How a childhood memory helped me tackle imposter syndrome and find my voice

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Ever felt like a little fish in a big pond? I certainly have. Imposter syndrome can be crippling, but as I discovered as I attended my first-ever TED conference (a long-held dream of mine) in Vancouver last year, it’s possible to reclaim your confidence and feel like you have a place at the table.

A year ago, I flew to Vancouver to attend this big fancy conference. I wrote a blog post about it, which I revisit here. Beyond the inspiration I gained from the talks themselves, I can report back that there was more to TED than I expected. 
It was an opportunity to wrestle with imposter syndrome (or an imposter episode), and it connected me to a handful of amazing humans, several of whom have graced their presence on my podcast, Out of the Clouds: Etienne Salborn, Zubaida Bai, Caitlin Krause and look for Heidi Lander (yes, that Heidi).  
And, of course, it was a reminder of the joyful presence of that little fish with a microphone who lives in me, not that far from the surface. 

I can’t quite pinpoint when it became a dream of mine to attend TED. 

The boundaries imposed by the pandemic greatly enhanced the fantasy. Maybe not for the reason you may think. 

TED went online too, so I joined several TED events from my living room in Geneva. As soon as I got a taste of the real thing, I was hooked. Of course, gathering in real life was out of the question at the time. From there, the desire to attend in person grew. 

TED became, in my mind, the ultimate gathering. 

That’s why it felt so bold when I signed up to attend a year in advance. I was not only advancing towards that dream, but I was also making a bet on the future, the possibility of international travel.

Serendipitously, it so happened that the theme of that year’s conference, TED 2023, was Possibility

It all started very well, propitiously even. The ever-present rain stopped by the time I ventured out to the Vancouver Convention Centre on Sunday night for the newcomer reception, the opening salve to the conference. 

The Real TED

After staring for a moment at the giant red TED logo above me over the entrance doors, I almost pinched myself as I made my way to the cocktail reception on the second floor. I think that’s what people feel when they attend Taylor Swift concerts or Broadway shows. To each their own, right? 

I heard a friendly female voice behind me saying: “Nice coat”. 

I was wrapped in a cocoon burgundy overcoat. Fancy though it felt, it wasn’t quite warm enough for April in Vancouver. 

I turned to find a lady behind me on the escalator, sporting a big smile. 

I eyed her quickly while thanking her. She was sporting a wide-brimmed hat and oversized square glasses. Heidi was the name on her badge. 

At TED, the badges are essential, as I found out (not just to gain entry to the conference): Name, location, occupation, as well as selected keywords to spark conversation with each other. 

Mine were shoes, podcast, meditation, write - for writer, oops, I was stretching my allocation of words right up to that character limit. 

After the conference, roaming in the airport, I concluded that these badges would prove useful in the real world as well. How much easier would it be to connect, right? 

Anyway, Heidi and I started chatting, and we walked through the impressive hall to that first party, newbies together. 

We were welcomed into a massive open-plan space with sprawling floor-to-ceiling windows through which I saw the ocean and mountains in the distance. Despite the grey cloud cover, I was impressed by the view. 

It felt like I had arrived, not just in Vancouver, but in life. 

The ticket price for TED is steep. Even though I came in on the lowest tier available, I quickly picked up that the money was going towards a thoughtfully designed experience. The talks, which is what I had come for, were only a part of it.  TED’s efforts involved commissioning artists, entertainment, a well-appointed theatre. To my great joy, there was also an overflow of coffee. Thank god, because, you know, jetlag. There were numerous activities, dinners, and a closing party. And yes, the dollar contribution also goes towards making the talks free to everyone else online.

Enter Esther Perel

After grabbing a drink with Heidi and ex-Meta AI developer turned full-time painter Marc, I wandered around. The Ocean Foyer (a giant L-shaped hall) was crowded. Everyone there was buzzing with excitement. The renowned psychotherapist, author and TED speaker Esther Perel was due to usher us into this week-long experience. 

The cocktail tables dotted around the space were covered in her cards, from the game Where Should We Begin - A Game of Stories. We didn’t have to wait long; she arrived and settled on a small raised platform alongside one of the TED hosts, who interviewed her for our icebreaker.

Ms Perel was perhaps surprised (I certainly was) that instead of standing to listen to her, the crowd near the stage decided to sit on the carpeted floor, immediately starting a wave throughout the hall. 

As we all landed, it felt like story time indeed. 

Ms Perel proved an excellent guest to break the ice. First, she asked us to consider how we got here, to TED. Who we’d left behind at home, allowing us to be here?  She asked us to feel some gratitude. 

For me, it was Trusted House Sitters looking after my fur family that I silently thanked. She then invited us to be present, saying something along the lines of:

 “When you get here, be here, leave it [the rest, the life at home] behind.”

This was an entry to a suggestion that became a guideline in the theatre during the talks: be here, aka don’t be on your phone. 

“Stop stroking the fetish,” were her words. 

We laughed. It felt true, funny, and room-wide, a collective problem we’d have to face for the week (or the foreseeable future until a new AI technology arrives to take away our screens). 

Then, she paused, taking in the crowd around her. She asked who among us was new here. Who was alone like I was? Who felt vulnerable in this large gathering? I raised my hand a bit. 

Most hands around me went up too. 

