It was 7:45 a.m. as I walked toward the table, balancing my breakfast plate and glass of orange juice along with my work bag filled with conference materials, and my head overflowing with new knowledge, inspired ideas, and a growing to-do list. I was cautious about not spilling food, juice, or inexperience all over myself as I sat down amid the group of well known doctoral program directors in my field. I sat at a table with Kia, the former doctoral program director whose shoes I will be endeavoring to fill; she is also my professional mentor and chair of this conference. Next to her was our colleague Patti, her long-time friend and our new field education director at the University where I work. Patti had come from Houston, where she had completed her PhD a few years back with a dissertation committee that included Kia, as well as this morning’s keynote speaker, Brene Brown, whom Patti was soon to introduce. I was grateful for the comfort of their familiarity at this breakfast, along with the other 80 or so doctoral program directors in the room, most of whom had years of experience and professional notoriety behind them. Although I was now an invited participant into this group, and had been welcomed with open arms by the other doctoral program directors attending, I was experiencing that gnawing sense of insecurity, the vulnerability of newness, the worry that I would be found out as an inexperienced novitiate among the well-known and respected of my profession. An impostor.
This past Monday morning, the day after Easter, began with a meeting with my Dean where I was appointed the next PhD Program Director for our School of Social Work. I am grateful and thrilled for this opportunity, and delighted to work with faculty and doctoral student colleagues in this leadership role. I am also nervous as hell about taking on this position at the start of my early post tenure years, and about balancing an administrative role with my other valued professional activities and personal life commitments. I have been very well mentored for this position, I have amazing and supportive colleagues, and I have wonderful doctoral students and invested relationships with alumni even before this formal leadership appointment. I also am a human being deeply aware of how different life in the academy is from life on a farm, in a small town, as a social worker in tiny non-profits where staff hold yard sales to generate sufficient funds to buy office supplies. Humble beginnings, for sure. Being humble in the academy is a way of life, too, though. Someone is always more experienced, better funded, higher ranked, more widely cited. Peer reviews can cut you off at the knees or make you feel relieved to have earned a thumbs-up in a forum to which you wondered if you could even submit. Academia is an institution of hierarchy, even among social work academics for whom empathy, self-determination, and professional helping are at the core of our value system.
As I sat there at the breakfast table making professional small talk and attempting to keep my impostor feelings at bay, I heard my colleague say, “isn’t that Brene?” and she stood up to welcome her and escort her to our table.
Because I am a fan of Brene’s work in my everyday life and world view, as well as recognize her as a professional colleague, this announcement offered a mix of awesomeness and further humility for me. I am keenly aware, and was even more aware at that moment, that I haven’t written any well known textbooks, nor do I have a TED talk, nor have I appeared on Oprah. Brene walked over, sat down, looked over at me and said, “I am so incredibly nervous being in this group!” and I realized at that moment that she was completely serious. She even waved off breakfast or coffee saying she can’t eat before she speaks. I absolutely know that feeling.
We go on, the small group of us, chatting about our kids, our jobs, the coming of spring. Then, Brene says again, “seriously, I am so nervous!” and I start to become aware that we are all nervous. We all harbor the impostor instinct. We are all judging ourselves in the face of who we are not. Brene goes on to talk casually about the challenges of traveling too much, being away from her kids, figuring out how to be connected…yet not connected…to the academy. Her path is circuitous, just like many of ours. We take in our best intentions to make a difference in the world and try to embrace that. Sometimes doors open and we step through, and sometimes amazing opportunities appear. Sometimes, we sit with a student or colleague and unpack the details of their journey with them, and a small light bulb goes off or a seed is planted which may later bloom into something of stellar beauty. Either way, a path emerges and in faith, we step through the open door.
We all feel like impostors in a world where we are striving to be something bigger than what we are. It doesn’t matter if we have a high school diploma or a doctorate…we are still keenly aware of what we lack, what we haven’t yet accomplished. Yet, we might actually do these very things some day, and may surpass our own self-expectations in doing things we cannot at this moment imagine. The impostor instinct is pure humanity, but left untamed it can also breed fear, and keep us from courageously living.
There is only one way to stop being an impostor: to show up as our authentic self. To stop being an impostor, we have to be vulnerable and authentically human and live. We put our best self forward, take a step back from ourselves, and see what happens from there.
On this day, Patti stands up in front of the group and acknowledges that giving this introduction is like a nightmare where you have to give a speech and two members of your dissertation committee are there staring at you…because they actually were…but she gives a beautiful introductory speech anyhow to which we all applaud. Brene stands up to give her talk and the first thing she does is acknowledge how inferior she feels in this group, because she is not a traditional academic and doesn’t have the same standing in the academy as those in this room. I stand up when it is time to introduce myself to the group and acknowledge that, unlike their collective years of experience, I am exactly 72 hours into my new academic appointment. I add that I am grateful to be in a room full of people from whom I can learn, and the woman next to me reminds me that this is true for all of us. Later, after Brene’s inspirational keynote on this subject of storytelling and vulnerability, one of my students, volunteering her time to scribe notes for the group, tearfully tells me how meaningful it is for her to be there and how Brene’s talk resonated with her. We all go on to be ourselves this day, with occasional moments of both egoism and vulnerability, but we all learn something, share something, and realize we have a common goal in advancing doctoral education. No one with a that goal is an impostor.
Another open door, another opportunity. And into it I step….