Always do what you are afraid to do.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
This week a friend shared an intriguing podcast from an NPR series, Invisibilia, related to fear. Unknowingly to him, the podcast fit into a conversation topic I'd been having all week on Impostor Syndrome, or Fear of Being Found Out as a Fake.
Impostor Syndrome is the overwhelming insecurity that you can not repeat success. The mental nightmare insists that somehow your success (like producing a No. 1 hit or writing a bestselling book) was an accident. Once you've been successful, new expectations are raised. No longer in obscurity, you are now known to people and they now expect you to produce another hit. Impostor Syndrome’s incessant voice in your head insists that you can not.
You are very, very sure all of the fanfare is a big mistake.
I attended a writers conference on Saturday with a panel speaker, New York Times bestselling author Angie Fox. Angie has been writing for 20 years and has just published her 15th book. She shared her Impostor Syndrome nightmare: "Every time I wonder whether this is the book that shows everyone I don’t know how to write. There's such angst. My first book was a debut success. When I was writing my second book I told my husband, 'We'll have to return the advance. Find the money. Take it from our savings.' He pulled together the funds and showed me we had it."
Angie’s second book hit the New York Times best-selling list.
Yet, for each book, she still keeps an emergency fund. She said, "After 10 years the fear hasn’t gone away. It feels really, really real. Secretly, I know my husband's wrong not to worry."
LOL! So, what's the solution to beating back Impostor Syndrome? This is where Invisibilia's report carried one intriguing answer. It’s the true story of a group of women in Rwanda. I’d like to tell a short version:
Lose-lose or Win-win?
The anticipation is so palpable the air feels thick. Like an electric current a constant vibration from the audience restlessly hums. A large group has gathered in a university’s gymnasium where rows of chairs are filled with moving bodies. At the front of the room and on opposite sides of a stage, two groups gather and fidget. On one side low voices mutter impatiently, "I am the winner today.'” Resolutely, this group ignores the opposing team's laughter, their jeering gestures and the just-audible taunt, "I feel feminism in the air."
This is a debate between the Akilah Institute, the first all-women's college in Rwanda, and the male students of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, or KIST. The room is packed with supporters for both sides. A judge walks to the center of the stage and clears his throat. As the crowd quiets he intones into a microphone, "Out of eight possible topics the debate today will be,'The House Believes…(he pauses)... That Developing Countries Should Adopt Western Feminism.’"
The room roars! Yes! The Akilah women are ready. This is exactly what they’ve come to prove!
They have more at stake then a competition. Only weeks before, in their very first debate, the women had been quickly, crushingly defeated in the very first round — in just 45 minutes — by KIST, who then went on to win the overall competition.
The judge steps forward again. This time with a small satchel containing two slips of paper. Each team will draw to determine the side they’ll argue. A student from each school reaches in for a paper slip. Simultaneously, the Akilah team steps forward and surrounds their teammate. She unfolds the paper slip.
Opposed. They must argue opposed. The room quiets, surprised, then voices rise in exclamation. To win this debate, the first-ever all-women's team will have to make a persuasive case that Rwanda would not be better off if women were as free as men to choose how to live their lives.
The women are stunned.
The Akilah Institute for Women had been established just five years before as a three-year vocational school and represented a progressive step for women's education. Traditionally, Rwanda's patriarchal society had not welcomed education for women or supported work outside the home.
All of this changed in 1994 when Rwanda experienced one of the worst genocides in history. In just 100 days between April and July nearly one million men, women and children with lineage from the Tutsi tribe were massacred by the rival Hutu militia. The suddenness and savagery of the attack crippled the country. Immediately following the genocide it's estimated that Rwanda's population of about 6 million was 70 percent female since so many men had been murdered, arrested or fled.
Prior to the genocide it had been virtually unheard of for a woman to attend school or work outside the home or own land. Yet, with such a sudden vacuum, women stepped in to new roles as varied as shop owners and police chiefs and government ministers.
The formation of an all-women's debate team seemed a natural progression, though a traditional Rwandan woman is shy, humble and soft-spoken. Hardly the right match for the passionate argument of a strong debater. And this had been the case in their embarrassing first debate defeat.
In the days and weeks that followed the Akilah team knew they would have to change. They had argued their side politely, timidly. If they were truly to compete, they would have to face down the fears that held them back.
First, they started with language.“I am a debater and a winner,” they repeated again and again. What started as a phrase became a declaration. They’d been penalized for debate rule mistakes they hadn’t understood. Now they double-downed on the rules of debating, learning them inside and out. They practiced “power poses” — standing with their hands on their hips or in a wider stance — so different from the submissive body language of a traditional Rwandan woman — imitating a body language reflecting confidence and assertiveness.
Over time pretending to be confident turned into actual confidence.
So, now, when the time had arrived to compete it felt crazy to be required to argue against the very ideas that gave them the assurance to return to competition. In order to win, the Akilah team would have to argue persuasively against all that had transformed them. And if they lost, they would be demonstrating that women did not have what it took to be in a position of influence.
The women dug deep. They thought of every submissive statement and song heard in their childhoods. They proclaimed the words and sang the songs. They spoke boldly, declaring the importance of tradition and a woman’s place in the home as critical for the future of Rwanda. Confidently they argued that “true" Rwandan women had no vestige of Western ideas like feminism.
The confidence worked. The Akilah team won! And then they won the next round, and the next. At the end of the afternoon, they took home the trophy.
After the win, the women wondered, “Did they win because they were the best? Or because the judges wanted to preserve the status quo?” They decided it didn’t matter. A win is a win!
Two years later the Akilah team continues to compete. It’s attracted a following of young women. While some have joined their debate team, others have formed their own all-women teams at other schools. Like a pebble dropped into a pond and causing ever widening ripples, more and more women have been motivated to support and join in. (If you'd like read more on this story, here's a written article of the podcast.)
The common denominator between the two true stories —one from Angie Fox and the other from the Rwandan women — is facing down fear. Despite it, Angie keeps writing and the Akilah women keep winning debates. Impostor Syndrome may whisper, “It was all a mistake.” Timidity may murmur, “Not today, maybe tomorrow.” My mission is to write about stories of perseverance over challenges. Perhaps this is one of the greatest challenges because overcoming fear means persevering not against an external enemy but the negative self-talk within.
I have a feeling, the greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory.
Speaking of facing down fears, here’s my update on exploring writing:
Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
Writing 30 minutes/day: Yup, hit my 100-day-mark last week (yay!). It has definitely met my goal of establishing a new habit. Now I have to start thinking about quality. (I’m still tracking on Instagram, about 30 days behind this blog.)
Writers’ Conference: Picked up tons of practical tips, resources and new contacts last Saturday at the St. Louis Writer’s Guild’s “Gateway" conference. I found out about a regular writers’ group called Saturday Writers that meets the last Saturday of every month — seems do-able. Since my professional network is in financial services and marketing, I’ve been looking for ways to expand into a network of writers.
Books I’m reading: I’ve just started June by Miranda Beverly Whittemore. It promises to be about small-town secrets, family weirdness, intrigue and Hollywood romance. So far the protagonist has just received an amazing inheritance from an unknown relative (my favorite fantasy!)
A final thought on fear from Ralph Waldo Emerson again:
He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.
What fear are you facing down?
To a fearless week!