In the vivid detail of the liminal moments before I awoke, I dreamt of impostor syndrome. I was in a coffee shop with a group of women — all friends from the past working in the film industry as writers and producers — and one of them asked me if I run programs to help brilliant yet downtrodden women to step into their power.
“I look at the women working in this industry and they’re so kickass,” she said. “But I know so many of us diminish ourselves for the privilege of being here. It’s such bullshit.”
It is bullshit. I woke up feeling both sad and outraged.
Sad for all of the people (my younger self included) who spend so much time waiting for permission to be true to themselves, to make noise and take up space. You wait patiently for validation and approval, believing that it’s not up to you to make your mark, but up to others to notice you, to give you the opportunity to prove yourself so you can climb that ladder — the ladder that in many cases is neverending, ever-changing: new rungs appearing just as you think you’re getting closer to the top.
I felt outraged because of the system that perpetuates this dream-crushing cycle.
I think about the people who have kept these brilliant women feeling small. I think about the tactics: the manipulation and gaslighting that are largely invisible to the people in positions of power who wield these weapons — invisible because they are so easily able to justify their behaviour, their cutting down of other people to keep themselves feeling powerful, the empty promises they make to keep others on their teams, the duplicitous and self-serving behaviour that ultimately leaves them feeling hollow but their egos feeling strong. Get trapped in the feedback loop of success at everyone else’s expense and you’ll have all the money, the sycophants and groupies, the visibility and opportunities and yet you’ll have nothing to do with any of it because you can’t buy integrity, nobody can give you self-worth, no degree of celebrity will enable you to feel joy and compassion and love in its purest form.
My anger isn’t at those people. I don’t hate them. I don’t hate anyone. I feel angry because these destructive forces grow, consume and rage like bush fires carelessly sparked. It is rare that a person chooses to use others up, to be Machiavellian or narcissistic. These are the symptoms of the greater illness. These are the behaviours that emerge in a world where people grow up believing in playing to win, that life is a zero-sum game, and that if I don’t take mine, then I’m going to lose out. Someone else will get my share.
But we can shift. We can change this way of viewing the world. We can reprogram ourselves. We can stop waiting for permission and take responsibility. We can stop hurting people because we desire control. We can learn to trust ourselves and source approval from within. We can create win-for-all scenarios, whereby everyone gets what they want and better still, we can learn to understand what motivates the other people at the table and find common ground. We can dance with life and bring curiosity to problem-solving and remember that the most exciting, novel, innovative ideas are the result of non-linear, exploratory thinking, not doing what you’re told and following an imaginary path laid out for you by some invisible superpower.
The only impostor is your ego.
The only impostor is the imaginary self that wants to know for sure that it’s doing the right thing. That part of you that’s always listening for what other people say about you, that’s afraid of being disliked, that wants to please everyone and get the gold star — or take it. It’s the part of you that will do or say things that aren’t true, that aren’t in alignment with who you are, that compromise your integrity and go against your values… but if it’s going to win you the approval of someone you deem important or powerful, then it’s worthwhile, isn’t it? They’ll notice that you’re going above and beyond and give you the recognition you deserve. Right?
Except they won’t. Nobody else’s recognition will ever fill the emptiness that continues to grow as you ignore your true calling. I know because I tried to get things right for so long. I tried taking the “right” path. I did what I thought I needed to do to get the credibility and experience I needed… so I could be given the opportunity to do what I wanted. And you know what? Nobody ever gave me that opportunity. Nobody ever said, hey, you’re so good at this job, what would you really like to be doing in this organization instead?
What really happens is that you do the work. And if you’re excellent then it’s likely that nobody will want you to move anywhere. They think you love it. You never said otherwise. You stay exactly where you are because they need the job done and why would they look for someone else unless you say you want something different, something more?*
When I was a student at McGill, I was a bottle service girl at the W Hotel in Montreal. I was a fantastic server: I’m little and fast and strong, so weaving my way through a crowded club with a bucket of ice in one hand and a bottle of Grey Goose in the other was no problem. I was attentive to my customers, partied with them, made them feel special and seen and typically made pretty sizeable tips. But I really wanted to bartend. Having worked as a waitress since the summer of my Grade 12 year, I was over it. I couldn’t wait for someone to promote me to bartender.
