Imposter Syndrome with Jaya Saxena

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Minda Harts, author of The Memo and the founder of The Memo LLC — a career-development company for women of color — is the creator and host of the Secure the Seat podcast, “The Podcast for today’s professional women of color.”

In this episode, Minda sits down with Jaya Saxena, diversity and inclusion strategist and social justice advocate, to discuss “imposter syndrome.” The following is an abridged transcript of their discussion.

Minda Harts:

Hi, my name is Minda Harts, and I'm your host of Secure the Seat, your weekly podcast that helps women of color secure their seat at the table. And whether you decide that you want to secure your seat at someone else's table — say, corporate America or the nonprofit world — or you say, “You know what? I'm ready to launch out on my own and build my own table,” it requires accountability. It requires leveling up and it requires forming and shaping those rooms and bringing other women of color along with you. Securing a seat is not the end goal, but it's what you do with that seat when you sit down. It's no longer enough to just be grateful to be in the room. What are you doing? And who are you bringing along with you?

One of the things that I think we could do a better job of is looking around the room. If you're in the room, look around, see who's missing. Who can you create space for? And if you haven't made it to the room, what can you do right now to enhance your skill set, so that when you get in the room, you're ready to go and you don't experience that imposter syndrome? 

On today's episode, we're actually going to talk about imposter syndrome, because I think that we cannot talk about securing our seat without addressing that. As women of color, the stats say that we are the most educated group in the country. And we know that those numbers don't reflect executive roles and seats in the boardroom. We've done the work. And sometimes when we finally get in those spaces, we feel some kind of way, or we feel like, “Oh, I'm just happy to be here, so I'm not going to say anything. I'm not going to rock the boat.” 

But those days are done. And it takes time. I'm not saying that you get in the room and start gang-busting. I'm saying that you find a way to impact the room. You find a way to bring other people along with you, because once we get in the room, it's up to us to shape it. It's up to us to impact it. And what are you doing to secure your seat? But also, what are you doing to bring other people along with you? And I think it's really awesome when we bring our friends with us, but it's also cool to say, "You know what? There's a sister friend that I may or may not know, and she's doing cool stuff. I'm going to reach out to her, give her an opportunity."

You don't always have to go after the person with a hundred million thousand trillion followers. There are women out there who are doing amazing things, and you can give them an assist. If you're one of those women who like sports analogies, I played basketball and I also ran track. And a real fond memory for me is, in the summers, I used to be in these basketball tournaments — these three-on-three basketball tournaments with my friends growing up. And even though I'm short, we would assist each other and we would make it work. None of us were phenomenal basketball players, but we enjoyed the game. And so I give that example because I want you to think about how you can provide an assist, so somebody else can slam dunk. It's not always about us being the one to slam dunk. It's important for us to set somebody else up, too.

And I think when we get in that mindset to realize that success is who's around you, who's successful next to you, that's important, too. 

And without further ado, we're rolling into today's episode, which is imposter syndrome with a very special guest, Jaya Saxena. She is a diversity and inclusion strategist and social-justice advocate. You're going to enjoy today's conversation. I would even say open up your notes on your phone because you're definitely going to want to take them. Jaya, welcome to Secure the Seat. How are you?

Jaya Saxena:

I'm great. Thank you so much for having me.


I'm glad you're here. And I'm glad we're going to talk today about imposter syndrome, because I think it's something that all of us, if not throughout each day or through the month, we all experience it. I think it's important to have this conversation, but before we jump in, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit more about you?


Okay, great. Now, first and foremost, Minda, I want to thank you again for having me. I'm a huge fan of yours. I think the work you do to advocate for and support women of color is really incredible, and that includes creating spaces like this to have these types of conversations. I'm impressed with all that you do. Thank you for having me, and folks should really listen.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I do. Just a little bit personally: I'm the daughter of South Asian immigrant parents. I am a wife and a mother to two delightful and spirited little girls, and I share this personal tidbit because I think, with many of us, our lived experience shapes who we are and the lens through which we view the world. I also consider myself to be an ally, and that's important to me in that I think it's critical to support and empower other people and groups, particularly those who've been historically marginalized. That's a little bit about my personal background.