She followed by asking who felt like they were having a mild case of imposter syndrome

Ooh me again, I thought; I raised my hand that much higher. 

Who has a severe case of imposter syndrome? 

A few more hands went up. She laughed: 

‘Self-esteem doesn’t need to be a competitive experience.’

My old friend imposter syndrome

This introduction was short, sweet, and effective. 

The energy of our large group felt almost palpable: we’d come to know something about each other already without uttering a word. 

Most of us felt vulnerable, perhaps out of place, and wanted to connect. 

We were to use the card game to get to know each other. Also, unless using it for TED Connect (the app that powers connection during TED conferences, online and IRL), she asked us to abstain from ‘stroking the fetish’ (our phones). 

It worked. 

I turned around and started talking to a lovely group of women, and a very personal conversation followed. Each of us contributed a powerful story about ourselves to the small group. It’s been a year now, and there are a couple I remember to this day.

Ms Perel explained: 

“You may meet many people this week, and you may not remember them. 

BUT you will remember the stories.” 

Walking back to my hotel (early, I must add, as I wanted to be fresh for the week ahead), I thought, how great is this! 

Small fish, but with a big voice

The next day, and for the remainder of the conference, however, the imposter syndrome came back to haunt me, hard. 

Sure, it didn’t help that, after feeling run down from the jetlag, I had developed tonsillitis with a fever to boot. I felt sorry for myself, despite being grateful it wasn’t contagious. 

The sessions and the speakers left me feeling high, a good kind of high. It produced a feeling of connection, belonging, and being right where I needed to be. In contrast, walking the halls of the conference centre often left me feeling dizzy, and puzzlingly, small. 

A thought bubble popped up: 

Small fish. 

As in, I am a small fish.

Sure enough, I was surrounded by inspiring and accomplished fish. I’d never stopped to consider how I’d feel, in this extraordinary crowd.

I took as much rest as I could, so I could attend the main event, but I had to resort to a strong dose of antibiotics. Between my low energy and imposter syndrome, going beyond my introverted nature felt impossible most days. I loved my time there. And I felt isolated. 

In between the talks, and coffee rounds, walking the great big hall, the thought came back. Small fish. Small fish. 

It’s worth noting that these words, that thought… They were new. Uncommon. It’s not something that I ever remember saying to myself before. Perhaps because they were odd, I paid attention.

My interactions with other attendees, however, didn’t reinforce my ‘small fish’ syndrome. No one made me feel like a little fish. On the contrary, perhaps because Esther Perel’s introduction established that many of us felt like impostors, every conversation I engaged in felt benevolent and uplifting. 

Still, I roamed the halls, not unlike a giant aquarium and that limiting thought kept popping back up. ‘I’m just a little fish’

Three days into this litany, an old memory surfaced. 

There’s this story in my family that makes my brother Guillaume howl with laughter. 

Allegedly (I haven’t seen this myself), when I was a cute toddler, all dimples and Venetian blond curls, I made up a song and dance for my parents (and the local beachgoers). We were on holiday by the sea. 

My father, a wonderful amateur photographer, was filming us with his super8 camera. That day, he captured me grabbing the microphone attached by a cord to the recorder. Looking directly into the camera, I sang a song I’d made up about ‘un petit poisson’ — that’s little fish in French. 

My brother was extremely amused by this early display of my keen interest in singing and microphones. I spent my teenage years singing everywhere I went (including on the bus to school, which he was mortified about). 

Despite being shy, I’ve braved my nature so I could grace stages and explore my voice for years. I’d just never known it had started that early. 

So there was that memory, ha, un petit poisson… 

A small fish with a microphone!

Standing in the grand hall of the convention centre, surrounded by the ‘big fish’ around me, I smiled and felt my confidence return.

Perhaps I am a small fish, but I have a voice. And a microphone. 

Imagine the possibilities.

For the second time that week, I felt like I’d arrived.

Going Deeper

About my favourite moments of TED 2023: 

I had many ‘pinch me moments’ during the week, particularly in the theatre. For example, when conductor and previous TED speaker Benjamin Zander came on stage during the first session (I am a big fan of his book, which sparked this earlier post). Sure enough, with the help of a grand piano, he had 1800 of us sing Beethoven in German, telling us stories about going ‘beyond the fuck off’ also known as the acronym BTFO. 

Another memorable moment was when Canadian conservation technology researcher Karen Bakker shared hidden sounds, taking us on an amazing journey into the illusion of silence and the possibility of inter-species communication. Watch here.

And when Gus Worland, a mental fitness advocate, made his case for us to proactively be there for each other with his movement ‘Gotcha4life’ after telling us the devastating story of his mentor taking his own life. Watch here.

Finally, when death dula Alua Arthur (for many, this was THE talk of the week) invited us to look at life from the perspective of death, to be present in our bodies, and talked about what it would bring if we were to choose to die with intention. At some point, she laughed and said: and eat the cake, she added, just eat the cake! 

Multiple times, I was moved to tears, by the activists Golshifteh Farahani and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riots, by neurotechnologist and ethicist Nita Farahany, and later by Sarah Jones, the polymorphic film-maker who shared a personal story on cancel culture.

What these speakers all had in common was what I read best explained by TED’s own Chris Anderson:

Episode Cover
How a childhood memory helped me tackle imposter syndrome and find my voice
Lessons from TED 2023