TED@NYC: Impostor Syndrome, Activate!

As I alluded to a while back, I’ve been accepted to speak at TED@NYC, which serves as a “talent search” for TED– the top talks from the event a week from Monday in The City will get a spot talking at the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver. I’ve got six minutes to wow them with a story about quantum physics and crossword puzzles.

I submitted my original application in response to a blog post back in July, more or less as a lark. I didn’t notice at that time that the image they had with that post was a talk at a previous talent search event by John McWhorter– I only spotted that this week, when I went back to the post to check something. If I had noticed, I probably would’ve been a little intimidated– it really wouldn’t've occurred to me that somebody as well known as McWhorter would need to go through a talent search to get to TED. I was thinking that this would be mostly bloggers and small-time authors and stuff, not people who are already regular tv commentators…

I’ve been plugging away on a talk– for the record, six minutes is really short, especially since the last time I gave a talk shorter than half an hour was in 1998– and have something I’m fairly happy with. The speaker lineup for a week from Monday was released on Wednesday, and my initial reaction was relief– I didn’t immediately recognize any of the names. Then I read the bios, and… yeah.

It’s a deliberately eclectic mix of people from all sorts of different areas– musicians, inventors, academics, politicians. And all of them sound really impressive. On the bright side, only one of the other speakers won a MacArthur “genius grant.” So, you know, piece of cake.

So, there was a rough period there yesterday afternoon when I was thinking “Holy shit, I am so out of my league…” Because, really, I’m a blogger and mid-list-y pop-science author best known for talking to my dog. Reading down that list of descriptions was incredibly intimidating, and that’s while I was pointedly not following any of the links.

After a little bit, it sort of tipped over into a sense of the absurdity of the whole thing. I mean, how do you compare my shtick about scientific thinking to a spice therapist? Or these guys doing an awesome YouTube history of the guitar solo? (A link that passed through my social media feeds around the time I was thinking “Well, I’ve never heard of CDZA, at least…”). The range of stuff is just too big to sensibly place myself within it.

But then, I managed to pull it together. Because, you know, I’ve got two books out, and the reviews of those have generally been good, including the paper of record. One of them has sold a staggering number of copies in the UK, and been translated into a dozen or more languages. I suppose that technically makes me an internationally best-selling author.

And unless they’re grossly distorting things, they picked people for this on the basis of applications and one-minute videos, cutting hundreds of submissions down to 28 speakers. While it’s a little scary to be up against professional tv commentators and people who have held political office, somebody at TED liked my video enough to put me in that company. And they’ve seen a draft of my talk and didn’t say “You know what, we take it back…”

So it’s not really that I’m out of my league, it’s that I need to re-evaluate my league. This is an intimidating list, but that just means I need to raise my game. And having sent in the original application with no particular expectation of anything, I’m playing with house money (to mix a metaphor a little…). I’m going to go, give it my best shot, and whatever happens, happens. If nothing else, I now have a polished short bit that can be incorporated into a longer presentation when I start giving talks to promote the book-in-progress.

This is, by the way, more or less the same process I’ve gone through every time I’ve gone into something new. Every time I’ve accepted an invitation to do something very different from what I’ve done before– giving different sorts of invited talks, doing tv appearances, giving public lectures, agreeing to write a book, giving a graduation speech– I’ve had a moment where I hung up the phone and said “Wait, what the hell did I just agree to do?” A bunch of these have involved a repeat when I saw the list of the other speakers– “Let’s see, a former government minister, the director of a major institute, the founder of a billion-dollar company, and me, a guy who talks to his dog. Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’ll be over there, curled in a ball whimpering.”

So far at least, it’s always passed. Sometimes it takes a couple of days. But I’ve got enough of an ego that I can usually manage to convince myself that I can do whatever crazy thing it is that I’ve agreed to do. If nothing else, I can usually bluff for long enough to start believing that even if I am a total fraud, I’m a very convincing total fraud.

I can easily see how this could become utterly paralyzing, though. A couple accidents of timing for the rougher bits of my grad school career could’ve sent me in a very different direction. As it was, my impostor syndrome moments were all separated by enough time that I’d gotten over one before the next came along. But I have a lot of sympathy for people who struggle with the feeling, in a “There but for the grace of God…” sort of way.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be over there curled in a ball whimpering practicing my talk…

Comments

  1. #1 Wilson
    September 26, 2013

    This was actually quite inspiring for me. Thanks.

    And if you make it to Vancouver, I hope you have a moment to say Hi.

  2. #2 dabbe
    September 27, 2013

    TED? Isn’t that some sort of elitist oracle society?

  3. #3 Rosemary Kirstein
    October 1, 2013

    Okay, I’m going nuts trying to find out a) if this is open to the public (you need an audience in front of which to speak, right?) and b) where the heck it’s being held! The links just send me to info about who is speaking, and that it’s in Manhattan. Beyond that, nada.

    Unless my eyeglasses have gone wonky. Not impossible.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    October 1, 2013

    I don’t think it’s open to the public, alas. They said at a speaker-prep thing yesterday that the audience will be TED people and backers and former speakers. The venue is Joe’s Pub in the East Village near NYU, but there’s no event listed for that date.

    • #5 Rosemary Kirstein
      October 1, 2013

      Rats.
      Insert frowny-face icon of your choice.

  5. #6 Daniel Carollo
    Switzerland
    October 2, 2013

    Well, I for one hope you make it all the way to the end, it’ll be easier to watch a TED video than to go to NY, my dog hates planes ;-)