Professionally, I describe myself as a diversity and inclusion strategist, a career-development professional-slash-coach and a social-justice advocate. And while each of those labels may seem separate from one another, they are all very much connected. When it comes to diversity and inclusion work, I approach it with a 360-degree view, and by that I mean I help organizations. Right now it's at a law school, so in the legal profession, adopting practices around diversity and inclusion while simultaneously providing guidance and coaching for individuals who are going to be the future leaders of those organizations. And social justice is really a key underpinning to all of this work.


Amazing. I know we're going to get into some questions about how to shape the culture and how we make more of our institutions and organizations more diverse and inclusive in regard to imposter syndrome, too, because that plays a big role in how we feel included and how we show up together. But with our first question in mind, what is imposter syndrome? How would you define it? Because we see it as a buzzword these days. And for much of my career, before somebody coined the phrase, I didn't even know what to call it, but I felt that feeling. Tell me what you think about the phrase and the meaning.


It's funny you say that because in thinking about this topic, I reached out to a number of my female sister friends, and almost everyone I reached out to said that at some point in their life, they had experienced it. They didn't necessarily know to call it or label it as such, but it was definitely a shared experience. My definition ... I'm going to play off of the title of your podcast, Secure the Seat, because I absolutely love that. I would define it as being in a situation where you have a seat. It may not be the exact seat that you want, but you have a seat and you think you have that seat due to luck, not because of your talents and accomplishments, and you feel inadequate or like a fraud, even though there's no real basis for those feelings.

And I can spend a moment unpacking that a little bit, because I think there are some key elements to that definition, one being luck. I think a lot of people, and women of color in particular, often attribute their success to luck as opposed to achievement or accomplishment. Saying things like, "I was in the right place at the right time” or “The stars were aligned." I've said that before. The moon, the stars, everything was aligned. I think one element is luck. Another is this feeling of being a fraud, the fear that you're going to be exposed as an intellectual faker, if you will. “I'm afraid my colleagues will discover how little I really know.” That way of thinking. And then another piece I think is so key is this idea that there's no real basis for these feelings, that in actuality, evidence indicates that you are skilled and successful.

In fact, this whole phenomenon of imposter syndrome is particularly common with high-achieving women. That's the irony in it. There's no real basis to even feel that way. That's my definition, but I also have two other definitions that are not mine that I want to point out. Maya Angelou said, "I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out.’ " Eleven books and she's saying that. So that to me is a really powerful example.

And then the more technical, psychological definition, which is actually the one that's been used when this term was coined years ago, describes it as the internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they're not intelligent, capable, or creative, despite evidence of high achievement. I started off with my definition, but I can't help but quote Maya Angelou's and then also give the more technical definition, as well.


Oh, that's great. I'm glad that you gave the spectrum, because I think we fall on the spectrum of imposter syndrome, but I'm glad you talked about luck, because I think about myself; sometimes I'll have an opportunity and I'll be like, “I don't know why I'm here, but I'm here.” That kind of thing. It's like, wait, you did the work. I'm glad you touched on that, because I think it's so important for us to unlearn some of those negative behaviors that we attribute to our success.


Right. And I think that “luck” mentality, in a way, dismisses all of the intentional, deliberate decision making and hard work that so many of us have done for years. It's dismissing the fact that, no, we worked hard and a lot of our decisions were probably very intentional. I completely agree with that.


Oh, that was so good. And thank you for the Maya [quote]. We have to honor her.


I know. We have to. Got it.


I'm thinking about ... I know there's plenty of times I've experienced it, but has there been a time in your work life that you've experienced imposter syndrome? And how did you reconcile that feeling to say, "You know what? I can't show up like this. I can't have this mentality." I'd love to hear your thoughts, maybe a story to share.


Absolutely. When thinking about that, quite frankly, there have been many small moments of imposter syndrome throughout my career. I'm sure, like you said, many of us I think have had moments over the years where we've felt this way. And so I do want to highlight the data real quick to show how widespread this experience actually is, because the last thing I'd want is someone to think that it's isolated to them. About 70% of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, and that's according to an article in the International Journal of Behavioral Science. It affects people from all backgrounds, all careers, and it can be especially noticeable in fields where women are underrepresented.

For me personally, going back to your question about a story, I experienced it certainly when I was in law school and a new attorney, but now, even 13 years after finishing law school and almost two decades of work experience later, there are still moments where I experience it. One example is from a few years ago. I'd been invited to be a guest speaker for the National Science Foundation's 2018 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance. This was an event that the National Science Foundation was organizing. I was given full reign to talk about anything that I wanted. I prepared my remarks, which were about the interconnection between well-being and inclusion.

