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The case for fumbles

Last week during parents’ weekend, my family and I went to a Duke yoga session and set up on the East Campus Lawn with a small cohort of stragglers. Most of us weren’t terribly advanced in the practice and one man in particular seemed out of his element, jovially telling us beforehand that we “weren’t allowed to laugh” at him during the class. We all journeyed through the class, and afterwards, as we were folding up our respective beach towel yoga mats, he came over to my sister and me. 

“Hey ladies, would you like to have a laugh?” he said with a self-deprecating smile. “Out of this whole grassy lawn, I set up my towel right on top of a rotten egg.” We bend down to where he’s pointing, and sure enough, there’s a crushed egg on the grass where he’d spent the last hour. 

I have no idea what series of unfortunate events led to this rotten egg landing on the lawn but what struck me right away was his immediate instinct to find others to share this with. As he’s in the midst of this pungent and inconvenient situation, he chose not to opt into natural frustration or perhaps understandable embarrassment. Instead, he decided that communal laughter was the most important thing and concluded that he’d deal with the rotten egg logistics later in the day. Right then, this moment was an opportunity to disarm himself and transform his blunder into a collective grin.  

This was a Duke student’s loved one and we were on campus as this happened, so I feel it has direct links to student culture. What this did for me was transform this space that can be somewhat intimidating into a place that suddenly felt more accessible. Yes, we’re smack dab in the middle of clusters of academic buildings that can exude a certain loftiness, but the rotten egg became a reset button, telling us that being perfectly proper and pulled-together was not our most important task. 

In my fourth year here, I feel exponentially more at ease and walk around campus with a much deeper sense of belonging than I did as a first-year. I’ve been in these classroom buildings countless times and wouldn’t consider myself intimidated anymore, but this reminded me of the breath of fresh air that moments like this offered me when I felt most out of my element. 

Early on at Duke, I had very few conversations about this feeling with fellow students, thinking that I may be an anomaly or that it would be too taboo to talk about. Gradually though, an open dialogue and familiarity with the term impostor syndrome has grown. It seems almost everybody I’ve talked to can relate to this feeling in some way.

Sometimes there’s this nebulous feeling in the air that A: before coming to Duke, every student accomplished a groundbreaking feat and B: while at Duke, every student has crafted the perfect cocktail of involvements that will propel them into C: another post-grad groundbreaking feat. This transforms our basic human normalcy into a threat against the shiny possibility of being a Groundbreaking Feat Wizard. This fear of being the odd one out, by simply existing as a normal human in the world, can perpetuate our instinct to hide our blunders. This changes what we exude outward, no longer representing ourselves as we subconsciously slip into our wizard cloaks. To break this cycle, I think we might need to lead with our blunders more often. 

In the middle of writing this column, I took a break to attend some info sessions at the environmental career fair and whoa Nelly, an example of this fell in my lap. I enter the group call on Handshake’s internal video conference platform, which informs me that my host has not arrived and also doesn’t show me anyone else in the room, so I figure I’m the first to arrive. I twiddle my thumbs as a few minutes go by, and suddenly I see another student’s face pop up, so I unmute and say hello. She doesn’t seem to hear me, and I begin to wonder if my microphone settings are off, so I repeatedly jabber, “Can you hear me now?” and “Is my microphone working?” Assuming it’s just the two of us in the room and recognizing that the audio for one of us seems faulty, I figure it’s perfect troubleshooting time. I don’t hold back on my chattering as I keep testing my microphone like I’m an auctioneer about to host a bidding war. 

It’s only after a particularly hearty “Can you hear me?” bellow of mine that the recruiter chimes in and goes, “Yes, Sara Kate, I can hear you.” I pause, confused because I thought we were alone on the call, so I mosey over to the participants list which I hadn’t checked before. Alas, the room has been totally full of participants, and the recruiter had—sans notification—joined the call, presumably right in time to hear my big performance. Career fair humanized, I hope.  

For me, hearing stories about people’s missteps and fumbles can be a breath of fresh air that takes the edge of pressure off. Sending the subliminal message that, Hey, it’s not the end of the world if things are clunky or you make mistakes, these moments brought out into the public can feel like an antidote that softens impostor syndrome.  

Now I’m hesitant to fully hold this up as some perfect panacea because the layers of impostor syndrome are so complex. For many, this feeling is rooted in identity—first generation status, immigration status, gender and sexual identities or socioeconomic status to name a few—and thus, this experience is loaded with generations of societal messaging about who belongs at a place like Duke. Seeing a stranger covered in a rotten egg doesn’t dissolve the institutional barriers to access that many first generation students have to navigate. My borderline operatic performance at the career fair doesn’t untangle patriarchal gender norms in certain classroom spaces. 

But I’m also determined not to dismiss the opportunities to mitigate this feeling wherever possible. Chipping away at impostor syndrome bit by bit, I think taking our blunders public could be just the antidote we need to get started. 

Sara Kate Baudhuin is a Trinity senior. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays.

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