I have felt unqualified for my own life for as long as I can remember.
On the first day of kindergarten I gave a fake name. I was sure that someone named Madeline would be taken more seriously.
I have been writing poetry since I was 7, scrawling dramatic verses into my Snoopy spiral notebook (one entitled “Questions from a Broken Heart.” Again, I was 7.) I used to tell my mother I loved learning new words with a zeal most kids reserve for cupcakes.
And yet, I doubted whether I was a ‘real’ writer at all. Which, in turn, prompted one of the most memorable Christmas gifts of my youth: A green t-shirt with the words “I Am a Writer!” scrawled in pink sparkles across the front. My mother had bought it at a kiosk at the Livingston mall, where she’d really cashed in that year. Kim, my middle sister and the happiest of the bunch, got “I love life!” and my littlest sister Lori’s read, “I have PMS.”
Later, when she realized the t-shirt hadn’t quite done the job, she ramped up the existential gift giving one Christmas with a framed poster of a dock leading off into a misty horizon. It read, “Life is a Journey, Not a Destination.” And when I was in my 20s, she got desperate: She gave me a polished white paperweight engraved with the message, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”
I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Boston College, and the recipient of the largest cash grant you could win as a graduating senior, awarded annually to the student most likely to have a career in writing. But had I applied for any jobs? Nope. Because I couldn’t imagine anyone would want to hire me. I believed I was entirely unqualified.
After a few years working at an office job, I found myself weeping over the fax machine and decided to go back to school. I applied to exactly one school for creative writing, the only one I wanted to go to. I got in. I signed up for a class on the poetry of Bishop and Lowell.
And after one class, I went to my professor, the brilliant poet Gail Mazur, during her office hours and said, “I shouldn’t be here. I haven’t read any of this stuff.” She couldn’t imagine what would make me think such a thing. That this is where you go to learn, not to show off what you learned. I mentioned some blowhard in my class who talked a lot. “Oh ignore him,” she said with a flip of her cool, veined hand. “He’s not so great.”
I wrote a poetry thesis for my M.F.A., and Gail was my advisor. She gave me the highest praise I could have hoped for at my thesis defense, and I left floating on air; I had created something that might be good. I submitted it for the Graduate Dean Award. It won. I have that thesis still; in fact, I had several copies bound. They’re all in a floral box on my shelf. They haven’t seen the light of day.
Lastly: I applied for my first publishing job when I was 30. I had been working as a catalog copywriter. I didn’t have a relevant resume or work experience. I got the job. I cried at night because I thought, “I shouldn’t be here,” and was sure someone had made a mistake. Also, because another editor on staff knew more websites than I did and that proved I had no future.
But I stayed. I rose through the ranks. Everyone above me got laid off or left. The magazine moved to Manhattan, and I was the only employee invited to come along with it. I joined an edgy, new squad of seasoned editors in the ascetic halls of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia HQ. The place was teeming with brilliance, and I was cowed. “How’s Martha?” friends would ask. “I shouldn’t be here,” I said. I felt like a stowaway, nibbling almonds at my desk.
In her very popular TED talk, “Your Body Shapes Who You Are,” Harvard social scientist Amy Cuddy shares compelling research and insight as to how your posture determines your power, and how your body can change your mind, and your mind can change your behavior. It’s classic TED: complex theories boiled down to a graspable idea, and a handy two-minute exercise anyone can try.
Amy’s story is compelling: She survived a terrible car accident that caused her IQ to drop; she was pulled out of college and told she couldn’t go back. But she did. She worked twice as hard, for twice as long, and landed at a Princeton. She said to herself, “I shouldn’t be here.” Yet, no one deserved it more.
The most moving moment in the video is when she talks about calling a student into her office years later, a young woman who had not spoken up and was on the verge of failing because of it. The student says, “I shouldn’t be here.” That’s the point when Amy’s voice breaks, and I felt a pocket of old grief and pain open up in my chest.
She says to her, Yes, you should be. You’ve got to fake it. Not til you make it—but until you become it.
Sheryl Sandberg told us to take our seat at the table. Writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg told us to write even if we think it’s the dumbest, most boring stuff in the world. Keep writing, she says. Just keep writing.
We teach the thing we most need to learn. So it’s not lost on me that I make a living today, not just writing, but teaching people the one thing I didn’t have for so long: Self confidence. Voice. Personal power. I show people how to fake it until they are that thing.
Don’t get caught up in the word “authentic,” by the way. It’s a catch-all, used as a qualifier for everything from relationships to acting performances to Italian food. It’s a smart way for people to complain about a thing they’re not satisfied with.
But here’s the truth: Everyone feels like a phony. We all fake it. I’m still faking it. This is life as we know it. True authenticity isn’t a thing you are or aren’t. It’s what you get from faking it so passionately for so long that it becomes real.