And I experienced imposter syndrome in two main ways. One, I remember telling my sister that I was doing this and she said, "Oh, that's so interesting because I've always just considered myself to be South Asian." And I was like, "Oh, well, what do you mean?" So for her ... Asian is obviously a racial category in the United States, and the Census Bureau actually includes India and the entire Indian subcontinent. But I had a moment of thinking, “Are the people here going to identify me or think that I'm ... are they going to question why I, as a South Asian, am there for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month?” That was a moment of, “Wait a minute, are they going to get what they were expecting?”

But the second point was that I was talking to a very different audience. I was talking to an audience of researchers in math and computer science and social science. And I'm a lawyer by training. Even though I speak to all sorts of audiences — and irrespective of the fact that I had been invited to give this talk due to my accomplishments, my talent, my brand — I was concerned that the audience would “find me out,” as Maya Angelou said.

And the interesting thing was, after the talk, people approached me. And I remember ... I recently heard someone say that the sign of a good presentation or a good speaker is if people approach the speaker afterward. Now whenever I do anything, I'm always saying, "Okay, are people approaching me? Are people approaching the speaker?" So numerous people approached me and thanked me for being there. The person who organized it said everyone loved the presentation. There was absolutely no reason to question why I was there. And even though I've done this, I've been doing this, there was a moment. Now it wasn't plaguing me. It wasn't overtaking my whole experience, but there were these two moments when I had that way of thinking with myself. And I'm happy to talk a little bit about how I decided that's not how I wanted to show up, if you want me to go there, but that's the story that comes to mind that's pretty recent.


Yeah. That was good. Listening to you tell that story, I thought about five times I had a similar experience. Am I black enough? Am I this enough? And I'm glad you shared that because that was really important, but I'd love to hear how you ... yeah, let's move on to how you realized that's not the kind of thinking that I need to adopt and I can't show up that way anymore in our feelings. Because half of it, I think, is sometimes we get in our own way — we stop us.


Right. Absolutely. And I know you talk a lot about mindset, so that's clearly a part of it. But a couple of things: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once said, "I'm not a classic imposter syndrome person because I have that initial insecurity, but I'm capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it's wrong." That was in a 2013 article. And I can really relate to that in that, yes, I've experienced these moments, but I tell myself that I want to prove myself wrong. I think, in a way, that “embodies my own self-talk” when I recognize that I'm having these feelings.

One thing that I do is that I say “Yes” when I'm invited to do something that's potentially outside of my comfort zone. That doesn't mean I say yes to everything, but I'm inclined to say yes to opportunities that will allow me to stretch my intellectual muscle and challenge myself. And I think the more I do that, the more confidence I have in my abilities, and I think that's critical to countering self-doubt. Part of it is just making sure I'm constantly putting myself in situations where I might not naturally go.

Also, in thinking about this, I had an interesting revelation in that I think in a way the experience of imposter syndrome can be valuable to diversity and inclusion work. And that might seem very odd to hear, but the example that comes to mind is ... so I may not have 30 years of experience in a particular organization, but it could be the decades of experience that's actually preventing an organization from thinking about what they could be doing differently. In a way, having an outsider perspective can help somebody come up with creative and innovative solutions.

I hadn't really thought about that way until more recently, and I quote a lot of people because there are a lot of people who inspire me. But the woman who leads Google's Doodles, the little graphics that Google has ... I thought this was so fascinating. She attributes imposter syndrome to her success. And what she said is, "A moderate dose of imposter syndrome plus a strong work ethic can actually be quite helpful as it keeps you on your toes, constantly wanting to learn and accomplish more. And once you do, you may find that you're magically not an imposter anymore."


That's good.


There are certainly strategies that I constantly want to prove myself wrong, and I do a lot of self-talk, but I also have started to realize that there might be this value in not just diversity and inclusion work, but more generally, as well.


That's great. I love that you tell the story, you use the anecdotes, you have the facts. It's all neatly wrapped in a beautiful bow and I like that because I think we need to use our brains and have the facts. Because it's one thing, I can say, "Oh well, it's this way for me," but then to have it rooted in some data ... I really appreciate you making that pretty presentation for us because I think there are listeners out there who need both. They need to know that it's founded and rooted in something.

