Leaning In (not too far! You don’t want to get your sleeve caught in the table saw)

This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name–the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it….For women, feeling like a fraud is a symptom of a greater problem. We consistently underestimate ourselves. Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is…Even worse, when women evaluate themselves in front of other people or in stereotypically male domains, their underestimations can become even more pronounced.

-Cheryl Sandberg, Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013) 29-30.
My brilliant female friend announced this weekend that she would be moving to Boston for work for a tenure-track position at a university that would give her significant amounts of funding for research. When I asked her where, she responded with a tentative voice and a slouch, “Harvard.” We exploded with enthusiasm and congratulations, and she visibly relaxed, but she clearly felt uncomfortable lauding this most incredible and well-deserved accomplishment. It got me thinking about my own work, and even this blog, where I have expressed the importance of vulnerability and embracing the potential for failure. While I stand by this view, I wonder if there is a difference between acknowledging the possibility of failure and being somehow self-deprecating about my abilities because I am uncomfortable with the possibility of success.
I am incredibly fearful of failure, particularly in public, and I wonder why. I have literally never failed anything (academic) and I am lucky to be surrounded with people who constantly reinforce and support my endeavors. So why would I believe I might suddenly fail now? Wood is still a boys’ club, for sure, despite growing numbers of women in the trade, and this dates back literally for centuries. I have been in, and now witnessed, several of the wood design classes, and none of the men are openly generous with self-doubt, when the women often are. Just last week I was talking with a male student in the class about all the time I’ve logged down in the shop, but how this “by no means should lead him to believe I actually know what I’m doing.” Is this behavior actually baring my vulnerability for the sake of thoughtful academic discourse, or am I falling prey to the impostor syndrome?
The answer is hopefully that it’s a little bit of both. My hope is to move forward remaining conscious of the value of exposing process and the potential for failure, but to do so with more self-confidence and a little bit of pride.

2 thoughts on “Leaning In (not too far! You don’t want to get your sleeve caught in the table saw)

  1. I have employed several women over the years: Dawn Danby, Aris Kelly, Ellen Alger. Interns at my shop included Gretchen Philllips, Katie Phillips (not related), Wu Hanyen, and Leora Visotzky, who is you. (Every one is on Facebook.) In the same jobs, men have been employed in slightly larger number. Each person has shown a range of characteristics. Dawn, Ellen, and Wu were noticeably assertive and confident in their physical abilities in the shop, as were you. Gretchen needed constant reassurance. Even though her time practicing woodwork made Gretchen a veteran, she did not identify herself as one. Wu is one of the few students of mine who is practicing woodwork as a trade – in Brooklyn, taking chances with her life that I never had the guts to do. In my experience, the job attracts all kinds of people.

    Experience is a factor. When does time-in-practice constitute a foundation in your personality? When do you identify yourself as having accomplished something, knowing full well that accomplishment will not stop and must keep going on? Not all of time is a continuum. Sometimes it’s good to stop and reflect. I was told, while living in London for six months, that the place probably did seem strange and hard to an American. But, if I ever returned there, I would feel at home. Ten years later, I visited again, feeling like a citizen in his element. Riding the Underground was like riding a bike. The place was in my bones.

    As a teacher and an employer, my role as a supporter is low key, for better or worse, like my dad was to me. If I have to tell you you’re doing good job, then you already know you are. Something like that. I learned that I need to show more support, but after awhile I forget.

    Everyone struggles with competency. To build is to dare, and the challenge is the thing. Do you want to know my weakness as a woodworker? My problem is that the process of woodworking is so exact that the infrastructure of the shop needs to be tip top. I can’t work if there’s a dull chisel or a pile of unused hardware that needs to be put away. I love the job, but it takes awhile to get it done. Slow woodwork doesn’t make money. Time is my weakness.

    • I think the questions about time in practice is extremely important, for everyone, but I also think it’s missing the point a little. There is a difference between demonstrating a deftness of skill while performing it and one’s assessment of one’s skills when removed from them. I feel confident in the knowledge I do have and in using the machinery, but I still often feel like an impostor after the fact. I don’t tentatively use the table saw, but I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing bigger-picture-wise. Even Wu did not handle praise of her abilities all that gracefully. I would agree that there’s probably a difference in being able to take a compliment and in having confidence in one’s own level of expertise, but I don’t think it’s a big one and I do think they’re related. Just because you’ve reached some level of success doesn’t mean you have the guts not to downplay it (Cheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey, and my professor friend are all wildly successful but admit to partaking in this self-deprecating behavior). I find myself pointing out all the flaws in my projects during reviews that may or may not otherwise be noticed. Why? Yes, everyone struggles with competency and there is a broad spectrum of the depth of that struggle for both sexes, but more often than men, women struggle with accepting their own competency and navigating a world that is much more accepting of male confidence.

      Time is non-descriminating, and all people are susceptible to its unforgiving sway. I am curious to listen more carefully as the semester continues to whether or not there is a difference in the way men and women talk about their own work.

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