She's pretty successful. Just a couple years out of college, she's been an editor at a popular website, and landed a byline in The New Yorker. Yet, she felt like an impostor. Even as she interviewed at the New York Times--a job she clearly wanted badly--she kept telling herself there was no way she was going to get an offer.
"It seemed totally unlikely, so I forged ahead, practically insouciant, convinced I had nothing to lose because I didn't have much to offer," she writes.
You can see where this is going, right? She got the job. That's when the real trouble began.
"I'm here to get what's mine"
Hughes had some good days at the Gray Lady, but she nevertheless was "pretty uncomfortable," she writes, "racked by the fear that someone [was] going to find me out and show me the door."
So, to overcome her insecurity, she landed a freelance assignment and teamed up with the editors at Cosmopolitan to dress at work like Cookie Lyon--the fictional character on the television show Empire.
Time out. How to describe Cookie for someone who doesn't watch the show? She's a driven woman who is released after serving 17 years in prison, and who wants to reclaim the music empire that her drug-dealing profits financed. As Hughes puts it:
Taraji P. Henson's portrayal of Cookie is rich and luxurious, both out-of-this-world fabulous (she left jail in a cheetah dress and a fur, exactly what I want to be buried in) and around-the-corner familiar (every black person has a cousin called Cookie, for reasons we will never explain). Ever confident, Cookie's primary goal is to reclaim her space; her mission, known from the first episode, is "I'm here to get what's mine."
Leopard print this, leopard print that...
Supported by the wardrobe department at Cosmo, she set out on a wardrobe experiment--at least, for a week. Result?
Day 1 at the Times: "piles of jewelry, a leopard print skirt, and leather shirt."
Day 2: "leopard-print dress, bag, and precariously cocked hat."
And so on. (Seriously, describing women's fashion isn't exactly my skill set. Check out the photos on her Cosmo article to get the full picture.) It was perhaps just a more vibrant and fashion-forward version of the power poses that Amy Cuddy advocates in her TED talk on overcoming impostor syndrome.
(This is probably the part of the article where we expect to hear that it worked like a charm. Only, not so much.)
Not a secret elixir
Bummer. It turns out Hughes's fashion experiment was more complicated than that. As she writes:
I didn't feel more powerful or cocksure or fabulous or Cookie-esque at all. I felt garish and ostentatious. I was happy to relay the ridiculous details of my [Cosmopolitan writing] assignment, quick to admit that I was playing a part, but when it came time to be myself -- to speak up in a meeting or run up to the cafeteria alone -- it was like all the progress I'd made in the past six months to overcome my insecurities was gone.
Instead, she ultimately channeled her anger inward, for "psyching myself out, for convincing myself that I didn't belong to a place that had welcomed me with open arms, for wasting time meandering instead of improving..."
That, it seems, is the raw part of her lesson. Want to overcome impostor syndrome? It's not about faking it until you make it, or dressing how you think someone else believes a powerful person would dress, or putting your hands on your hips when you talk.
It's about owning your trepidation, and your insecurities, and your fears that you'll open your mouth only to reveal that you don't belong.
And then saying screw that--and having the guts to do it anyway.