Unmasking the imposter within

One day last year I enjoyed a few hours in discussion with some of my counterparts from other universities. That evening in my hotel room I was in a reflective mood. I had spent a great day with people more experienced and knowledgeable than myself, and my feelings about that were not entirely positive.

Fortunately my misgivings didn’t last. After all, I had flown a thousand miles expressly to spend time with people who knew more than I did. This was what I came for, to learn. The comparison of self to others was an involuntary reflex and a distraction.

It felt like a tiny echo from a time years ago when I perceived that things at work were not going well. The challenges seemed larger than my capacity to deal with them. One morning during this period I was trudging to the office when I happened to pass a graffito scrawled on a Canada Post letter box. It said, “You Are Wrong.”

Thanks, I said to myself, that captures my feelings perfectly.

Bit of an odd thing to write on a mailbox, I thought. The next time I passed it, I looked more carefully and found that it didn’t say “You Are Wrong.” It said, “You Are Strong.”

I don’t believe in personal messages from the universe, but if you believe in messages from the universe, I won’t argue. It was what I needed at the time.

The way we see the world is coloured by the story we tell in our head. The story is about our talent or smarts or level of passion, and everything in sight becomes evidence for the prosecution. A question at a meeting is hostile, a colleague’s passing glance is dismissive, everyone else seems better qualified. “Strong” reads as “Wrong.”

A little imposter syndrome is a healthy sign that a smaller version of yourself is about to be eclipsed by a larger version, and is kicking up a fuss about it.

The problem with passion

The advertisement posted above the heads of my fellow bus commuters read, “Follow your passion.” The ad was for a career college. We hear that phrase all the time, follow your passion. The poster caused me to reflect on its implication. Which is, I think, that everyone has a “passion,” that we know what it is, and that success lies in acting on what we know.

As if one’s passion is a door with a sign on it that you simply open and walk through.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience, as I have, of sitting in a staff meeting wondering what the hell’s wrong with you. You looked around the room and thought, “Jeez, all these people seem so into it.” You wonder if you belong there.

A wise colleague once warned me against the mistake of “comparing your insides with everyone else’s outsides.” People in a meeting show their carefully curated outsides. That does not make them fakes. It makes them just like you.

It pains me that anyone is unhappy and restless because they think they’re lacking the critical ingredient of passion. Some people burn with an inner fire driving them to great things; the rest of us are fuelled by a steadier flame, something less dramatic, less ephemeral.

In place of passion we need a grounding of care. When you are responsible for something that matters, when for this stretch of time that thing depends on you and your team, an ethic of care begins to build and strengthen. You grow into it, and it in turn makes you grow.

In caring we achieve the inner harmony that brings joy at work. But this requires discovery, and discovery requires time, and time requires patience. It’s very different from the notion of a passion stamped on your soul for which there’s one matching purpose out there in the world. That’s a tall order leading to anxiety and frustration.

No one should take career advice from me. But I’ve gone outside the comfort zone of my supposed passions many times, and there I have found a universe of things I’ve come to care about deeply.

Writing for work: When to keep it to yourself

Writing about your profession and sharing it with others is one of the best ways to develop your thinking, grow professionally, and connect with likeminded others.

What it’s not for is sending coded messages to your colleagues. No one who works with you should have to wonder, “Is she talking to me?” Or worse, “Is he talking about me?”

Before I hit ‘publish’ I ask myself: Would I say this to a teammate, or in a meeting? I might not have actually said it – but would I?

I try to keep what I write on evenings and weekends consistent with what I say in the office. As a consequence, my file of draft posts contains thousands of words that will never see the light of day. Useful for working out my thoughts, but that’s all.

If you need to get something off your chest, save it for your diary.

Where good instincts come from

Trust your gut, some say. Don’t overthink it. But good judgment doesn’t emerge from nowhere, as if innate. If it did, at least a few large organizations would be led by exceptional children. That never happens. Judgment evolves from encountering complex situations, over and over, allowing the mind to grasp what varies and what does not from situation to situation. In a word: experience.

Experience alone isn’t enough. Some people never learn. Judgment grows out of reflecting on situations you’ve faced. What you learn from experience, you can apply to future situations in a way that feels natural and unforced, so that it feels like you’re going with your gut. Absent reflection, the benefit of experience is lost.

Experience plus reflection may still not be enough. If you’re like me, reflection can decay into rumination, which is a continuous loop of (usually negative) thinking that lacks an escape into either acceptance or a clear next action. The stuff sleepless nights are made on. When your brain starts looping, you can interrupt it by writing your reflections down.

Writing externalizes that part of the mind. Holding a thought at a distance gives you a view on it – clarifies it, makes suggestions about what to do about it, or maybe makes it disappear altogether. It’s helpful to talk to someone else about your experience, but still: follow that with capturing it in writing.

