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How I learned to speak up and got an early "vaccine" against imposter syndrome without knowing it
Last week, the women at TestBox met to have a mini book club on Deborah Liu's book, Take Back Your Power. I had two realizations about my own experiences - read about them in this week's newsletter.
Last week, I wrote about the women’s discussion I was planning to host at our team onsite. We had a great conversation over lunch, sharing some of our own reactions to the passages I’d curated from Take Back Your Power.
Our conversation ended up being much more free flowing than the discussion questions I’d shared in advance. I love when that happens because going through a list of discussion questions over a lunchtime chat can feel pretty stilted and awkward. Instead, our conversation felt relatively organic once we warmed up and got into the various topics that were of interest. In particular, we talked a lot about moments in our own lives when we started to feel more comfortable speaking up and finding our own voices.
I don’t want to get into any specifics that others shared, but I did bring up two specific experiences of my own that I wanted to recount here.
First: how I accidentally got an early “vaccine” against imposter syndrome without realizing it
Early on in freshman year of college, a sophomore friend told me, “Even at Harvard, there are plenty of people who aren’t that smart. Just look around carefully in class – they’re not all straight A students who are working crazy hard. Don’t go into it thinking that they’re all really smart – you belong here and you’re probably going to be smarter than lot of the others.”
I went back and forth on whether to include this because I know that I write from a place of privilege and I don’t know how helpful this is for someone to read if they don’t share a similar background to myself. That said, I look back on who I was at seventeen and I think the journey I went on is probably relatable to others, regardless of where they went to school.
I had just graduated from high school where I’d worked really hard to get into my top choice schools. College admissions was this black box that demanded perfection and going above and beyond on everything to make sure I was “shooting my best shot.” I felt like I must have barely made it into Harvard, when I heard about my new peers and their accomplishments from high school. There was a strong sense of, “Damn, I’m so lucky to have made it in with my qualifications compared to everyone else’s.”
I suspect I was probably on the brink of falling into imposter syndrome. I didn’t know that concept at the time. What I remember the most starkly about this conversation is that I left with a newfound belief in myself. I decided that it was going to be possible to get good grades and I didn’t have to just pad the curve for my crazy impressive peers. (Let it be known that at this time, I didn’t know about the grade inflation.)
This conversation pulled me far back from the edge of the imposter syndrome cliff. There’s no doubt that this was a formative moment for me. For the next four years, when people asked me what Harvard was like, my favourite thing was telling them, “It’s not that special. There are drunk kids who throw up every weekend and everyone wears sweatpants and dresses sloppily when we go eat in our beautiful dining hall. There are people who finish problem sets last minute before they’re due and people who pull all nighters in the library because they procrastinated. It’s weirdly just like other colleges, honestly.”
Without knowing it, this was how I avoided falling deep into imposter syndrome starting in college. I’m infinitely grateful for that one conversation and the foundation that it laid for me as a freshman.
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Second: how I got over my fear of speaking up
In late high school and early on in college, I was always apprehensive to speak up. Honestly, a fear of getting a bad participation grade in class or not checking the box of “makes good contributions in meetings” on my summer internship review was what motivated me to speak up. I remember being very nervous in many discussions, getting ready to make a comment and diligently taking notes on what I was going to say to make sure that I was not just adding my voice into the discussion but also making a valuable thought contribution. Often, I’d sit there and miss the right moment to enter the conversation – even worse, someone else would make the same comment right before me. When I think back, I remember this overwhelming anxiousness going into discussions, and afterwards, a panic if I didn’t get to say anything.
Over time, I learned two things:
I got a little better at timing my jumps into the conversation. I didn’t necessarily wait for the perfect opening and realized it was okay to accidentally speak at the same time as someone else. I secretly practiced how I’d participate in the awkward dance of “No, you first,” “No, you!” to get ready for these situations.
I used to only say 10% of what I was thinking because I’d dismiss the other 90% as useless/repetitive/fluffy or too high risk (of saying the “wrong” thing). On a few occasions, out of necessity (see: fear of a bad grade or review), I had to share beyond my 10% of “highest quality” thoughts. There were times when someone else had just said my top 10% thought, leaving me with no option but to say something vaguely useless/repetitive/fluffy or potentially “wrong.” I realized that the most downside risk for me saying the non-10% content was just people nodding and not adding on to something not super original or starting a contentious debate over whether I was right. The latter is arguably a pretty valuable contribution to a discussion and it’s actually something I now try to do frequently in conversations: make thought provoking contributions that challenge others to think outside the box.
As I spoke up more, I found a lot of positive reinforcement. There was a true flywheel effect: it was super scary at first but the more I did it, the less scary it got. In the early days, I’d write down a thought in my notebook and basically read that out loud when I got to speak.
Having it written down helped me feel more confident, as I wouldn’t have to stumble over any words and could just read off the page to get started.
Even today, this is a habit I’ve kept for big group discussions that are moving really quickly. It helps me hang onto my thought for when I can finally jump into the conversation.
Before I wrap up, there was one other point raised in the conversation that pointed to some short sightedness on my part, which I wanted to share here.
I opened the conversation with the women on the TestBox team by talking about how I really appreciated Deborah Liu’s perspective and it resonated deeply. I talked about how in particular, I appreciated that she believes we need to find ways to thrive in the systems that exist today even if we don’t agree with how they work. This is because (loosely paraphrased in my own words):
Nothing is going to change overnight
We can be a more effective part of changing how things work if we are doing that from within
Someone in the group raised a point of opposition — that they were uncomfortable with an author who doesn’t relate to or even remotely begin to understand their own experience telling them that they have to put up with a system that is unfair. This comment stuck with me through the rest of the conversation and throughout the past week. It made me realize two things:
That I feel really fortunate and privileged to have an increasing number of Asian female mentors in my life along with a number of role models in the broader media spotlight today.
That I need to continuously remind myself that even though I am a woman POC, that doesn’t mean my experience is going to be relatable to everyone else who identifies as a woman or a POC. Whenever I share materials with a bigger group, I need to be better at remembering that what resonates with me may not resonate with everyone else. Likewise, as I write, I can only speak to my own experience and what resonates with me. That said, I do still hope that bits and pieces may click and be useful to people regardless of background.
The TestBox women had a great conversation discussing excerpts from Deborah Liu’s Take Back Your Power. I reflected a lot on two turning points in my life when I started to find my own voice and managed to steer myself away from imposter syndrome. Someone in the group raised a great point around how even while the book and the author’s advice resonated deeply with me, it may not resonate with others from different backgrounds.