Until last fall, I worked in a public library for thirteen years. I started in circulation and ended up in the history and genealogy department. For the last few years, I was the only person in that department. I catalogued. I researched. I taught classes. I learned how to read maps and legal documents. You can name anything relevant to that field and I was doing it.
At some point, colleagues began referring to me as the genealogy expert, the map expert, the local history expert. I felt like such a fraud. I’d had some formal education, but was still working on my Masters in Library and Information Science. Nearly everything I knew, I learned on my own from reading and researching. In the early part of my career, I was not confident in my ability to answer questions and was always verifying with one of my colleagues.
As it happens, I was usually right. I just didn’t believe in myself. I also couldn’t see how anyone else could believe in me. Especially when I often heard from a particular set of people that I was too young to know anything about history. That starts to sink in after a while and I found myself constantly thinking, I don’t know anything. Notice how I had dropped the “about history” part of it all. That became my internal monologue for so long. You can guess what that does to my already limited self-confidence.
In 2019, I attended a genealogy conference. Experts in DNA genealogy, utilizing technology for genealogy, genealogy databases, African American research, Native American research, German research, and many other topics were there. Most were from all over Indiana, but some were from elsewhere in the United States. I attended with enthusiasm, expecting to hone my skills and increase my knowledge. What I ended up coming away with was something much more valuable.
As I listened to these experts, I took notes on anything they said with emphasis or repeated. When I looked back over my notes, I realized that I already knew all of this information. Certainly, they know more about their respective topics than I do, as I’m sure they were trying to cater to the wide variety of experience levels in the audience. Nevertheless, knowing that I already knew all of the things that the experts were teaching gave me confidence. Maybe I wasn’t an imposter after all.
The truth is, I have always held myself to a higher standard than I hold anyone else. An impossible standard. I don’t know why. Even knowing that I do that, I find it difficult to give myself any grace in a situation where I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to others. I have this idea in my head of what an expert should be and I project that onto everyone labeled expert, but I cannot live up to it myself.
I always thought that an expert was someone who knows absolutely everything about a particular topic or field. How ridiculous is that? Nobody can know everything, not even about one specific topic. An expert is someone who is knowledgeable about a particular topic and never ceases acquiring knowledge about it. I am that.
Imposter syndrome is a term I’ve been hearing more and more as time goes on. And as this term is more publicly used, I hear people whom I’ve always considered to be experts or successful using it to describe themselves.
I’ve recently begun listening to Jay Shetty‘s podcast, On Purpose. I have been so engrossed in it, that I’ve been going back and listening to the older episodes. Just this week, two of the episodes were with guests who talked about having imposter syndrome: Dwyane Wade, a former professional basketball player and current entrepreneur, and Jim Kwik, a successful brain coach. How many others feel this way?
I’d be willing to bet that most of us do. When I turned 30, I asked my dad when it was that he felt grown up. “I still don’t feel grown up,” he said, at the age of 50. I myself still don’t, nearly nine years later. I don’t think most of us ever do. We just put on that facade because we believe it’s what the world expects of us. I think imposter syndrome kind of works that way, too. Many of us have been successful at or an expert in something, all the while feeling like we’re a fraud and afraid that someone will find out.
Somewhere along the line, some brave souls started admitting publicly that they felt that way. It has paved the way for those of us who were too scared to say anything to finally start feeling “normal.” When you think about it, “normal” just means that which we perceive to be the most common attribute. Maybe it is the most common, but I suspect that most of the time, it isn’t. Most of the time, it’s just our perception.
So, for years, I beat myself up over not knowing enough. I lived in fear of being found out to be a fraud. All of this because I perceived that everyone else knew, one hundred percent, what they were doing and I believed that I was the only person who didn’t. It sounds silly when I put it into words like that. Honestly, what are the odds that I’d be the only person in the world?
If you ever feel like an imposter, I encourage you to examine yourself. Look at what you do know and how well you’re doing. There’s no sense in comparing ourselves to others. We are, all of us, just trying to figure out our purpose and our path. Not all paths are the same. In fact, no two paths are the same.
One of my favorite quotes is by Joseph Campbell, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
And now that I have The Police stuck in my head, I’ll end today’s musing.