The logical next step – reading what you’ve written – may not even be necessary. The act of writing seems to change the way we process experience, allowing us to better internalize what we’ve mined from it.

They say failure is a great teacher. Yes – of course we want to pick ourselves up and profit from failure. But what about learning from success, or mixed results, or relatively minor day-to-day stuff? Failure tends to be charged with emotion, which intensifies memories associated with it, so in a way we learn from failure naturally, while lower-voltage daily experience fades quickly. Experience, including failure, is a great teacher, but we have to show up to class with a pencil.

Some people may be gifted with great gut instincts. The rest of us have experience, refined through reflection, crystallized by capture.

Dare to shut down your “always on” culture

While heading to work I see a line of city buses, emptied of passengers, their headsigns glowing “OUT OF SERVICE.” They are leaving downtown to reload in the suburbs.

It reminds me of the need for us, too, to be sometimes emptied and unavailable. We take vacations and the occasional holiday to rest, to renew mentally, to change perspective through distance. We empty out, to return full. We empty out, so we don’t burn out.

Leaders in an organization tend to be reachable all times and everywhere, and a certain ever-presence goes with the territory. But sometimes the behaviour seeps deeper. Middle managers are increasingly an email or text away. Staff responsible for critical systems or processes, too. It becomes expected, part of the culture, for everyone.

It can seem harmless. A staff person can triage her own messages, we presume, and respond only to the true emergencies. Unfortunately, although she may be on the beach, part of her brain is still in the office as she scrolls, thinking office thoughts. Every message strikes a blow against being where she is. Chipping away at future creativity, innovation, fresh thinking. Chipping away at her health.

Allow your team members to set up email rules and auto-responders that tell internal staff that the recipient is on vacation, that their message won’t be read, and that they can resend their query when the recipient returns. (No returning to an overflowing inbox.) If it’s an emergency, provide alternate contacts. (Because if a system or process is truly critical, you’ve planned some redundancy. Right?) And if something absolutely must reach that person, then have it go through a secret back channel such as a Gmail account set up for emergencies, which only one or two people know about.

Down time is important, so plan for it.

At peace with Inbox Full

I once tried to drive over a hill in British Columbia in a Pontiac Firefly on a road of dirt and rock. Up and up we went, my girlfriend and me, and my constant conviction was that we were nearing the summit and would be in the next town before dark. An east coast boy who’d never seen a real mountain, I clung to my belief for several hours as our wheels spun and rocks went flying and my future wife tried to talk sense to me and that summit never appeared.

In the 25 years since, I have learned a bit about mountains.

Work is like a mountain. You reach one goal only to have a new goal appear before you. You will never catch up. When you realize you’re okay with this, you can turn around once in a while and enjoy the view. All the great stuff happens on your way to an inspiring but ultimately unreachable destination.

“Inbox zero”: Most of us don’t receive email so much as bathe in its stream. Keeping on top of it is not a worthwhile goal.

“I need to put in some extra hours”: Sometimes, sure. Projects have deadlines. But all the time? That’s chasing a phantom notion of “done”.

“We’ll get there”: There is no “there”.

Sometimes we’re on a quixotic uphill drive and should stop, but if our vision is true we should ignore the impossibility of arrival and keep on going.

Feel your freedom

My first year at Dalhousie University was hard. I had been hired to manage Phonathon, the student caller program in Annual Giving. I had expected that hiring and training 25 students a year would be my least favourite part of the job, but in fact I enjoyed it. And my new colleagues were great (and still are!).

It was everything else. All our systems were being upgraded at the same time and everything was broken. There was no documentation. So many technical problems, and so few answers! Some days I felt helpless and angry … what had I signed up for?

In hindsight, however, the biggest problem may have been me. As my first calling season approached, I was very concerned with replicating the program as it had been before, right down to the details of segmentation of the calling pool. I wanted status quo first, make changes later.

Sometimes status quo is the right answer. In this case it caused a lot of unnecessary pain.

One day during that stressful time I met with a previous Phonathon manager, hoping he could help me replicate the structure as it had been. He shrugged and said, just do it your own way. If you think it should be done a certain way, he said, then do it that way. Learn from the result and do it better next year.


In that moment I realized that it was my responsibility to make decisions. Not as an onerous duty, but the freedom to follow my own lights. Obviously taking ownership in this way means owning mistakes, and I did make mistakes. But it was far easier to learn from my own mistakes than someone else’s.

Taking ownership and responsibility doesn’t mean you don’t consult and ask questions. The difference is that you’re not asking others to tell you what to do; you’re laying out your plan and getting others’ perspectives on things such as risk. You build mitigations into your plan, you carry it out, you own the results (good and bad), and you learn.

