“So, let’s talk about comfort zones…”
About two months ago, I received an invitation from Andrew Huff, who I know primarily through ORD Camp, to participate in something called 20x2. Andrew explained it was “a show in which 20 interesting people each answer a question in two minutes or less”; it originated in SXSW Interactive, and Andrew runs the Chicago outpost of the show, which happens twice a year.
The question is known in advance to the presenters and the audience and, this time around, it was “Where do we start?”. The premise of the event sounded really cool, and I accepted the invitation (which I assume Andrew extended because he’s seen me speak at ORD Camp). Fast forward to last Friday (April 27): 20x2 happened, I presented, and it went well. I’ll get to that later, because I want to focus on the intervening two months, during which I was both super excited and absolutely terrified at having to give a two-minute presentation.
For those of you who don’t know me, a little about myself: I am a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Chicago where, by most objective metrics, I am considered a very capable educator. I have no trouble planning out an entire quarter of lectures, labs, assignments, etc. as well as standing in front of a hundred students and delivering a well-structured, coherent lecture without any trepidation. I also get good evaluations, most of which point out that I am a very effective communicator. So, speaking for a measly two minutes should be a walk in the park, right?
I suffer from Impostor Syndrome, a “psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’”, and which “has been commonly reported by graduate students and scientists beginning tenure track positions”.
My Impostor Syndrome started when I was in grad school and, to be fair, I’ve managed to shake off the feeling that I’m a “fraud” (which I definitely did feel as a PhD student). I finished my PhD and I have an academic appointment at one of the best universities in the world. I have been through enough crucibles to feel like, if I really were a fraud, I couldn’t have possibly made it to where I am today.
What I have not been able to move beyond, and what I still struggle with, is the feeling that my work and my accomplishments are never good enough. Even when my colleagues or my students tell me what a great job I’m doing, I still feel like I’m falling short of someone’s expectations, even though, when I think about it, no one is setting those expectations other than myself.
This means that I usually have a really hard time accepting praise, to the point that, when someone does compliment me, it still catches me off-guard and I react awkwardly more often than not. It also means that I have trouble processing why anyone would consider me to be special or noteworthy.
So, as you can imagine, when I received the invitation to present at 20x2, my Impostor Syndrome kicked into high gear. I felt totally undeserving of being included in what I assumed would be (and turned out to be) a phenomenal group of creative people from all walks of life. Even that feeling of being a “fraud”, which I have not felt in a long time, started to rear its ugly head. Surely this invitation was a mistake and, if I accepted it, I was convinced my two minutes would be the forgettable part of the evening. “At least he tried”, people would say after all the presentations.
On top of all that, I should add that I am a moderately-to-highly introverted person. Before we continue, if you’re unfamiliar with the introversion/extroversion spectrum, and think that “being introverted” is the same as “being socially awkward”, check out this explanation of what being introverted means. In a nutshell, being introverted means that interacting with other people is exhausting to me, not in a misanthropic “I hate people” kind of way, but in the sense that it actively requires some effort on my part.
The amount of effort I need to interact with other people can vary from person to person, though. Interacting with close friends and colleagues requires very little energy on my part and, in fact, those interactions can even be replenishing at times. On the other hand, the less I know someone, the more exhausting I find it to interact with them, with one big exception: I can almost always cope with interacting with “strangers” if there is a clear purpose for that interaction.
This means my introversion has, fortunately, not been a big deal in my career because, in a professional setting, there is (almost) always a clearly defined purpose for interacting with people you don’t know: meeting with a student to advise them on course selections, talking with a recruiter about ways they can engage with our students, etc. Similarly, when I stand in front of a class to deliver a lecture, there is a clear purpose to that interaction. I can give a lecture to a room with hundreds of people without breaking a sweat.
My introversion is a bigger deal in social situations. I overwhelmingly prefer to interact with friends one-on-one and get very uncomfortable when they suggest meeting up with someone I don’t know. I can participate in social events (dinners, board game parties, etc.) that include people I don’t know, but only if they’re small (no more than 5–6 people total) and there has to be at least a few friends there. Going to social events that, by design, require sitting in a table full of strangers (e.g., weddings, some university receptions, etc.) is specially challenging, and requires every ounce of energy I have to make it through them.
I’m also basically incapable of being a functional human being at large social gatherings (outside of a professional setting). I will always cling to the people I know and, when that is not possible, I will just stand awkwardly in the corner checking my phone, because I’m terrified that someone will try to start a conversation with me.
