When I was 8, I joined my local 4-H Club – the Scipio Shamrocks. I didn’t live on a working farm, so I took domestic projects – sewing, cooking, first aid, and my game-changer – public speaking. My first summer in 4-H, I went to a workshop to learn about the “demonstration contest”. This is where you pick something to teach an audience and then demonstrate it to them. I chose to teach the audience how to make oatmeal cookies. I spent the first month of the summer practicing my presentation, which meant my family ate A LOT of oatmeal cookies. I titled my demonstration “what’s the deal with oatmeal”. On the day I gave my presentation, I packed up my mom’s mixer and all of my supplies and set up in a dusty building at the county fairground. I was pleased with my performance. My practice paid off and I received a passing grade. I didn’t win any awards, but that was okay for me. I was a kid having fun over my summer vacation.
Later that day, when I was visiting my best friend in the cow barn, someone in my 4-H club said “congratulations on qualifying for the State Fair”. Neither I, nor my parents, knew what they were talking about. Apparently the top 10 scores get to represent the county at the State Fair. I was number 10.
A couple of weeks later, I packed up the same mixer and ingredients and headed to the State Fair in Columbus, Ohio. We had no idea how the process worked, so my parents and I showed up early in the morning and I sat on my cooler for what seemed like hours waiting to take my turn. As I sat there, I saw kids who were clearly pros at this. They had professionally printed posters. They had snazzy props. I had 50 cent poster boards made with crayola marker. I finally took my turn and then went off to enjoy the fair. Everyone said to come back at the end of the day for the awards ceremony. I didn’t really see the point because I wasn’t going to win. I saw what my competition was like and figured since they had it all figured out, they would take home the prizes.
But I did win. I won a purple ribbon – an honorable mention. Not first place, but solid recognition – not everyone gets a trophy in 4-H! I cradled that purple ribbon all the way home. It hung on my wall until I went off to college and my mom redecorated my room. I was proud of what I had done. My work was my own. My hand-made poster boards were fine.
Small Town Leadership lesson: When I first learned about the impostor syndrome, I thought about my purple ribbon. And the subsequent purple ribbon moments that followed in my life – being elected to leadership positions in college groups, hired for internships, asked to join non-profit boards in my early 20s. In many of those instances, I didn’t want to check the election results or answer the call when the hiring manager’s number was on caller ID – surely I wouldn’t win or be the one selected. Someone would catch on that I didn’t know what I was doing. There would surely be more qualified people.
These are the classic signs of the impostor syndrome – thinking that I wasn’t deserving of achievements and being convinced that I would be exposed as a “fraud”. Finally, after a series of promotions, elected leadership roles, and invitations to speak and advise, I understood that I’m not an impostor. I earned those ribbons. If you ever find yourself doubting recognition or achievements, remember what you did to earn them. Don’t convince yourself you’ve lost before you even give yourself a chance. Have confidence. Enjoy your success and accomplishments. Don’t question them. Above all – wear your ribbons proudly.
P.S. I don’t make oatmeal cookies anymore!