And there’s something you said about the inclusion part. Some may not see the direct correlation between imposter syndrome and inclusion, but as we show up in the workplace ... some of it, yes, is maybe what we tell ourselves, but also it's the environment in which we work. Do we feel accepted? Do we feel included to make us feel like we belong? Are there any strategies — I know you touched a little bit on it in your last answer — that universities and colleges and workplaces could adopt to help minimize some of this feeling of imposter syndrome for people of color, women of color?


Yeah. Absolutely. A couple things to note. And I say this as a woman of color, but I do think that, and the data also shows that this experience really afflicts people who are minorities in a job or academic setting, and then includes women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. And it disproportionately, I should say, afflicts those individuals. The interesting thing is that I think imposter syndrome is very much an internal experience to an individual, which makes it interesting when we think about what can organizations — whether that's educational institutions or other types of organizations — what can they be doing not only to be more inclusive, but is there anything they could be doing to actually help those who experience this feeling?

So I think there are a couple of things. I know you've talked about this before, that it's important to also feel empowered as an individual. Yes, organizations can do certain things, but what as individuals can we also do? And so for organizations, I think there's probably a whole list of things that organizations can do to create a more inclusive culture. Just a couple quick examples of things that I think specifically relate to this feeling of imposter syndrome: I think this idea of creating a culture where mistakes aren't seen as failures is critical. This idea of embracing failure, learning how to fail better. I think particularly for educational institutions and graduate programs where you have a lot of high-achieving individuals, it's important to create a culture where mistakes are embraced. And we see certain types of organizations that are doing that a lot more than others, but I think that can directly influence inclusion and this experience of imposter syndrome.

I refer to Google a lot because I think what they do is really ... a lot of what they do is so innovative, but I think they do incorporate a video on imposter syndrome as part of their orientation for new employees. That's a very concrete thing for an organization to do, where they actually have a conversation with their incoming folks about this experience. I think that's interesting, really making sure accomplishments are known and valued. I was talking to my husband about this, and he mentioned something that's interesting: He said that organizations can actually provide leadership training for leaders to hold employees accountable for marginalizing themselves.

For instance, in his company, which is an online employment website that specializes in the hourly marketplace, they're incorporating exercises to have peer-to-peer accountability. If someone is apologizing a lot, for example, they are instituting this partnership where colleagues can call that person out on it. I thought that was fascinating, just having some sort of accountability in that way.

Those are a few. I think the other big one, particularly for education — and I'm again wearing my “law school administrator” hat — is discouraging comparison. And I think that's hard in certain environments, but I think it’s emphasizing individuality and discouraging this idea that we should all be compared to one another. Those are some things for the organization that I think specifically relate to this phenomenon. But I also think, going back to my earlier point, that there is a lot that individuals and that women can be doing on our own to change the conversation and to change the experience that we have.


Oh, my gosh. I'm just like, I want to like roll around on the floor because with everything you were talking about, which is so important and impactful, I'm thinking, how important would it be if one day I show up at the workplace and it starts as imposter syndrome tendencies, and then it kind of moves into this self-deprecation mode. And then one of my colleagues says, "You know what, Minda? Stop it. Don't do that!" How important and impactful [it would be if we] could create a culture inside of ourselves and inside of the workplace or educational institutions, if we just thought about things a little bit differently. I'm so glad you shared that. It's so empowering to think about it along those lines.


Part of it is the accountability piece. I used to apologize a lot. I've really worked on this, especially as I've become more seasoned in my career, but I used to apologize. And there's that great old Pantene ad about women needing to stop apologizing literally for everything. It's coming into the office in the morning and asking colleagues, "Sorry, do you have a minute to chat? Sorry." There's an image of a woman and her husband with their baby in the house and she hands the baby off to the dad, "Sorry, but you need to take the baby." There's that tendency, and to have somebody who recognizes and acknowledges what you are doing that helps you move in a different direction. I think that's fascinating and important.


It is. And thank you for sharing that. This is such a fruitful conversation. I know our listeners are copiously taking notes on how to change that inside ourselves. But also, as I talk about a lot, there’s helping other women secure their seat as well, and internally, how we think about ourselves. For all those listening, help your squad, help your sister friends, make sure that you're doing that for each other, because I think that is extremely powerful. Thank you, Jaya, for sharing that among everything you said today.

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