I check my watch for the umpteenth time, confirming that it’s still not quite eight o’clock on this muggy weekday morning. Despite the knot in my stomach, I sip my still-hot coffee. I’m leaning against an ancient van emblazoned with colorful logos, and sometime in the next hour, I’ll be addressing fifty volunteers who’ve shown up to maintain a popular hiking trail.
My recurring dreams about this moment are worse than the no-pants kind. No, instead of just looking like a half-dressed dope, my dream-self must suffer the consequences of her Utter Lack of a Clue.
“You’ve got no idea what you’re doing,” the faceless dream-crowd jeers, correctly, “How did you even get this job?”
I inhale deeply and channel Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley, because there’s nothing pathetic about identifying with an early-1990s SNL character.
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” I tell myself, doing my best to believe it.
Rationally, I know I’m an intelligent, educated, conscientious woman with a strong work ethic and the savvy to handle most challenges you might throw my way, but I spend a good portion of every day fighting the insidious effects of Impostor Syndrome, which can basically be summed up like so:
At any moment, a slip of the tongue, some small past error I’ve made, could tip everyone off that I am, in point of fact, a complete fraud.
I spent most of graduate school feeling this way: When would my advisor discover that my survey was actually terrible and that I had no idea how to analyze my data? How would I explain myself if this paper were accepted for a conference and I had to talk about my research in front of people who were actual experts on the subject? Would my committee discover my incompetence now, or wait until I’d defended and published my thesis and publicly shame me?
None of these things ever happened, of course, though I’m not convinced I won’t someday hear a knock at my door and open it to find that the Phony Police have come to revoke my degree.
I don’t spend every minute of every day perseverating on the endless possibilities for the eventual outing of my ineptitude, but when milestones approach, I’m faced with a list of possible catastrophic scenarios that would, ultimately, result in my identification as an impostor.
Last Thursday was a perfect case-in-point: Somehow, despite my minimal experience, I finagled my way into being allowed to manage a handful of stewardship projects this season, and all I had to do was keep everyone from finding out that I didn’t have the first clue about building or maintaining a trail for approximately seven hours.
Wait. What would my day look like without the Impostor Demon perched on my shoulder? I mean, how would someone explain my job if they were, like, confident?
Maybe they would say: Since I have proven myself to be a competent office manager and quick learner, my boss gave me some more responsibility. I am detail-oriented and conscientious, and if someone has a question I can’t answer, I will say, “Hold on, and I’ll find out,” and then I will find an adult. Best of all, I am so neurotic that I’ve checked my to-do list approximately forty-seven times in the last two days and can say with certainty that I am prepared for nearly any situation, emergent or not.
It’s a work in progress.
Here’s what did happen: I had an outdated roster and had to write down three people’s names and make them sign paper waivers. I forgot the cream cheese and my coworker had to stop and pick some up on the way over. I had to drag the park ranger away from his trail crew to answer another crew leader’s question because I had no idea how to relay his message. I ran out of water—twice—and an intern had to leave and fill the cooler at a another trailhead down the road.
And after all that, at the end of the project, someone pulled me aside and told me she couldn’t wait to sign up for another project.
“Which ones are you managing?” she asked, waving a calendar of our projects in one hand, “I’d love to volunteer with you again!”
I paused, waiting for her to deliver the punchline, something like “So I can tell your boss what a lousy project manager you are!” or “Because you could definitely use some more experience, kiddo!”
The punchline never came. This person had genuinely had a great time digging in the dirt and wanted to come back for more.
I let that sink in for a minute. It felt great.
I’m not an expert; I still have a lot to learn about a lot of things. I still know relatively little about constructing and maintaining trails, but I am, in fact, bright and hardworking enough to pick things up as I go—or, failing that, to fake it ‘til I make it, which is a clever way of saying I’m going to confidently say what I do know and ask lots of questions about what I don’t until the former outweighs the latter.
In the meantime, though, I just have to remember: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.
At least, that’s what I want everyone to think.