There is a specific part of my Penn interview I can recall very clearly, and that is because I think about it all the time. My interviewer was a Penn alum, an American living in Malaysia. He worked at the U.S. Embassy in KL. We sat across each other by the window of Starbucks in Great Eastern Mall. I wore a yellow cardigan from Primark, and I had an iced green tea latte.
I can’t remember much. It was a decent, relaxed conversation. Nothing too exciting or stressful. I don’t know if this was usual of Penn admission interviews, but I would compare it to small talk at a family gathering. We talked about what I did in the time between completing my A Levels and getting into college. We talked about what I did for fun. We talked about why I wanted to go to Penn and what my parents do for a living.
This, I remember so clearly.
I told him my dad does corporate training and consulting–or something like that. He asked who my dad does training for. Among others, I mentioned Bank Negara. Now, looking back, I question the validity of this memory a little, but as I remember it, his expression kind of changed. He said, “Oh! The governor, Zeti Aziz, went to Wharton, didn’t she?”
And then I feel like the conversation got a lot better. It wasn’t necessarily bad before, but I just feel like it got better. So, when I found out I got into Penn, I attributed it to the fact that a) MARA was paying full tuition for me, b) I had a good interview and c) diversity.
I know this is a long-winded story, but bear with me. The thing about those facts is that I know I could get a MARA convertible loan because I have bumiputera status and I felt I had a good interview because I have an insanely loose association with Zeti Aziz, Wharton-grad and Bank Negara Governor extraordinaire. So I always felt like I got into Penn by slipping through some crack. I honestly still do, all the time. I feel like I’m an impostor. A fraud.
I think some people name drop Penn often, because it’s like spraying perfume in public, hoping everyone gets a whiff of the prestige that comes with an Ivy League institution. But while I am definitely proud of it, I feel like I don’t deserve it at all and am just free riding on the positive connotations that come with it.
Today at work, my supervisor introduced me to another guy who had spent a significant amount of time in North America, and is familiar with Penn and its reputation. My boss said, “Nur Dayana goes to UPenn” and the other guy turns immediately, saying “oh, so you’re really smart!”
Me, in my head: ughhh craaapppp.
I do not like it when people expect me to be smart because I really don’t think I am, and I haven’t thought of myself as smart in ages. I think of myself as lucky. Just extraordinarily lucky for a prolonged period of time.
I got through secondary school with good grades because the Malaysian education has an oversimplified syllabus. I made it through A Levels because my teachers spoon-fed me and held my hand through it all. I got into Penn because of all of these reasons and I mentioned the governor in my interview. I got my positions in clubs and organisations on campus because those interviews and applications are kind of a joke. I got all my internships because my dad knew someone who knew someone. Stroke after stroke of luck.
The thing about this is that I’ve spent years watching my back, hoping no one realizes I have made it this far by a little act of miracle. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that God is the best of planners and I’m not really questioning my fate, if that makes sense. I just sometimes feel I am in places far, far, far beyond where I think I deserve to be and I’m scared people will find out and be frustrated with or angry at me. What’s more, I even feel guilty for “taking” this opportunity from someone who might have deserved it more and then not making the most of my chance.
When I wasn’t sure if I could handle an intro level literature class in sophomore spring, I spoke to Professor Esty about it and he quickly dismissed my fears saying that if I got into Penn, I could surely handle the class… but I thought, “ok, clearly he doesn’t know that in school we read a less-than-a-hundred page version of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ with large font and pictures.” If someone compliments me for doing a good job, I sometimes think “someone could have sneezed and accidentally done a better job than I did.” When someone uses an acronym I don’t know, I take a mental note of it and Google it later instead of just coming straight out and asking them what the hell they are talking about. I try to only make phone calls in private, because I am scared that someone will notice how inarticulate and incoherent I am when I speak. I also go to the bathroom or walk past someone’s desk or office 5 times before I have the guts to go in because I am scared they’ll get annoyed that I have a question to ask. I have pretty much stopped putting myself out there and volunteering myself for tasks because I think even my offer to try would be an over-promise preceding an under-delivery. When someone complains about how badly they’re doing in a class I just sigh and go like “oh yeah I know how that feels” but in my mind, I am one-upping them going, “wow if you knew how dumb I am…”
So I feel like I’m hiding so much all the time. I’ve spent way too much time with a racing heart, sweaty palms and a straight face to keep the anxiety undercover. Because I go to Penn. I’m supposed to know all of this and I’m supposed to act like it. And if I don’t, I know (I just know) they’ll be thinking “wow how did she get into Penn?”
Anyway, I’ve just been thinking about all of this lately because I’m at my third internship this summer and every year, I have to deal with this “impostor syndrome” all over again. This happens all the time. In every internship. In every class. Someone gives me instructions and I think I understand until I try to do it and realise I have no clue. So after some convincing myself, I go and ask for clarification and when they seem remotely annoyed or disappointed, I immediately retract and abort mission, thinking “Oh no. They’re onto me. They’re going to find out I’m a fraud. Run.“
“[The impostor syndrome is] always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel as if you’ve flown under the radar, been lucky or that they just like you. If you dismiss your accomplishments and abilities, you’re left with one conclusion: That you’ve fooled them.”
Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women
Because I’ve dealt with this for so long, I have gotten so used to the impulse to run away (side note: this is one of the reasons why Princess Diaries is like, my all time favourite movie). I have gotten so used to wanting to run away from things that make me anxious that over time, I’ve stopped even approaching big things. “What’s the point?” I would think, “why try?”
I don’t know if I’ve written about this, but last December, I was at Heathrow Airport, queueing in line at immigration. If you’ve never been to Heathrow, the immigration queue is usually super long so they need a lot of immigration counters. They have so many counters that you might not be able to see which ones are free even from the front of the line. When I was there, it was fairly busy, so one lady stood at the front of the queue. Her job was to monitor the counters and direct people to the open ones. I saw her and I was like “now that’s a job I can do.”
You see, during this time, I was applying for a consulting internship and I felt super intimidated and discouraged by it. I didn’t really know how to do case interviews, I didn’t think I had what it would take. And as I so often have, I just craved to do something I already knew how to do.
Somehow, over time, I’ve begun to raise my hand less, retreating further into my comfort zone. People always ask me what I’ve gotten out of Penn and I don’t really know yet, but I think I’ve lost barrels of confidence. And it’s not just confidence. Lack of confidence was when I was in school and maybe I knew the answer but might not have wanted to say it. This is… I know that I don’t know anything. Or at least I think I know that I don’t know? I am never sure.
The other distressing thing is feeling like I’ve lost the ability to accurately assess myself and getting used to staying silent, so much so that I don’t like the sound of my voice in open spaces, the sound of my footsteps in quiet places… almost like I’m trying so hard to hide that I am aspiring to be invisible.
Recently, I took a test of the Impostor Syndrome and scored 83% which “means the respondent often has intense [Impostor Phenomenon] experiences” and I was just like “hahahaha yep pretty much.” But I myself will be the first to recognise how that is so deeply problematic. Trust me, I know, I truly know, that I can’t always just do things I already know how to do. I mean, I totally could. That’s easy. But I guess I’d never learn anything new, which I shouldn’t be and am not okay with. All of this just means I need to reconcile my fear and my ambition, and not run even when I am scared (unless there’s a cat, in which case, I will always run by all means).
And I don’t mean to scare anyone going abroad to study, starting a new job, trying new things or anything like that. Because I think if we know we think these things and feel this way, we can at least do something about it. It’s hard, of course. But I am a firm believer of consistently taking baby steps. With that said, I think I’ve gotten a little better at managing this feeling. And if you’ve felt this way, maybe you could tell me how you deal with it (or we could just talk about how much it sucks together) but I’ve done some of these things:
- I ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” and I would sometimes go so far as to imagine that someone gets so mad at me for being so incompetent that they shout at me until I cry, and I don’t know, let’s say they’ll slap me (worst case scenario! Not that I know anyone who is actually that mean-spirited). And then maybe things will be awkward for a while. My face would hurt, I guess. But I will, ultimately, live through it, eventually gain distance from it and inevitably learn from it or laugh about it.
- I notice that I don’t pay much attention to other people talking on the phone, to their footsteps, or what they’re working on on their computers and I remind myself that unless I’m working directly for someone, most other people do not pay attention to anything I’m doing.
- I write down any thought that helps me. For example, this morning I read: “Half of getting there is having the confidence to show up and keep showing up.” It was one of those cheesy quotes on the advert page that shows up for 5 seconds when you get to Forbes.com, haha.
- I talk to friends about it! I usually talk about these things to friends who I know would understand how I feel and would just let me talk, listen to me without necessarily trying to meddle and fix things because that’s the kind of environment I need. Knowing what kind of support you like is good.
I mean, these are just things at the top of my head. I’m sure there are many ways to deal with it, to tackle the problem on a more fundamental level. I feel like I’ll regret talking about this so openly because I think people are not going to believe me, think I’m exaggerating (*rolls eyes*) or try to help me in ways I don’t want but I also think many other people feel this way and this could make you feel less alone, just like many other women, for example, Sheryl Sandberg and Julie Zhuo have for me. When, almost two years ago, I first heard Sheryl Sandberg talk about the impostor syndrome in her book, Lean In, I honestly could not believe I wasn’t alone. So even though there are a billion articles about this, I insist on writing another.
I don’t want to ramble on for much longer, but I want to add just one more thing to that list above. The most important thing I do for myself is to, by my own volition, recognise and celebrate small victories. It doesn’t really help when someone says “Hey look! You did that thing well!” because I find it so difficult to believe them. I have to practice spotting them myself, no matter how small.
During my first internship, I was so timid and afraid that I made minimal trips to the bathroom and never went to the pantry to even get myself a cup of water. But today, I got up, went to the pantry and made myself a cup of tea. That involves boiling water, getting a mug (this is usually nerve-wracking because I don’t want to be judged by my choice of mug, or take someone’s usual mug. It sounds crazy, but I kid you not), getting a tea bag, ripping a packet of sugar, stirring and then carry it back to my desk. Do you know how much sound that involves? For someone who kinda enjoys being invisible, I felt like this was a feat and I am so happy about it.
Consistently taking baby steps.