So, back to 20x2: I receive an invitation to participate in an event that my Impostor Syndrome tells me I’m unworthy of, and which is going to involve speaking in front of an audience full of people I don’t know. This is nothing like teaching a college class because those people aren’t there specifically to hear me speak. This is an event where people are expecting to hear 20 interesting people speak, and where I don’t buy into the premise that I am interesting.
I am deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of accepting this invitation, of having to figure out an answer to “Where do we start?”, of having to stand on that stage and being exposed as a fraud who should’ve never been invited in the first place.
And yet, I accepted the invitation.
Over the years, I have found that one of the best ways of coping with Impostor Syndrome and with my introversion is to force myself to go outside my comfort zone. This is, by no means, easy to do. It involves making a conscious choice to do something that makes you uncomfortable and which may not even pay off in any significant way. It is a risky proposition, but one that is better than the alternative: to constantly feel inadequate by default.
To be clear, when I say “comfort zone” I refer to situations and environments that feel familiar, and where you tend to experience low levels of stress. Going outside your comfort zone involves pushing your limits in a safe and controlled way. It could result in feeling temporarily more stressed, but not to the point of feeling unsafe. Furthermore, some people require specific accommodations to lead a relatively stress-free life, and I am not suggesting that people should neglect or diminish those accommodations.
Anyway, after accepting the invitation, I spent the next two months low-key stressing out about what I would talk about. I explored a number of ideas that turned out to be dead-ends; for example, I originally wanted to do an analysis of the most commonly used words in the first tweet of a large volume of Twitter accounts (it turned out that getting that data was non-trivial, and potentially expensive).
In the end, I figured that, as long as I was going outside my comfort zone by giving this talk, I should go the whole nine yards and approach this question from outside my intellectual comfort zone of Computer Science. I have a bit of a fascination with languages (partially stemming from having grown up in the Basque Country, and learning Euskera, one of the world’s few language isolates, as a teenager), so I decided I would talk about etymologies (i.e., the start of words) and, in particular, the etymology of the word “start” (the “start of start” har har har).
My Impostor Syndrome and introversion-induced anxieties peaked in the week before the event, not just because of the greater sense of immediacy, but because we were sent the order of the presentations, and it turned out I was the very last one, which just fed into my insecurities: if I messed up, that’s likely what the audience will remember most. This computer nerd who came at the end and completely bombed, negating all the great presentations that came before him.
So, I spent a lot of time that week obsessively preparing for those two minutes. I researched (as much as a linguistics layperson could) the origin of the word “start” by consulting a number of scholarly sources, spent hours working out every little detail of my slides, and half a day (right before the event) rehearsing my two minutes over and over and over.
In the end, while the meat of my two minutes where about the word “start”, they were bookended by these opening and closing statements:
So, let’s talk about comfort zones. As an introverted computer geek who often suffers from Impostor Syndrome, speaking to all of you today is as far as I can be from my comfort zone. But I think that’s good! I think it’s good to sometimes go outside your comfort zone so, instead of answering this question as a computer scientist, I’m instead going to tell you about etymologies, or the start of words.
[roughly 90 seconds of me talking about the origin of the word “start”]
So, in conclusion, where do we start? (besides etymologies) Well, by going outside my comfort zone, I learned something cool and interesting and I got to share it with all of you, so I encourage you to start by going outside your comfort zone.
And, much to my surprise, my two minutes were a success:
The audience laughed throughout, and exploded in applause at the end. Andrew told me I “crushed it”, and that he chose me as the closer specifically because he knew I’d deliver. Several people came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed my two minutes, what a great job I did, how much they relate to what I said, etc.
Part of me, the part that is beholden to Impostor Syndrome, was in disbelief. I expected my two minutes to be well-done (if only because of how much I rehearsed them), but otherwise unremarkable. Fortunately, a bigger part of me was able to cast aside the feeling of being an impostor, and instead rejoice in all those compliments, and the positive feelings they engendered. Not just that, in the future, when I doubt myself, I can always look back on moments like these, and remind myself that, hey, I’m actually doing alright.
And none of this would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone outside my comfort zone.
Coda: So, let’s talk about visibility…
I’ve always been open about the fact that I have Impostor Syndrome and about being introverted. I’ve alluded to it on social media several times, and I bring it up in conversations if it’s relevant. However, I’ve never discussed this in this much length, except perhaps with some close friends.
The reason I chose to do so is because I think it’s important to be visibly open about this. When other people struggle with similar issues, specially people who might look up to me and assume that I’ve gotten where I am because I’m some sort of awesome flawless individual (I’m not), it’s important that they know that they’re not alone. Living with Impostor Syndrome or deep introversion can certainly be challenging at times, but it does not have to stand in the way of your aspirations.