Today, I am republishing in full an essay I wrote in 2019 on imposter syndrome and fear of criticism. It dances around a cluster of themes well worth revisiting from time to time, if only to afford a perch for self-awareness. The timing of its original publication now fascinates me. One of the many idiosyncrasies of a personal blog with a twelve-year-long tail: an unusually pronounced, painstakingly documented breadcrumb trail of my own emotional development. In 2019, I was still straining to see myself as anything but a professional failure. I had blown up a promising career in non-profit management to build a business I buried shortly thereafter. I was in the midst of tailoring Magpie to meet my own creative interests and somehow pay the bills, and I felt that what I was doing was flimsy, immaterial. I did not — have never — fit easily into the category of “blogger” or “influencer” and, though I have always endeavored to work with my head down in a kind of conscious obliviousness to what my peers are up to, occasionally looked around and deemed myself ungainly by comparison. I don’t know whether it’s the maturity and you-do-you of age or my gradual awakening to the fact that I consider writing a vocation, and that my call is therefore to write rather than to fret over my reception, but things have changed, and I look back and want to talk to myself with language I recently discovered from Liz and Mollie via Alisha Ramos’ Girls Night In Club: it’s not that I was failing; I was learning to adjust to a new professional and vocational identity. I think this re-wiring of the way we think about ourselves while starting something new is roundly impactful. Instead of: “I am so bad at making friends,” it becomes, “I am a person who is learning how to build a network.” Instead of: “I am terrible at public speaking!,” it becomes, “I am a person learning how to communicate more effectively in front of an audience.” A growth mindset, I guess — one that affords us all the grace to realize that nobody was born Beyonce. (Rather, she made herself over the course of years and years of practice and putting herself out there.) And so I re-visit this essay from a new vantage, thinking not only: “There are far fewer critics than you think!” but also: “Forget about the critics; accept the fact that you are a hatchling just learning to fly. Forgive yourself for not being perfect.”
My second year of graduate school, I applied and was accepted to present a paper I’d written on “intertextual practice” in James Joyce’s Ulysses at a symposium dedicated to the author. I applied in part because I intended at the time to pursue a Ph.D. and felt that any published papers would enhance my application, in part because I occasionally — usually late at night — succumb to an over-surge in confidence and optimism and make rash decisions to apply to things (as was the case when I applied to an executive program in social entrepreneurship at Stanford and submitted my application without even telling Mr. Magpie), and in part because the conference was taking place in Rome, and I selfishly wanted to go abroad. Georgetown University generously offered to cover half of my travel expenses for the conference and my parents chipped in for the rest, adding — much to my surprise and satisfaction — that they would accompany me to hear me read.
The first two days of the trip were lovely. I hadn’t spent much extended one-on-one time with my parents since I’d graduated from high school and they’d flown me to Paris in what would easily become the apex of my short-lived jet-setting career, and I relished the feeling of being looked-after. We stayed in a boutique hotel on a cobblestone street right by the Spanish Steps that felt like something out of a James Bond movie — deeply European, with an elegant lobby and quiet, discreet staff. If a black-tie casino evening had taken place in its formal dining room, or a suit-wearing gentleman with slicked-back hair and an unconcealed firearm had strode down my hall one afternoon, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. We passed several beautiful days exploring the city’s museums, Churches, and monuments, walking through the Borghese Gardens, and trying the local fare (including a squid ink pasta I still dream about). One night, on our way back from dinner, my father stopped in front of an elegant storefront and said, “This dress is beautiful. Do you want to try it on?” What he did not know was that we were standing in front of a Pucci store, and that the dress cost north of 2,000 Euros. He laughed when we he saw the price tag. “Maybe another trip,” he said. “Or another dad.”
The night before I was supposed to read my paper, I kissed my parents goodnight and walked calmly back to my room, feigning sangfroid. Once I’d closed my door, the levity of the foregoing days dissolved and I promptly broke out in a nervous sweat and practiced reading my paper fifteen times in a row, trying on various new intonations, pauses, and dramatic breaks for size.
“Why did I do this?” I thought angrily, to myself. I still — over a year in — got nervous while facilitating discussion as a teaching assistant. I felt my skin go prickly when the room fell quiet, or all eyes would turn to me, or I’d stumble over the reading of something or the prompting of a question. And here I was, all the way across the globe, with presenters far more established and intelligent than I, preparing to read a half-baked paper I’d cooked up in a desperate attempt to travel abroad and pad my resume. I read over the programme nervously, noting the impressive universities represented and the cluttering of jargon on the page. Even as an English major, and even as someone who took a shining to the precision of academic argot, I cowed before the agenda. I felt like a fraud. As I read what I had pompously written weeks earlier, the words transformed into childlike blather. It all felt juvenile, inane. I am just stating the obvious. What’s the point of this stupid paper anyway? This sentence is pathetically artsy.
