Have you ever been so overly prepared for you first attempt at something, but then in the moment when you’re supposed to follow through you choked?
Well, that was me on the day of my first computer science midterm in college.
I studied for days leading up to the midterm, and on exam day I felt pretty good but in the back of my mind a bit nervous.
Then I entered the giant lecture hall, took my seat, was handed the exam, looked through it, and all of a sudden I didn’t know anything!
I looked around and there was a sea of my peers frantically scribbling away.
In that moment, I thought, “What am I doing here?”
At the time I didn’t know what was going on: it was my first battle with impostor syndrome.
A few days later I got my midterm back: I had scored a 19.
No not a 19 out of 19, or a 19 out of 20, a 19 out of 100!
This was my worst grade ever…
To make matters worse, I talked to my peers, who told me that they had just studied the night before, and aced their midterm.
At the time I was naive, so I bought into my peers experience, and resolved that I was incapable.
What happens when you quit and you know you’re not a quitter
I thought over time I’d get over it.
Months past and I didn’t, because it was the first time I had quit something after a failure.
Then I started to feel like I was letting myself down, and that somehow this would become a slippery slope. I’d just give myself permission to quit anytime things didn’t go my way the first time around.
Tell yourself to try again
Maybe others around me would be OK with me quitting, even my parents didn’t seem to mind after a while, but I wasn’t going to let myself off that easily.
I did the only thing I could do to get over it: I signed up to take the course again in the summer.
People warned me that the course in the summer would be a faster pace. I’d have to work even harder to keep up. I’d, of course, have less time to study for midterms. And if I did poorly on a midterm or project, I wouldn’t be able to drop it, because I’d used up my one free drop for the year.
I knew what I was getting into, and decided to go for it anyway.
Understand what you did wrong the first time around
On my first attempt, despite putting in the long hours to study and learn the material, I kept second guessing myself. Then when my confidence was low, the impostor in me took advantage and distracted me with thoughts of what my peers were doing.
On the day of my second attempt, I knew what I’d have to do differently: go with my gut and ignore the impostor.
I plowed through the midterm without giving my impostor a chance to get a thought into my head.
Then I waited for days wondering how I had done.
As the professor handed back the midterm, I saw my grade, I had gotten an A.
Permission to suck
We each have an impostor inside of us that doesn’t give us a chance to really suck.
It sets high expectations. It expects us to execute perfectly on our first attempt at anything.
But we simply cannot.
It’s not that we’re incapable. It’s that deep learning and mastery takes time. Time that we have to learn to give ourselves.
In the beginning, you go through a series of trials. In those trials, you suck hard. You can’t quite do what you just learned because it feels awkward. Or you often forget what you’ve just learned, which makes you feel stupid.
You question whether practice will pay off because it is so grueling, filled with many low moments. And in those moments, our impostor preys upon our vulnerability tempting us to quit.
It compares us to people who are faster, stronger, smarter, more gifted or talented, and therefore supposedly better than us and more deserving.
The good news: you get to decide who is going to fill your mind with thoughts you or your imposter.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote of the week from one of my yoga instructors, Yi-Ting, “Learn to let go of whatever thoughts aren’t serving you in this moment.”
I know I’m not alone, how do you handle your impostor? Let me know in the comments below.