I was lucky to find work at a nonprofit I believed in right out of college and have been there since, the professional equivalent of marrying your middle-school crush. To mitigate this I have become a dogged hunter of “broadening” experiences, including, this year, the Outdoor Industry Association’s leadership incubator—something I have weaseled my way into despite not belonging to the outdoor industry, per se, never mind its association, and arguably not qualifying as a “future leader,” either.
Consequently I am experiencing severe imposter syndrome in the lobby of the Salt Lake City Marriott. The rest of the cohort works for Real Companies selling Actual Things and speaks in a different set of acronyms (I hear “PLM”—product line manager—as “BLM”—Bureau of Land Management—for at least the first half-hour of the meet-and-greet). Everyone’s roughly my age, but because they live in Bozeman and Boulder and not San Francisco or New York they are mostly married homeowners, many with children. And needless to say, they look much better in the puffy-on-plaid uniform than I do.
They also of course know how to ski: there’s an hour or so in the schedule in which to do this, but because it would take me that long to get rental boots on the right feet I stay by the fire with an expecting mother and a food poisoning victim. They’re asking genuine, unprompted, and totally answerable questions about public lands and I am quickly out of breath, in part with enthusiasm for the subject and in part from the altitude.
Exhausted from 48 hours of effort to simultaneously evangelize the entire industry and not spit on myself while talking, I surprise myself at the end of the week by disintegrating into tears over a casual airport dinner conversation on immigration policy. The inauguration is a week away. It’s the sort of out-of-body experience in which I observe myself as exactly the sort of Berkeley-dwelling, bleeding heart, tree-hugging nonprofiteer snowflake I must appear to be and perhaps—relatively speaking—am.
In Denver for the second portion of the program a few months later the meltdown takes the form of my storming out of an improv comedy class, of all things. It turns out I literally cannot bear to be told by an arbitrarily empowered stranger to close my eyes, quack like a duck, or do any other goddamn thing, thank you very much, and the more everybody else does anything in unison—even as a game!—the less able I am to do the same thing. “But I want you play with us!” says a classmate, smiling, beer in hand. “Well, I want you not to tell me what to do,” I hiss. Her eyes widen and she takes a step back. Shit, I think.
And this is how I find myself standing alone in the snow in the moonlight, realizing, per usual, the exact thing I came to learn in the exact opposite way I was supposed to learn it. The ability to lead is not the same thing as an inability to follow—a problem that in a lifetime of snarking on school assignments, spoofing the cool kids’ t-shirts, arguing with traffic cops, casting lone-dissenter votes, and disputing “insubordinate” performance reviews I’d still somehow never looked squarely in face.
There is value in the instinct to turn the other way: at scale it will stop wars, save lives. Even at its most isolating it’s not something I would change about myself even if I could. But it’s not enough and it’s not unworkable. I followed the instructions and fit it into matrices in class. I’m working on it.