Magpie’s favorite album of all time), pretty much ghosted from the music industry.  She explained that she hadn’t had enough experience since the release of her previous record to create a new and authentic piece of art.  “Life is peaks and valleys,” she explained.  “Or as I like to think of it, education, then mastery, education, then mastery.”

All these many years later, I find myself in a similar state of evolution, shedding old identities and forging new ones, moving from a position of mastery to one of learning–always, as I recently shared, in the posture of the novitiate.  I am reminded, during these moments of transition, of the exchange with Caroline Kennedy, as I relate to the feeling of greenness that I then had, but with an important new filter: for many years now, I have thought of myself as a somebody, even when I’m trying my hand at something new.

Post-Script: The Staud Shirley + Other Finds.

+This Staud tote has been errywhere (including on the Instas of Eva Chen and Leandra Medine, shown above — so you know it’s good) and I’m so depressed I missed out on it in the croc texture.  You can still snag it in white, which is also pretty badass.

+I have been lusting after a classic Burberry trench for at least a decade now, but continue to let my incorrigible habit of buying the latest “It” shoe get in the way.  This inexpensive but classic style will do for now.  Sometimes I see something like this and immediately think of the entire outfit I want to wear it with (like I did with this all-pink situation) — with this trench, I want to wear these distressed jeans, slightly masculine loafers, and this petal pink cashmere sweatshirt.

+One of you (heiiii MK) recently asked for some exercise gear inspo, and I realized it’s been like 24 years since I’ve featured athletic-wear, which is embarrassingly reflective of my sedentary lifestyle at the moment.  Well, that’s uncharitable: I actually lead a highly pedestrian lifestyle; we walk EVERYWHERE, and I take Tilly for dozens of long walks each week.  But real exercise?  Sigh.  I’ll get to it in the spring…?  Still: I was taken by the chinoiserie-inspired prints on this collection!  Love the leggings in particular.  I also love this pair in the gray/white colorway.

+In a fit of rage against the weather, I bought this cheery gingham top in pink.  You can get the look for less with this slightly edgier variation.

+I’m dying over this new print from Roberta Roller Rabbit.  SO CUTE.  Does mini need these for our trip to FL?

+Inslee’s desktop calendars on sale!!!  My bestie gave me one for Christmas and I never knew how much I needed one until she did.  I use it CONSTANTLY — when making appointments and plans, it’s so easy to have it just a glance away!

+This blouse I’ve been coveting just went on sale!

+I’m obsessed with these.  Statement earrings FTW.  So wild!

+These are pretty and would go with everything!

+A guilty pleasure waiting to happen.

+Mini turns one in a month (!!!!), so I’m stocking up on party supplies like this.

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13 thoughts on “Nobody and Somebody.

  1. Jen this speaks volumes and because of your thoughtful, kind words about our dear Alison I’ve found this meaningful bit of your writing. Could not be more timely for me as I forge my own brand. Thank you! I am somebody too.

  2. Awww, Jen! Found my way here through your “all the pretty horses” links in these uncertain times (after being grateful your post was not a Cormac McCarthy rec, don’t think I could handle his (beautiful but) bleak writing right now ;), and this post brought tears to my eyes.

    “I’m nobody.” I could totally see myself saying that—had I ever been at an event like that. Thank you for sharing this part of your story with us. Resonant even years later. xo.

    1. Thank you so much!! I am sad this resonates with so many people but it’s SO common to feel this way, especially as a young woman. xx

  3. I’m so happy to have stumbled upon this today. I’m considering a new (scary) opportunity at work that’s going to launch me back to the “education” phase. Not only is it okay to not know everything, it’s richer that way. Keep doing what you do!

    1. Thank you, Kristen! So glad you stumbled upon it, too. Lovely when you find just the right words at just the right time. I completely agree, too, on your point about not knowing everything — not too long ago, I listened to a wonderful podcast interviewing Lauryn Hill and she made the point that life is a succession of peaks and valleys on the learning scale: moving from master to student, master to student, master to student. And if you don’t take the opportunity to become a student again, you’re really not pushing yourself hard enough. xo

  4. Jen, chiming in a couple weeks late to say I absolutely loved this post – I did EXACTLY the same thing at an event I was attending with my boss. I was new to the job, new to New York, and had a similar mirror conversation later that evening (although mine was less eloquent): “you’re not the important person in the room, but you are on that invite list too.” You have such a beautiful way of describing inflection points like these- thank you for this lovely corner of the internet! And of course, for sharing the immortal teachings of Mrs. Mattingly.

    1. Oh my gosh, really?? Such a formative experience! Thanks for the kind words, and for reading along 🙂 xo

  5. Love this story so much — not only because I am a huge Caroline Kennedy fan, but because of the underlying message. I have found myself dealing with impostor syndrome at different points in my working life, and it’s so important to remember that I am somebody, too.

    Oh hey! A shoutout! Thanks so much for the recs. I’ve never heard of Carbon38 but like the looks of the botanical-inspired gear. I have my eye on a set from Outdoor Voices (boring, as I have probably talked 1,000 times about how much I love their workout gear, but I’m interested in their new(er), lighter fabric!)

    That book sounds intriguing and I love that it has, somewhat incongruously, a blurb from Roxane Gay (?!) I kind of want to read it now!

    1. OMG – you are so observant. The Roxane Gay quote on the cover sold the book to me! HAHA! #Losers.

      Thanks for the sweet words, as always 🙂 CK has no idea how much of an influence she had on me!


  6. Hi – love reading your site. This is the second time you’ve mentioned listening to someone’s interview recently and I meant to ask last time – is this a podcast you listen to? Would love to know where you are listening, they sound great.

    1. Hi! Yes, these are all podcasts from the same series — What It Takes by the Academy of Achievement! My husband and best friend routinely make fun of me for mentioning it all the time, but it is THAT good!

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