Photo: by David Elikwu, in North Macedonia

57: The Power of Impostors 👻

Newsletter 🗞 Feb 21, 2022

What the heck is an impostor anyway? Someone who is not supposed to be there. An impersonator. A copycat. A covert intelligence gatherer. Uninformed. Uninitiated. Uninvited.

Maybe that’s you. It’s definitely me—but maybe there’s power in that.

The ones who are different

I am not supposed to be here. Without the chaos of a civil war, a massacre in my hometown and the subsequent smog of danger, my father may never have left Nigeria. Without faith, he might never have returned. And without hope, he may never have departed again, young family in tow.

I wasn’t born here, and it has never quite escaped me, as comfortable as I become, how frequently I occupy spaces not built for people like me. There is an absolute sense in which I can accept my identity as an outsider. I arrived to ‘90s pop culture late because I completely missed most of it. I’d only seen the highlights until suddenly I was fully immersed.

I arrived with an accent thick enough to swim in. The kind that inspired mockery from anyone who happened to have seen Coming to America. Now I sound somewhat indistinguishable, so I’m told, from anyone born in a North London hospital. I guess that makes me an impostor. An impersonator. A copycat.

The ones who copy

To some extent, at some stage, we are all subconscious imitators. We learn social cues and etiquette. We learn how to fit in, despite the wild and wanton thoughts in our heads. We assume identities by emulating blends of everyone we’ve ever encountered. Every person you’ve ever seen was a data point that taught you about the possible states of human existence. You chose what you liked and what to discard. That’s how you became you.

In fact, if you don’t copy fast enough, you may never be able to. Your brain takes unused abilities and throws them in the bin. That’s why as children we explore and play wildly. We bite things and throw things and test limits. We experiment to adapt as quickly as possible.

The ones who adapt

At some point, every task you undertake at work was entirely new to you. You learned to look competent through questions and copying. Everyone did. Even though yours might stand out a little more due to the colour of your skin, or your accent, or the way you wear your hair. But beneath that, we’re all just pattern-matching monkeys who can tell stories and identify ourselves in them.

There are some parts of who you are that can’t be changed. The things that make you unique. Those differences are soaked in neon. They’re loud and abrasive. But don’t be fooled. You’re no more of an impersonator than the boy across the table trying to fill his daddy’s boots and the girls who just as badly crave acceptance from superiors.

All of us hide a secret sense that we’re not quite everything that we should be.

The ones who ask questions

Impostors are covert information gatherers. You will gain strength from leaning into this. Keep your eyes open. Notice things others can’t because they’ve walked past warning signs for so long they’ve faded into the background. Those who have already pledged allegiance and taken up the cloth have less to gain from disturbing the status quo.

Ask the cutting, incisive, occasionally stupid questions that others are scared to broach because they need to keep their shirt sleeves clean. Like: Why are we doing this? What’s the desired outcome? Is this necessary? Is this right?

The questions that make us uncomfortable often make us better. These questions may not help you fit in. In fact, they’ll often have the opposite effect—but hopefully for the right reasons.

The ones who make change

Being the impostor gives you a unique opportunity to give 'different' a definition. So what if you stick out? Maybe you don’t need to be more like them. Maybe they should be a little more like you. Or perhaps, you might simply point out, there is another ideal we should both strive for—a middle ground we can each occupy equally.

There is power in not being beholden to the way things have always been. Power in seeing things with fresh eyes. Power in learning things for the first time, with a childlike curiosity and a mindset of first principles.

Beyond being well-kept secrets, intentional impostors may be necessary forces for change. The people that shine light on unexplored ground. They can lead us to new things and change the way we view the world. And then, we call them innovators.

Further Reading:

What Color Is Your Parachute?

Moving the Needle: Get Clear, Get Free, and Get Going in Your Career, Business, and Life!

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