As the first-born of three daughters, I was a self-disciplined kid. Well behaved. Type A. All A’s. I did my homework. I nailed, absolutely nailed, every spelling test, plus the bonus words. And I was sure I’d never, ever be smart enough.

In the third grade, I missed a few days of school, and when I returned, the class had learned long division. I looked at Jen McCarthy’s paper and was like WTF IS THAT? I panicked. I thought, that’s it. The rest of the class, the rest of the world, has moved on, and I will never, ever catch up.

I didn’t think I was dumb; I worried that I was always going to be just this side of knowing what I didn’t know. I wasn’t afraid I would be truly ignorant (because the ignorant are blissfully unaware). I was afraid I would be fully aware of how ignorant I was.

I’m a fairly quick study and I got some extra help, fine. But I could not shake the feeling that I’d never get those days back, and I would be forever a few steps behind even the boy in my class who was clearly a real dope.

This is how wrongheaded ideas take root and spread: Fear is like fertilizer, and soon those little tender sprouts of self doubt thicken, become woody and real. They start to define the landscape.

I graduated valedictorian of my eighth grade class, beating out my best friend by a tenth of a point. I felt bad about that, especially when I thought I was probably a big phony and had fooled people along the way and somehow lucked out.

It doesn’t matter how I did in school, what the teachers thought of me, what great schools I went on to attend. Because if you believe you’re behind or a fraud, or both, nothing externally can change that. That’s why impostor syndrome is so hard to root out. What’s worse, I thought, oh no, when people find out I’m not that smart after all, they’re just going to be really disappointed.

That’s a lot to walk around with. I’m not original in this way. I’m guessing you’ve felt the same way about one thing or another.

Seth Godin wrote this on his blog the other day:

Would you rather be the smartest person in the room or the least informed? If you’re the smartest, you can generously teach others. On the other hand, if you’re the least informed and hungry to level up, you couldn’t ask for a better place to be.”

I spent years wondering whether I was smart enough to be in whatever room I was in.

It wasn’t until much (much) later that I realized it doesn’t make sense to try to be the smartest in the room. The pressure is way too high, but more importantly it’s not useful. If you have to be the biggest, best, brightest, there’s nowhere for you to go.

A light bulb went off for me when I realized that what made me good at what I do is not what I know, but what I want to know. Not what I have answers for, but what questions I ask.

People who come to me for branding help from industries I’m completely ignorant of. I don’t know a thing! And I tell them that I’m the most valuable to them when I KNOW THE LEAST. Because that’s when I’m the most like the people they’re trying to reach.

Being new to or unaware or unschooled on a thing means you’re likely to question the assumptions that other people don’t—especially when they’re busy pretending to be smart.


The prompt I was given: Write about a time you felt ashamed.

My prompt to you: When did you first question an assumption you’d always held onto? What happened?


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1 reply
  1. Bryan Konieczka
    Bryan Konieczka says:

    Great advice, Terri! Your third grade story about long division reminds me of a similar incident that happened to me in third grade as well. I was absent on the day the class learned how to write cursive “J’s” (upper and lower case). I still struggle to this day with writing that letter in cursive, mostly because I question if I’m “doing it right”.


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