😳Are You a Fraud? No, You Are Not.

I’ve felt like a fraud countless times in my life but the most pivotal was freshman year at Cornell University.  My brother, the genius, had graduated from Cornell in Electrical Engineering the year before I matriculated. He graduated with over a 4.0 grade point average.  If he received less than an A+ his average went down. There I was rooming in Donlon Hall, the same dorm as his freshman year, in Ithaca New York, friendless and wondering what I was thinking leaving all my friends and family behind in suburban Wilmington, Delaware.  This is the Ivy League!  My dad isn’t here to proofread my papers.  My mom isn’t here to make sure I get to class on time.  And why is this campus so damn big and does every other student’s father work on Wall Street? Fast forward four years, working too many hours at Noyes Lodge, several all-nighters and a “2.0 to go” (a C average) and I made it through with lifelong friends and a love for upstate New York with its lakes and gorges. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I would falter.

My freshman roommate Julie and I on graduation day from the Cornell Hotel School

I can blame my getting accepted to Cornell on my brother paving the way, or random luck or that they had a quota on accepting folks from the tiny state of Delaware.  It certainly wasn’t my SAT’s or my GPA from my high school years based on the number of times I cut school.  It wasn’t my parents bank account, my father’s connections as a high school history teacher or a legacy of Ivy League ancestors. Frankly when my mom called me at my after-school job of working at a discount retailers shoe department and told me that there was a thick envelope from Cornell in the mail, I was shocked and dumbfounded. Why the hell would they want a fraud like me? Well, it’s taken me a lifetime but I’m not a fraud.  And neither are you.

Here are the symptoms of feeling like a fraud and what to do about it:

Perfectionist.  Perfectionists feel that if they make even the tiniest of mistakes they will be unmasked. As Abigail Abrams wrote for Time, ““Perfectionists” set extremely high expectations for themselves, and even if they meet 99% of their goals, they’re going to feel like failures. Any small mistake will make them question their own competence.” Rethink and recalibrate your expectations. It’s like planning a car trip, figure you will drive only 300 miles instead of 400 and it will not take 8 hours but 10 hours to get there. Embrace making a mistake and be open to feedback without shaming yourself.  Reframe your self-talk diatribes into how you talk to your favorite family pet. Unconditional self-love can be a powerful tool in embracing your authentic self.

Natural Genius. The belief that everything should come easily and without a lot of effort.  So, the minute anything takes time and hard work, you can throw your hands up and say, “There you go, I’m not good enough.” I remember that school work was easy in elementary school and my parents told me I was bright.  Imagine how I felt when I got a C on a test in 6th grade math. I decided “whelp” my parents are wrong, I’m not bright. I learned many years later that this is what Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset.  I have since embraced the growth mindset which focuses on hard work, constantly testing assumptions and investing in learning more. Mastery does not come without effort. Put in the effort, you are a constantly evolving piece of art.

Expert. As Abrams wrote, “Experts feel the need to know every piece of information before they start a project and constantly look for new certifications or trainings to improve their skills. They won’t apply for a job if they don’t meet all the criteria in the posting, and they might be hesitant to ask a question in class or speak up in a meeting at work because they’re afraid of looking stupid if they don’t already know the answer.” I can remember hiding in the back of a lecture hall at Cornell.  I never wanted to be called on.  I might be found out. You and I don’t need to know it all and it’s OK to ask a question. There were about ten years where I chased six different certifications and I finally realized that the investment of time in trying to be “the expert” was just too much and once I had a certification, I had to re-certify every 3 years. Yes, I learned a lot of skills and I’m a better writer and coach because of it, but I’m not an expert and…that’s OK. 

Soloist. Being a soloist means that you can just go it alone and help is a four-letter word. I see new managers fall into this when they don’t know how to delegate and fear that if they do, they will be found out as lousy managers.  So, they focus on keeping all the plates spinning and their direct reports feel micromanaged and diminished. In the remote working world this means that you end up attending every meeting without thinking through whether this meeting could be of value to someone else.  This also has shades of perfectionism in it as well, since you might have the belief that only you can do this job. Reframe “help” as a way to invest in someone else and imagine the synergy that can be created by more than just one mind. 

Superwoman. As espoused by Abrams, “Superwomen push themselves to work harder than those around them to prove that they’re not impostors. They feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life—at work, as parents, as partners—and may feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something.” I am a recovering superwoman.  There was a time when I worked full time, taught at a university part time, cooked nightly meals for my family and drove around eastern North Carolina attending marching band, football, soccer and track competitions. I needed to be the best mom, wife, daughter, HR professional and teacher. That time in my life is a blur and I ended up being spread way too thin and burned out.  It’s hard to be present for anything when you are thinking about the next destination or event.  I hung up my cape a while ago. 

