What I learned during my job search, part 1

The news is out: I’m leaving NYU to become Associate Director for Information Technology at Ohio State University Libraries, reporting to Vice Provost and Director of University Libraries Damon Jaggers. Aside from the excitement of taking on a new challenge under a new boss who is also new to OSU, and the anticipation of working with OSU Libraries’ energetic staff, this is also a huge change for me because I’ve been at NYU Libraries for 21.5 years!! Why so long? A combination of family ties and responsibilities, as well as all the opportunities I’ve had at NYU and in NYC, have kept me here for a very long time.

But it’s time for new adventures, new challenges, new growth, and learning lots of new things. As I contemplate this change, and the job search that got me here, I thought it might be helpful to share what I’m thinking about now and what I learned over these past two years. This first post is about my making the transition mentally and emotionally. Future posts will be about the search process itself, expanding on my previous essay, Reducing Bias in the Library Job Interview.

Where my Head is Now

I shared this yesterday on twitter:

Me to husband, while pointing to my head: "you know it's a fucking circus in here right now, right?" Husband: *nods knowingly*

Circus, indeed. Right now the emotional me is suffering a really wicked case of impostor syndrome, while the rational me is calmly re-evaluating my skills and achievements and strategizing how to use them to OSU’s benefit. I woke up yesterday morning wondering (worrying) about the relationship between impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect. While at the same time, I’m project managing the hell out of my exit from NYU and NYC: handing over numerous projects and responsibilities, ensuring NYU colleagues are well-positioned for success, packing and moving my family, buying a house, explaining again and again to the cat about the move (to no avail).

I’m a basket of contradictions.

According to the scholars who coined the term “impostor phenomenon” in 1978, people experiencing it believe, “[d]espite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments […] that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” (At the time, the authors claimed that this particularly afflicts high-achieving women, but research has since disproven the gendered aspect of the experience.)

On the other hand — the other side of the coin as it were — we have the Dunning-Kruger effect. The scholars for whom this experience is named explain, “when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

I can’t be the only one who, while experiencing the impostor phenomenon, worries inordinately about the possibility that, in my more lucid and confident moments, I’m actually suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. From the many conversations I’ve had in person and on social media, I suspect a good number of us have some experience vacillating between these two poles, fretting about our fretting, second guessing our “successes,” wondering how we got where we are and how we ever get anything done.

And therein lies at least part of the solution for me: doing. When I’m doing something meaningful — be it reading, writing, making, planning, painting, collaborating — I’m engaged and learning and creating something new in service to something I believe in. I’m not talking about nervous doing — running around madly with empty boxes and a packing tape gun (though there are moments of that too) — but purposeful activity that I find challenging and deeply fulfilling. I recognize as well that learning new things and seeking new challenges means that I’m frequently outside of my comfort zone. If I’m pushing myself there’s always going to be something I don’t know or do as well as the next person, and I may sometimes experience a lack of confidence (or feel like an impostor) because of it. But the challenge and learning is so important to me that it’s well worth the risk.

And perhaps experiencing the impostor phenomenon can actually help us to recognize and appreciate in ourselves and in others the level of vulnerability required to try something new. The courage we summon in taking on new challenges and putting ourselves into situations where we aren’t accomplished experts, where we may even do or say something less than entirely brilliant. Maybe this experience could help us cultivate the compassion and generosity to better support each other as we grow. Because don’t we want to live in a world — and work in organizations — where we’re open to questioning what we know and believe, and how we’ve always done things? How else can we learn but by welcoming this doubt as an essential part of our humanity, which helps us see ourselves in others, and them in us, and by going through the world with an open heart?