Around 1 a.m., I retired to bed, sick to my stomach. I tossed and turned. At some point that evening, the residents of the room above me returned home and stomped around loudly, dragging or rearranging furniture (?) for what felt like hours. A baby (their baby? or was the sound emanating from a different room?) started to cry and went on wailing for the better part of the night. I tumbled through patches of fitful sleep, angry at the noise and angrier at myself for committing to the act of embarrassment awaiting me later that morning.
When my alarm went off at 8 a.m., I felt as though I’d fought a fever. Had there really been a baby crying? Or furniture dragged on the floor above me? Had those been figments of my imagination — distractors, threats that I conjured in the face of impending doom? I felt weak, febrile. I dragged myself out of bed and changed into a pencil skirt and blouse for the reading, my heart in my throat, my palms clammy.
The reading went terribly. I read so quickly that no one could understand what I was saying, least of all the native Italian-speaking literati who comprised about half of the audience. This was the gist, at least, of my parents’ tender but truthful feedback — and that of the old fart overseeing the symposium. “Take a deep breath next time,” he grumbled stinkily as he shook my hand with his calloused paw.
But it was over. And no one had batted an eye or booed me off the stage or otherwise betrayed any sentiment but bland, generic interest.
My parents seemed to forget about my foibles as a public speaker the minute we left the university hall, and we scarcely broached the topic again — not because they appeared embarrassed or disturbed by my lackluster recitation, but because we were in Rome, and there was much to see and marvel over anyway. I was grateful for the oblivion.
I reasoned that at least I could toss the experience onto my C.V., and that I could chalk it up as a victory in that sense. But there was, emerging from the contours of the unpleasant experience, much to think about, and much that I have chewed on in recent years.
There was, of course, the obvious manifestation of my burgeoning imposter syndrome: the sickening discovery, on the eve of my presentation, that I was a fraud and that I had no business presenting my ill-formed, idiotic observations on a text much greater than I was, in front of an audience far smarter than I was.
There was also the budding awareness of the eternal disequilibrium between the importance I placed on what I was doing and the actual importance of those doings within the broader context of my life and the people in it. My parents were unphased by my performance, and I’m confident have all but forgotten the shape of what they saw there. (Do they even recall the oddly crowded configuration of the lecture hall we piled into? The strange fact that I did not read while standing on a dais — but rather seated, at a long panel table, alongside other graduate students and academics, such that select members of the audience who lined the hallways actually towered over me, looking down on me?) No one at Georgetown seemed to care about the specifics of the conference, either. “Ah yes, intertextuality…Ulysses. Yes. How was it?” “Good.” That was about as far as I got in recountings of the experience once nestled back among the stone edifices of GU. And the audience in that lecture hall: at best, fleetingly absorbent of a concept or two from my paper that perhaps spurred a follow-on thought more germane to their own work; more realistically, wondering about the attractive young man on the Vespa seen en route to the university, or rehearsing their own papers in their own heads, or drawing up a grocery list.
About a year ago, I labored through the first third of Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography before giving up. (It is long and tedious and I am not up to such aridity — my apologies to the many smart folk who have recommended it to me, my father included.) But there was one anecdote I pocketed and have trotted out on many occasions since:
A young Grant is traveling on horseback with members of a military outfit and they hear wolves ahead. He betrays his own trepidation at the sound and a fellow soldier asks (my words): “How many wolves do you think are out there?” Grant pauses, listening, and estimates a pack of dozens. As they approach the sound, he is surprised to find only a handful of mangy beasts. A trivial threat: his fears for naught.
Reading this conjured my maiden attempt at reading my paper in Rome, and the possibly imagined noises from the room upstairs the night before: I had estimated risks far worse than actually existed, the figment of the howling wolves augmented by my own anxieties, their volume and ferocity an outlandish rendering of the peril at hand.
All of this to say:
If you are grappling with the unknown //
If you are fretful about an impending meeting or presentation or professional milestone //
If you are agonizing over perceived criticisms //
If you are unable to think about anything but the unkind words of a passerby or a colleague or an acquaintance //
Think of the howling wolves. Know that we tend to overestimate the threats around us — and that the perception of their sound and fury nearly always outsizes their realities.”
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+This set of melamine plates is a perennial Magpie favorite.
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