These aspects are just part of limiting beliefs that hold me back.  I like Brene Brown’s outlook that we are all just trying our best.  Being my best is being imperfect, learning, inexpert, seeking help and able to coast. You are not a fraud; you are trying your best as well and that’s good enough.  

Look and Listen: Lessons from Birds

I had an amazing experience in early June, I went on a birding expedition with the Lower Neuse Bird Club. When my companion Roy suggested I go, I was a bit intimidated since “I know just enough about birds to be dangerous.” That means I know the difference between a cardinal and a blue jay (the former being red and the latter being blue). My knowledge starts and ends about there. Getting up at dark o’clock and heading out to a preserve with a bunch of folks I don’t know, to look for elusive bounty seemed impulsive. I figured I’d be lucky to see one yellow bellied sapsucker or some other assumed mythical creature. I was wrong.

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Lower Neuse Bird Club. Photo by Mike Creedon

This is what I learned from my birding adventure:

  • Expert. This whole adventure would have been foolhardy without a few experts along. We met up with the caravan from New Bern, NC in Otway, NC and then traveled to the North River Preserve in Carteret County, NC. Our expert for this trip was John Fussell. This guy is mighty in his knowledge of all things birding. Our first stop on the preserve had Fussell with iPod in hand shouting out bird names like, who has never seen a Dickcissel or Blue Grosbeak? I meekly put up my hand. I had no idea if that was a bird or a disease. Well, I soon learned that Fussell had already scouted the area that morning and was calling the birds with his mighty iPod. It was fascinating. Calling up bird like ordering up fries at a drive through. Having an expert along when birding is critical.

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Indigo Bunting. Photo by Mike Creedon.

  • Patience. As I have written previously, patience has never been my strong suit. Well, when you go birding, you better be patient. Fussell would be trying to call up a bird and there all fifteen of us stood at the ready with binoculars, high-powered cameras and scopes waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Then suddenly someone would call out the bird and its location. I was skeptical that my patience, albeit finite, would pay off. Sure enough, after struggling to find an elusive Indigo Bunting on the top of the large pine next to the tallest grass on the right of the electrical pole and five feet to the left of the ditch. Magic. There is the bluest bird I have ever seen. Not in captivity but there flitting in the top of the brush singing its song. Patience pays off.

 

  • Observant. Veteran birders are super observant. I figured a newbie like me might be lucky to see much more than one or two birds. I have never been super observant. I will say that when I am in the market for a new car or phone, all I notice is that particular car or phone. The same thing applies to birdwatching. With a few experts along, suddenly all the brush and grass disappeared and there was a Dickcissel perched on a branch. Focusing on movement and the environment around you. It’s funny, all of a sudden, there would be a bird flying overhead and someone would call out “Common Yellow Throat.” Paying attention paid off with all kinds of sightings.

 

  • Notes. It didn’t take long to notice that many of the birders were taking notes. Pretty soon, I had my phone out to take notes myself. I had no idea that I would see so many unusual birds and that I would want to remember the names. It’s like everyone was keeping tabs on the various birds they observed. Initially, I figured, what was the point? But then I realized, I might want to find out more about the birds later. And…I just might want to write a post about this experience. So, I better keep track. There were at least five to six people keeping track. By the end of the trip, I had at least twelve birds I had never seen before. And I can pull up a name like Indigo Bunting without having to use my faulty memory. Keep notes of your observations. It will keep things fresh.

 

  • Listen. I had no idea that most of birding centers around listening. This may be obvious to you. We all have heard birds singing first thing in the morning. I rarely listen to a bird’s song. Well, these birders? They know a bird’s song! They have little things that they believe the bird is singing. It’s similar to a Mourning Dove’s sound, which sounds like weeping. I can’t remember what some of the more experienced birders said, but it was interesting how once they gave an identity to what a bird sounded like — “That’s a dog, that’s a dog, that’s a dog” — that was all I could hear. The real lesson here is to just listen. Now all I hear is bird’s singing and notice how one is different from another. It’s easy to just skim over the sound but if you focus in and listen, they are all unique.

I cannot begin to tell you how helpful everyone on the expedition was. If you asked, “What is that?”, someone would chime in. If someone didn’t know, they would say so. It’s like we were all there just to experience whatever came our way. I have to say, it was a lot of fun and opened my eyes to what is really going on out there. Get outside and start to notice what is around you.