Do you sometimes suffer from impostor syndrome? Do you worry that you do not know enough, that you haven’t got enough to offer?
I’ve been reminded this week that we all have different levels of knowledge. That others know more than us and that we know more than others. This doesn’t mean that we do not have much to offer. And there is nothing to be gained by belittling each other’s levels of knowledge.
I have suffered from impostor syndrome at every career change in my life.
When I moved from academia to biotech, I suffered from it big time. All I knew was very specific, in depth academic knowledge, and suddenly I felt like a fraud, because my new knowledge was a lot wider and less deep. It took me I think at least a couple of years to shake that. In fact, a similar way to what I wrote in my “head versus hand knowledge” post, it took other people to point it out to me, for me to start acknowledging that what I was doing was worthwhile.
A friend, who had stayed in the academic sector, expressed awe at the breadth of my knowledge. Another friend drew me this little cartoon he called “the field of knowledge”. It looked like this silly little drawing drawing below : the stick man at the bottom of the pit on the left of the picture is an academic, digging one deep hole. The other little stick men on the pits on the right are digging lots of little, shallower holes, but many more of them. My friend challenged me by saying: “who’s to say that one kind of knowledge is better than the others? Who’s to say that depth is better than breadth?”. This was a light bulb moment and was very grateful to this friend for giving me confidence like this.
Whilst still working as a scientist, I embarked on a women in science mentoring programme. At first, I was assigned a mentor, and it was a very useful, life affirming experience. But a couple of years into the programme I was asked to mentor someone myself. My first reaction was to refuse: I wasn’t qualified or experienced enough. But the programme organiser insisted so I took on a mentee, and you know what? I really enjoyed it, and so did the mentee. I think I did a good job, and I learnt a lot from the process.
Of course I felt the same when I started working an antenatal teacher, slightly less so as a new babywearing consultant, because the profession was brand new at the time in the UK, and quite a lot when I started as a doula, then later on as a workshop facilitator. I was worried somebody would find out I was very green and call me a fraud. Now I look back and I think what a load of crap!
For starters, knowledge takes many forms – not just the academic kind. Self learning and experience aren’t as acknowledged as academic credential in our culture, and intuitive knowledge is totally dismissed. You can only truly learn your craft by doing it. A bit like when you’ve just got your driving licence, and you find you have to really concentrate at turning the wheel, at using the clutch and looking into the mirrors. When you have had enough practice driving doesn’t feel like a tricky activity at all – in fact you can often drive lost in your thoughts, and not realise that until you have arrived at your destination.
I have learnt a tremendous amount about myself and others, with an incredible level of depth, since I became a doula. I have learnt many skills, both practical and emotional, again by reading, attending conferences, workshops and study days. I have learnt a lot from my brilliant, supportive mentor when I was a new doula. She helped me trust myself and grow in my own way. But mostly I have learnt how to be a doula by being a doula. By watching women labour and give birth and watching how the hospital system work and drawing lessons from it.
Since I became a workshop facilitator I have learnt yet another layer of knowledge which makes my serving of women even better. I have also learnt that I will never stop learning. And that every birth is different and not to have any preconceived ideas and expectations.
Some coming back to the title of this post, there will always be people who know more and people who know less than you. And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot to offer. If the journey of life is like climbing a mountain, there will always people further up and further down the path than you. And as you reach a ridge, catch your breath and reflect on how far you’ve come, you’ll see that the mountain actually carries on.
So whichever ridge of the mountain you are standing on right now, there are people who can benefit from our knowledge and experience.
You can help them climb up, and there are others further up who can help you climb up too.
What matters most is that you help people go up in a way that is right for them, and that you are both honest and humble about your level of knowledge.
By stepping into who we really are and where we are at, we are both acknowledging our own journey and helping other acknowledge theirs too.