Battling Impostor Syndrome

A student came up to me after class and asked about impostor syndrome. I had mentioned in class that one of the main causes of things like plagiarism or bloated writing is insecurity: People are afraid that their writing will be found lacking, and that they will seem lesser because of it.

And this student wanted to know what they should do to fight back.

Impostor Syndrome comes from the idea that people will see you as a fraud. That you are less than what you claim to be. But it’s also the feeling that we don’t measure up to our own projection of who we are, or who we should be.

You don’t need an audience to feel like a fraud.

But somebody was looking to me for an answer, so I warned them that this feeling never really goes away. The insecurity and uncertainty just become more manageable over time, given the right effort.

This is not a life hack. This will not cure you. This isn’t even a tactic that works 100% of the time. But you can try it, and it might help.

Focus on the work, not what you think the work means.

If you’re writing something, focus on the story beat. If you’re revising something, focus on the sentence in front of you. Then the next one. If you’re offering advice to another writer, don’t worry about what they’re going to think about you based on your advice. Just do your best to tell them what you see in their work, and help them realize their goals.

And if you feel yourself thinking about what you’re going to say in your awards acceptance speeches, or how you’re going to spend all that money you’re destined to be making, or how you’re going to get to start name-dropping all your fancy new friends… If you find yourself dreaming about the rewards for work you haven’t done yet, that’s the other side of the Impostor Syndrome coin.

It’s ego, flowing in more than one direction. It can build you up or pull you down, but when you let that untamed sense of self take the wheel, you’re not doing the work.

And if you can only focus on one thing at a time, it’s better to train yourself to focus on the work, and not worry about shame, praise, or imagined distant futures. Like Andy Warhol said:

”Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.”

The same can be said about yourself. Focus on whether or not you enjoy the work that you’re doing, and whether you can joyfully give your attention to the work. Spend your effort on making the work the best it can be.

You’re a person who has value outside of your work. To the people who care about you, you can never be an impostor. Try your best not to confuse your assessment of your work with a measurement of your worth.

Fixing the Dryer

A few weeks back I went to put a load of laundry in the dryer, and the machine refused to cooperate. The motor started up, but as soon as I released the start button, it cut off.

I did what I do most of the time there’s an appliance failure in the house: I went to YouTube.

One video suggested I try turning the dryer on with the door open to see if the drum moved. If it didn’t spin, it likely meant that the only problem was a broken belt (aka, something the video said anyone could fix). After confirming the broken belt, I felt pretty comfortable with the next steps. I don’t consider myself handy, but it seemed like an easy enough thing to fix.

Keep both of those things in mind:

  1. I don’t consider myself handy.
  2. This seemed like an easy problem to fix.

I ordered the replacement belt from a local appliance store and picked it up the next day. The video demonstrating how to replace the belt was ten minutes long, so I estimated that I could accomplish the same task in 30 minutes (adding time based on what was trimmed out in editing the video, and adding some padding due to my lack of experience with dryer repair).

An hour later I was covered in lint, sweat, and desperation.

There’s one part of the whole operation that’s a particular challenge.

To get the belt in place, you need to thread it around a spindle on the motor, and then around a pulley that keeps the belt tight against the drum. The pulley is connected to a switch. If the belt snaps, the pulley pops out of alignment and turns off the motor.

In order to get the belt in position, you have to reach your arm inside the bottom of the dryer, underneath the drum, and stick it behind the motor in a part of the dryer that you can’t see. So you’re lying down on the floor, your whole arm where you can’t see clearly, lining up a thin rubber belt over a pulley that you have to pull into place at the same time. One-handed.

Somehow, I’d managed to do this. Probably. I called Dena down to check on the results. I plugged the dryer back in and pressed power.

The Good News – The dryer started and stayed on! The drum turned!

The Bad News – The dryer was making a truly awful metallic scraping sound and smelled like maybe something was burning.

