Melissa Gibbs has many of the markers of professional success. She’s well-respected within her male-dominated industry (construction) and outside of it. She is regularly asked to sit on boards and commissions, and I generally consider her a powerhouse in business and civic engagement.
At a recent conference speech to young professionals, Gibbs shared some of the more impressive aspects of her resume and said, “You may think I have it all together, that I have all the answers. I can see how it looks that way... I totally, absolutely, don’t. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time."
She continued, "I’m making this up as I go. And guess what? So is everyone else.”
For the next hour, she spoke openly about her struggles with low self-esteem and confidence, even in the face of significant professional accomplishments.
“Never compare your insides to everyone else's outsides.” - Anne Lamott
For the young professionals who filled the audience, Gibbs looked like the perfect role model – someone to emulate and respect because she’d reached a high level of personal and professional success. Her ‘outsides’ were impressive as hell.
We’d been casual acquaintances for five years, and I’d admired her extensive and effective volunteer work as well as her achievements within a male-dominated industry. It simply hadn’t ever occurred to me that she might face these personal struggles.
Then she shared her ‘insides’. Hearing this woman I admire describe the dramatic juxtaposition between her outward success and her own experience was affirming.
It reminded me of a situation I’d found myself in one year prior. At a rehearsal dinner, I reconnected with several friends I hadn’t seen in a while. They said things like, “My god, it looks like you’re doing so well! How are you?”
Based on external benchmarks, I was achieving at the highest levels of my career. Self-promotion had become a necessity for my business, and the highly visible accomplishments I touted on social media were all my friends were seeing.
As I told them at the time, yes, I’d seen major successes. I was writing in respected publications and had been traveling the country giving speeches to dynamic groups of women. One speech was even interrupted by a (phone) appearance from then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
I’d also cried, a lot. I’d been pushing myself beyond capacity, plagued with a feeling that I still wasn’t doing enough. Exhausted by travel and juggling many different projects, I continued to beat myself up for not being further along on the next presentation, course, or article. In addition, the financial uncertainty of project-based work was taking its toll.
At my most scared and fragile, I found myself crying in a ball on the kitchen floor because a chair was too overwhelming.
This is why I share my insides.
Like Gibbs, my outsides showed a woman that was thriving professionally and receiving accolades for her work.
My insides were in a state of regular anxiety and turmoil, but most people didn’t see that.
At the rehearsal dinner, I talked openly about my fears and state of utter exhaustion. The support I got was validating and grounding.
For example, as I shared my insecurities about writing for a new publication and getting rejected, one friend told me how he spent 9 months on a screenplay that no one picked up, and now he was starting over on a new piece. Hearing of his resilience, my 700 words seemed far less daunting, and I felt less alone.
In addition to talking with friends about my insides, I wrote about the rehearsal dinner experience. When I published that piece, it was the first time a reader I didn’t know personally wrote to say how much it had resonated. She thanked me for my vulnerability and authenticity.
After her speech, Gibbs and I discussed our experiences sharing our insides. We agreed that genuine and vulnerable sharing helps people feel less isolated and helps us establish deeper personal and professional connections.
Furthermore, Gibbs believes that what takes someone from a manager to a leader is authenticity – a willingness to acknowledge their own flaws and insecurities.
In Gibbs’ speech, she showed a clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones is asked how he’s going to save the day. He replies, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
For Gibbs, that’s the secret. Everyone is just making it up as they go. Some people are just willing to admit it.