Nobody ever did. I never asked. I was too afraid of not getting the promotion, I guess. I can’t remember how I rationalized never asking for what I wanted, but I do remember how frustrated I felt when one of the girls I worked with became a bartender about a year after we had both started. I never even asked her how she went from server to bartender, I just assumed that the system was rigged. Much later, I learned that she hassled our manager ceaselessly to give her the opportunity to get behind the bar. She didn’t take no for an answer. She knew she could do it, she wanted to do it, and so she asked for the opportunity and ran with it when she was given her opening.
I, on the other hand, kept waiting for someone to give me the chance. Sure, I slung drinks here and there at house parties and other service jobs where I had to do both, but I just never felt confident enough to claim my space behind the bar. I never said to my boss: I’m over running around and getting bumped against and harassed by sweaty people. I want to be behind the bar or I’m leaving.
I was waiting for someone to notice, to give me permission. And it simply never came.
As I think back to how I felt in those days, I feel so much compassion for that young, uncertain, teacher’s pet of a girl. I was an attention junkie. I knew I was smart and beautiful and brilliant and powerful but I was so uncomfortable wearing that truth: I was so afraid that if I unapologetically stepped into the world as I was, I would get cut down, burned as the witch I am, caged and gawped at, ridiculed.
And so I kept myself small and agreeable. I paid close attention to how other people seemed to want me to be and I played the parts brilliantly. I felt ill-equipped but never admitted it. Whenever an opportunity came for me to stretch myself or step into leadership, I jumped on it, always feeling like a scammer but desperate for work experience that would prove my abilities.
It took years for me to realize that I didn’t need to do things that way. That I could simply create opportunities for myself, that if I talked about what I wanted to do or create, I could make it happen.
I learned that nobody is going to save you. There are no knights waiting in the wings to rescue you from the monsters on the path you’ve stumbled onto. You are the source of your own best opportunities and have the power to create the future your dream of. You are also the creator of the monsters. Give those fearful parts of yourself all the love you can and then do the things you fear anyhow. That’s how you achieve greatness: you take the first step. It might sound like a cliché but that’s because it’s true.
Find out what you want and then make it happen. You might feel like an impostor but the chances are, nobody else is looking at you that way. They probably admire you, in fact, because you have the gumption to do the things they’ve always been too scared to attempt.
* I know there are people who will say “But there are so many leaders and managers out there who ask people what they want to do with their lives and do help them to grow”. After I wrote this, I realized how reductive I was being and that I have also had amazing people in my life who have helped me to achieve my dreams. That’s what I do now for people, after all. But that said, those people can’t tell you how to get what you want. You need to figure out what it is that you want to be — how you want to be in your life. And even if you have the best manager who wants to give you the greatest opportunities, you still have to articulate what you want to do and be brave enough to take (and make) it for yourself.
How often do you write these and why?
My “why” is helping others to find their purpose and one of the ways I’ve always done that is by sharing stories and experiences that have shaken me to my core. I usually share these emails about once a week, or occasionally I’ll do a bigger project like 10 Days of Clarity
Can I share it with other people?
Why are you doing this?
Mostly just because I want to but also because I believe that facing resistance and fear and doing the things that scare me is incredibly rewarding and reminds me that I can do anything I put my mind to. And I want to show other people that they can too!
Do you write other things?
I have written a lot over the years. You can find some of my writing on Medium. You can find some of it on my family adventure travel blog or on my other Wordpress blog that looks terrible (and most of the images are broken) but I haven’t had a chance to update. I also wrote a lot about entrepreneurship and the Canadian startup ecosystem when I was with Real Ventures which may be helpful if that’s your path.
Do you still write for companies?
These days I’m more focused on helping people and companies to find their own stories and learn how to communicate with clarity and resonance through workshops and 1:1 coaching. You can learn more about that here.
How can I work with you?
Reach out and we can see if there’s a fit!