I decided it was time to scream into the void and start over again, but we agreed that I’d be better off just cutting my losses for now, taking a shower, and calling my dad over to help me take a look the next day. It’s a universally agreed upon notion that my dad is handy.

And this is where it got more complicated.

The next day, he and I struggled with the dryer for another hour, assembling and disassembling it over and over. We watched dueling YouTube instructional videos to figure out what we were doing wrong. We drew diagrams. We tried alternate methods of threading the belt.

At one point we yanked the pulley clean out of the dryer and tried to get it back in place.

And all of this was done with the time limit of tickets to go see Ralph Wrecks The Internet that afternoon. Another day, another attempt at fixing the dryer failed.

We agreed to come back to it the next day when there weren’t any appointments interfering with the work.

And something happened overnight. Maybe I just looked at the diagram of how the belt was supposed to thread just the right way. Maybe the moral of Ralph Wrecks the Internet and how insecurity is the mind killer had time to sink in. Whatever it was, I had to revisit those two key premises from earlier:

  1. I don’t consider myself handy.

Alright, I’m not somebody who’s ever going to advertise their services as an independent contractor, but I can follow instructions. I can think through a problem. I’ve fixed other appliances and I have solved problems in the past.

So why don’t I consider myself handy?

Is it just that I don’t have a variety of experiences that would allow me to talk shop with hardware store employees? That I sometimes need to ask for help or instructions? Is it because one time a shop teacher yelled at me for showing another student the wrong way to use a band saw and it convinced me to take more drama electives?

None of those seem like very good reasons. Which leads us to…

  1. This seemed like an easy problem to fix.

Why did I think that?

Is it because the person with more experience who narrated the video said it was easy for them? Is it because there were so few steps to the process?

Was thinking that this was supposed to be easy causing me to make mistakes, or get overly frustrated?

And in that moment of the third attempt to install this belt, I had a moment of clarity. It’s not the dryer that’s the problem: I’m the problem.

By not believing I could solve the problem, I was holding myself back from finding a way to solve the problem.

I looked at each individual component of the dryer and how they were supposed to line up. And that’s when I noticed something I had missed before: The metal ring connecting the exhaust hose to the back of the dryer. It was loose.

That was the scraping sound I had heard after the first time, and probably the source of the burning smell. Making sure the exhaust pipe was secure wasn’t part of the process of replacing the belt, so I hadn’t checked it.

Everything came together quickly after that, especially since I’d taken it apart and put it back together several times already. I’ve been enjoying machine-dried clothes ever since.

More importantly, the experience kicked my ass and reminded me that unless you believe you might be able to solve a problem, you have no hope of making it happen.

Sunday Sprout Round-Up

It’s Wake-Up Time

Sprout: (muffled from upstairs) Hooray!

Dramatic, rapid thumping as she runs out of her room and down the stairs.

Me: Good morning! What’s so exciting?

Sprout: My clock is green!

Sprout proceeds to gallop around the house cheering.

Me: Can I have a hug?

Sprout: Sure!

Reaches up for me.

Sprout: (deadpan) I’m still waking up.

Science Demonstration

Ever since watching Big Hero 6, Sprout has become obsessed with being a scientist like Honey Lemon/a science teacher.

Sprout’s current role model.

This morning she decided to use some “chemicals” to show us, her class, how to make lava.

If you want to follow along at home, you just need the following supplies:

  • Com White(?)
  • Zappers
  • Cherry
  • Blueberries
  • Crime Juice

Right now, I’m just glad that she’s showing an interest in STEM careers. Although I’m also a little concerned about what Crime Juice is supposed to be.

Explanation Checks Out

Our family made a very clear deal about all Santa talk a long time ago. We won’t actively feed her information, but if she has questions, we’ll let her come up with her own answers. (Look, there were a whole lot of conversations about honest, trust, etc. involved.) Which leads us to:

Sprout: How does Santa’s sleigh fly?

