by Samantha Quick
First and Foremost
*Trigger warning — This story contains heavy topics and content surrounding mental health, including suicide.
Not your millennial bosses’ self-help article
This isn’t a punchy listicle or another productivity podcast. This isn’t an aspirational speech, a self-help book, a guide, a glow-up, a girl boss moment, and it most certainly isn’t me telling you what to do to succeed.
I do not have all the answers to personal success or imposter syndrome; I actually don’t have any of life’s answers in this article, period: nothing, nada, not a singular best-kept secret or ingenious lifehack.
Because… I don’t know you.
But I do know we have something in common.
I know that you probably look for ways to improve yourself. I know that you most likely care, a lot, about what you’re outputting into the world. And I know that we’re all faking it, at least a little, until we’ve felt we’ve reached some pinnacle of success that will grab us and shake us and say, “you did it! You finally won!”.
And if you’re sitting there saying, “Yes, that’s me, they get it, how do you know that?” It’s because, hi *raises hand* I feel the same way.
So, while I can’t speak to your life journey, I can talk to mine. And at the end of the day, that’s all we can do.
First time faking it
I first became a people leader when I was 21, and I was beyond stoked. I probably still have that acceptance letter for Resident Director hiding out between the stacks of my college thesis and laminated newspaper clippings of my high school art shows.
I had waited two years for this opportunity and was actively working towards this role. No matter what anyone said, you couldn’t tell 21-year-old me otherwise that I wasn’t going to change the entire ways of working and processes of that resident hall for the better. It was my first taste of being a leader, with adult responsibility, and with 6 Resident Advisors on my team and 400+ residents in my building, while still being a full-time student myself, that nervous excitement was palpable.
The training was challenging, but I had never felt more ready or confident to embark on a new job than that moment. We prepared ourselves by running simulations of handling underage drinking or drug use and practiced giving each other mediations for times of conflict.
All the other directors and I would be on call to the entire campus, 5,000 students, 24/7, a week straight, revolving and passing off shifts to each other when our week was up, and I was the last one on the rotation before it started from the beginning again. We were handed this tiny, indestructible, flip phone from the early 2000s that would sound like a three-alarm fire when it went off that we had to carry on us for when we were needed on call.
It was finally my turn; I was ready, enthusiastically prepared; I had that little phone lined up neatly with my handy dandy binder on my bedside table for my first night of duty. I was buzzing. I knew most calls would be RAs that got locked out or needed verbal reassurance of our policies while doing nightly rounds. My office hours went perfectly, I went to bed, night one over, and then my phone rang in the middle of the night. But it wasn’t a resident or an RA; it was my boss.
Someone had died — a student had died by suicide.
My heart fell to the bottom of my feet. I remember the entire sequence of events that night perfectly, like a movie I’ve watched a hundred times over, yet it feels like a story I’m telling about someone else. I don’t have to recount all the details to know I probably did all the wrong things, did or didn’t say all the wrong things. I also knew it wasn’t about me, so I led with that in mind. There wasn’t anything in our handbooks for this.
How do you prep yourself to enter that scene with no real training? How do you manage amid chaos and sadness, and trauma? How do you handle something like that at 4 and get up and go to class at 7? And how do you do that as a first-time leader at 21?
Every moment since my first day and throughout that entire year was just a series of me faking it, faking that I knew what I was doing, that I wasn’t drowning, that I felt confident. What started as blind optimism led to extreme panic, and every time that phone rang from then out on, I wanted to chuck it through the window. My anxiety and stress were internally at an 11, and I maintained a cool, calm 2 to everyone else. I became fixated on faking it.
Fake it until you… fade out?
While off to a rocky start at best and newly out into the world as a fresh-faced grad, I still wanted to be a great leader. So I bought every single book with a catchy slogan of how to do just that.
Trust me; I’ve read them all.
I’ve watched all the TED talks, done all the power poses and knew my “why.” I wore the blazers, went to all the meetings, and downloaded all the podcasts to tell me how to succeed with ease in 10 steps or less, but I still felt like I was doing all the wrong things. It was like I was missing a secret ingredient that every other leader around me seemed to naturally have, which led me to think that I just needed to work harder to achieve that same level of success.
I hadn’t yet made it, so I needed to keep faking it.
I worked two full-time jobs at the same time, a corporate day job as a Junior Art Director and moonlit as a third-party corporate graffiti artist, chalk spray painting the streets of NYC for brands who wanted to look edgy at night (it’s a real thing, I swear, look it up).
I freelanced, contracted, and consulted with anyone who asked. I never said no, and I didn’t consider that an option. I had all those quotes on my mirror saying:
“Work for it more than you hope for it.”
Or my personal favorite,
“Too inspired to be tired!”.
I ran in Millenial corporate circles where overworking and not sleeping were the definitions of achieving, so I must be doing something right. I remember bragging once about logging over 90 hours a week of work and being “totally fine,” I was proud of that, and that memory makes me cringe.
I overworked myself, faking it until I ran my health into the ground. My mental health was the lowest it’s ever been. I was hospitalized twice for exhaustion in the span of a few months, and when my body finally gave out, I didn’t request any sick leave despite having surgery in fear that it would make me look bad (which is crazy, don’t do that).
So I kept working, and I wish that’s where the faking it cycle ended, but it didn’t.
It was years before I hit a mental and physical burnout so heavy that it caused me to do a double-take on how I was living. I was still upset with myself for seemingly not matching up with my peers, despite what the books said about “putting the work in.”
It’s been nearly a decade since I started my professional career, and I wish I could say I’m here now with a concise, bulleted list of what I’ve learned about where I am today. Girl boss culture gave me nothing but gut problems and a constant need to be validated in my climb of corporate achievement. It made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough instead of appreciating where I was and what I could offer.
All I know is that I still don’t have it figured out, not even close, but I don’t want to hand over my health in exchange for hustle culture. I know that I still make many mistakes and that I’m not a perfect leader. I know that I still have a long way to go when it comes to fully shrugging off that heavy coat of imposter syndrome that sits on my shoulders and learning to stop caring about where I am in relation to others.
I know that I value and respect myself, my health, and my team above all else work-wise. And through it all, despite everything, for the good days and the bad days and the straight-up ugly days that come with the state of the world we’re in now, it doesn’t matter where I’m at or what’s next.
But for right now, what I do know is…I’m still going to pick up that phone.