Back in November, Paul and I flew to Boston for a little vacation. It was my first time flying since covid hit, so I was a little anxious. We were renting a car at Logan Airport and driving in downtown Boston, so I was actually very anxious.
This level of anxiety was new for me, and I’m not ashamed to say I was very uncomfortable with it. I guess that’s a silly statement; there are probably not too many people who think, “Ah, now I’m feeling better; my anxiety is back.”
As soon as we landed and picked up the car, with Paul driving and me navigating, we settled in for our first argument of the day. Boston is laden with tunnels where GPS goes silent. When we emerged from the tunnel and GPS kicked back in, I got to tell Paul that we had missed our exit. An excellent start to the trip.
Somehow we ended up in Cambridge and made it to the right location for our Harvard tour. As we waited for our excursion to begin, we noticed people everywhere wearing Harvard sweatshirts, and we laughed at how obvious it was that they had visited the gift shop and not the admissions office.
It was a gorgeous day with bright sunshine and spectacular foliage. The young Harvard student that was to be our guide gathered our group and started the tour. He began with the history of the school, rattling off dates and statistics and all kinds of information. He answered questions knowledgeably, told us about the architecture, and students who had attended, both famous and infamous - JFK and Ted Kaczynski.
Somewhere along the way our guide was discussing the student population, and very quietly he mentioned how easy it is to have impostor syndrome in a place like Harvard.
I had never heard of impostor syndrome until a few years ago. I was newly appointed as a board member for a high school organization where I was volunteering for marching band. It was my first time doing anything like that, and I had zero idea of what I was doing. I made no bones about it to anyone who asked me anything.
The president of the board seemed very capable to me. She handled the meetings smoothly, made suggestions and answered questions. In her real life she was a medical doctor. So when she mentioned privately to me that she had impostor syndrome and just knew that at any moment she was going to be exposed as a fraud, I was flabbergasted.
Holy Cow! If someone with those qualifications feels inadequate what chance do the rest of us have? I read a little bit about it. One theory is that impostor syndrome seems to originate when achievement is valued above all else?
Are we making ourselves miserable by refusing to acknowledge that we are human and all make mistakes? Are we victims of the ideal of perfectionism? Do we squash our potential and our opportunities by focusing all of our energies on worrying about and maintaining a facade?
I think I mentioned a while back that a company hired me to speak to their newest employees, and they wanted me to emphasize that it’s ok to make mistakes. In fact, management’s concern was if they are so afraid to be wrong, they might not be trying hard enough. Everyone knows, but we all forget, that you can’t grow unless you are willing to try new things.
There’s a freedom in that. Just like that familiar question: What would you attempt today if you knew you could not fail (or if you weren’t too busy worrying about being less than perfect)?
So if you happen to see me with a book bag slung over my shoulder and wearing a Harvard sweatshirt, just keep walking. I’m fairly certain that as soon as I start talking it will be pretty obvious I too visited the gift shop!