Me: What do you think?

Sprout: I think it’s the reindeer.

Me: So the reindeer make it fly? Not the sleigh?

Sprout: Yeah.

Me: And how do they do that?

Sprout: Their noses.

Me: Their noses?

Sprout: Yeah! (matter-of-fact) They have motors in their noses.

Complete or Delete

It’s a new mantra I’m trying on, because I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.

Between this year’s re-reading of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and checking out Cal Newport’s Deep Work, one of the recurring themes was the notion that putting to much front-and-center in a to-do list makes the doing part more difficult.

You set an obligation for yourself, and the longer it sits there, incomplete, the more weight it puts on your mind. Even if you don’t realize it, an incomplete obligation takes up space in your mental RAM, and can distract your focus.

So I’m telling myself to choose to take on less, and to get more comfortable with walking away from ideas.

If there’s a project I’ve started but haven’t moved forward on for a long time (say, a month), I’m going to ask myself a simple question:

Is there something you can and will do today that would move this forward?

If the answer is no, it gets deleted.

If I want to make sure I realize more of my ideas, I need to be honest with myself about the limits of my time and focus.

But I also need to hold myself accountable for making sure that I use what time I have for things that matter to me. If I’m saying no to an idea, I want it to be because I’m working on something I’ve decided is more important (and not because I’ve spent a bunch of time faffing around).

If I tell myself that something is important, I either need to work toward completing it, or be okay with deleting it.

Your vote matters. You matter.

Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.

As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”

We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,

“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”

She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.

And that interaction has haunted me ever since.

I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.

But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.

I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.

I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:

  • Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
  • Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
  • Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot

The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.

Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.

Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.

You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.

And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.

When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.

But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:

What do you mean by “matter?”

Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?

Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?

Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?

Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?

If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.

If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.

If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.

We Are Here

There are billions upon billions of planets in the observable universe. Most are inhospitable to life.

They’re in the wrong position relative to the nearest star, they have the wrong atmosphere, or their surface doesn’t have the right component elements. Out of all those potential sites for life to flourish, we have the only planet where all the conditions worked out favorably.

Here we are. We exist.

You’re here, reading these words, doing whatever you did just before this, and about to do whatever comes next.

And you’re as unlikely to have ever existed as life itself.

Think of the slow transfer of human genetic material through generation after generation for thousands of years (because let’s not completely blow our minds and go all the way back to add single-celled organisms to our family tree). Think of all the events, both historical and common, that lead to the exact DNA cocktail that brewed you.

A chance meeting of two people. A war forcing a family to flee their homeland. The work of a savvy matchmaker. A natural disaster. The thoughtful consideration of future parents looking for a donor.

These are just a few of the potential steps on the journey to get to you.

It’s something I think about a lot, given that my dad is the keeper of his family’s genealogical records. And if it ever stops seeming strange to me, I think about the fact that I’m a Mayflower descendent and my daughter happened to be born in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

We are all part of a larger conversation with this history of unlikely existence. We all come from somewhere, and whether or not we personally have children, we all shape the world that new people will be born into.

But it wasn’t necessarily going to be this way.

Earth could have been hit by a huge chunk of space debris at just the wrong moment and wound up with a different orbit. The boat carrying your ancestor across the ocean could have capsized. Some misaligned chromosomes could have prevented the cell division that allowed you to grow and flourish.

You are not just part of a line, but a singular point. You are a marvelous improbability.

Even if you feel like a disappointment to the people most important to you. Even if you can’t find work that feels meaningful to you. Even if your family refuses to use your proper pronouns, or people won’t take you seriously as the protagonist of your own story, or you face disrespect based on your skin, your speech, who you love, or the place you were born.

Even if you have to fight an endless battle with part of your own mind that believes you’re worthless and don’t have any right to exist.

Remember that you are a marvelous improbability.

You get to be here.

You deserve to feel awe and wonder at the very fact of your own existence.