That was almost ten years and several positions ago, but “feel your freedom” still sounds like good advice.

Writing for work

The two work-related but extracurricular activities I have found the most rewarding are speaking and writing. I wonder why more people don’t give one or both a try. Ten years ago I wrote my first blog post for CoolData.org and only finally ran out of steam in 2018. By then it had led to two books, some interesting travel, and more. It’s now time to start over, with CoolOps, and see where it takes me.

And where can it take YOU? If you’re interested, just start writing. A blog our journal article is a better place to start than a book, but it’s up to you.

The best way to start, and stay started, is to seek out motives that seem selfish. The type of motivation I’m thinking of is intrinsic, such as personal satisfaction, as opposed to extrinsic, such as aiming to have a ton of followers and making money. It’s a good selfish.

Here are six reasons for writing about your work, followed by a few pieces of advice.

1. Documenting your work: One of my initial reasons for starting a blog was to have a place to keep snippets of knowledge in some searchable place. Specific techniques for manipulating data, for example. Today my needs are different, less technical. But I would still like a place where I can find that expression of an idea I once had.

2. Developing your thoughts: Bring focus and clarity to your ideas by writing about them.

3. Solidifying your learning: One of the best ways to learn something new is to explain it to someone else. I had an uncertain grasp of multiple linear regression when I launched CoolData, but the exercise of trying to explain data mining concepts was a way to get it straight in my own head. If I were to re-read some of my early posts, I would find things I would disagree with. But the likelihood of being wrong is not a good enough reason to avoid sharing and learning.

4. Making professional connections: Through my writing I met interesting people in university advancement, non-profit, and data analysis. It wasn’t very long after I started blogging that people would approach me at conferences to say they had seen one of my posts. Some of them learned a bit from me, or more likely I learned from them. A few even found time to contribute a guest post.

5. Sharing knowledge: This is obvious. Many advancement professionals share online already, via listservs and discussion forums. The fact this sharing goes on all the time makes me wonder why more people don’t try to make their contributions go even farther by giving them an enduring home.

6. Building toward larger projects: If you keep at it, you will end up with a considerable body of work. Writing can feed conference presentations, discussion papers, published articles, and books. But start with the realistic goal of getting your thoughts worked out, and let the bigger projects grow out organically. Don’t worry about gaining an audience. I don’t know how many followers a blog about higher education advancement ought to have, and I don’t worry about it.

A few bits of advice, take it or leave it:

1. On covering your butt: Your employer might have an opinion about your discussing work-related issues on social media. Clear the idea with someone. When I changed jobs, I disclosed that I intended to keep up my blog. I explained that connecting with counterparts at other universities was part of my professional development. There’s never been an issue.

2. On “permission”: Beyond ensuring that you’re good with your employer, you do not require anyone’s permission. You don’t have to be an authority in anything; you simply have to be interested in your subject and enthusiastic about sharing. You can’t prevent small minds from interpreting your activity as self-promotion, so just keep writing. In the long run, it’s the people who never take the risk of putting themselves out there who pay the higher price.

3. On writing: Writing well can help, but you don’t need to be an exceptional stylist. Sub-par prose will turn me off if I find it in a novel but not when reading information that will help me do my job.

4. On email: I used to think it was rude not to respond. Today things are different: It’s just too easy. I have received many interesting questions from readers and opportunities to connect, participate in projects, and so on. But just because you make yourself available for interaction doesn’t mean you have to.

5. On protecting your time: Regardless of how small your audience, eventually people will ask you to do things. Sometimes this can lead to interesting partnerships, but choose wisely and say no often. Be especially wary of quid pro quo arrangements that involve free stuff. I’m less concerned about high-minded integrity than I am about taking on obligations. It’s your free time; make sure your agenda is set exclusively by whatever has your full enthusiasm.

6. On the peanut gallery: Keeping up a positive conversation with people who are receptive to your message is productive. Trying to convince critics who are never going to agree with you is not. When you’re pushing back, you’re not pushing forward. Keep writing for yourself and the people who want to hear what you’ve got to say, and ignore the rest. This has nothing to do with being nice or avoiding conflict. I don’t care if you’re nice. It’s about applying your energies in a direction where they are likely to produce results. Focus on being positive and enabling others, not on indulging in opinions and fruitless debates with trolls.

Some say “know your audience.” Actually, it would be better if you knew yourself. Readers respond to your personality and they can get to know you only if you are consistent. You can be consistent only if you are genuine.

Your overarching goals are not to convince or convert or market, but to 1) fuel your own growth, and 2) connect with like-minded people. Growth and connection: That’s more than enough payoff for me.