On Jessica Williams, “Imposter Syndrome,” Leaning In & Why It’s Okay To Say “That’s Not For Me”

Over the last seven-and-a-half years, I’ve told The Frisky’s “origin story” more times than I can count, and almost always in the same way, whether I’m talking to our company’s new CEO, sitting in on an ad sales presentation or chit-chatting at a cocktail party. Since I’m the site’s founding editor-in-chief, that script usually includes an anecdote about how I ended up being the person hired to conceptualize and launch the site — much to my own surprise because, as I always put it, “I was grossly underqualified.”

“I thought for sure I wouldn’t get it,” I always continue, “But then I was being flown down to Atlanta for a third interview and suddenly I was panicked. ‘Oh fuck, I might actually get this job.’ I was so worried about failing that I almost — almost! — said no.”

The anecdote ends on a triumphant note — my boyfriend at the time assured me I wouldn’t fail, which was kind of him given that he is not psychic, but more importantly, he reminded me that even if it didn’t work out, it would still be an invaluable learning experience. And so I said yes, and I worked my ass off both DOING what I said I was going to do but also LEARNING on the job with as much humility as I could muster. That, combined with the hard work of everyone else involved and a whole lot of luck — because YES, luck is a factor when you’re trying to launch a sex and relationships-focused blog at an old school media company that would really prefer you not write about anal sex, thank you — resulted in The Frisky actually launching and then hitting its first month’s traffic goal and then its yearly goal and, well, seven-and-a-half years later, here I am, telling you how underqualified I was even though my actual track record suggests I was actually qualified, just maybe not in the ways I assumed mattered.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, “underqualified,” in the last day or so, after reading that Jessica Williams tweeted that she wouldn’t be taking over as host of “The Daily Show,” in part because, she wrote, “I am extremely under-qualified for the job!” She went on to suggest that at age 25, she doesn’t yet feel capable of engaging with those she disagrees with politically as readily as the job would require, and that “I am super not right for it.” Reading between the lines, it sounds to me that while Williams is flattered that she has been considered a top choice for Jon Stewart’s replacement, it’s not a job she feels right for in terms of experience or desire. She is, in short, not interested.

And she probably thought that would be the end of the discussion — except when you are a woman working in a male-dominated industry, public statements about not being qualified for a job left vacated by a man cannot go unanalyzed! The Billfold’s Ester Bloom used Williams’ tweets, and specifically her use of the word “underqualified,” as the peg for a piece about “imposter syndrome,” an affliction felt most often by young women in the work force who are burdened by fears that they are un- or under-qualified for work that they are actually perfectly qualified for. Imposter syndrome results in women not applying for jobs, promotions  or raises, or regularly second-guessing their decisions because they doubt their capabilities. While Bloom did not outright say that Williams actually suffers from “imposter syndrome,” and that it was imposter syndrome which led her to conclude that she was underqualified for the hosting gig, she made it clear that she refused to accept Williams’ words at face value:

How modest! How self-effacing! You can almost hear all the old white people who benefit from the status quo nodding their approval. We did it, they whisper. We have succeeded in instilling in yet another competent, confident young woman a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth! We didn’t even need to undermine her; we gave her the tools and she undermined herself. Well done all. Good show. Let’s play eighteen holes and then hit up Hooters for lunch. 

Jessica Williams, respectfully, I reject your humility. What on earth does “under-qualified” mean when it comes to being a comedian? You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re self-possessed. Is there something I’m missing?

And how insulting that so many press outlets took her tweets at face value despite the fact that they were displaying clear symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves “unqualified.”

It’s not that Williams actually is underqualified to be the host of “The Daily Show,” Bloom implies, it’s just that she, like lots of other women her age, has been taught to undervalue and undersell her abilities. “All Williams needs is a pep talk,” Bloom writes. “Get Luvvie in a room with her, and Jazmine, and Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham. Get Paul Feig in there too, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and George R. R. Martin. Get her the best Lean In group of all time. She will emerge as from a funeral pyre, naked and coiled in dragons, ready to lead.”

Bloom’s post received a bit of backlash, most notably from Williams’ herself, who, in a series of tweets, explained why she was “insulted” by Bloom’s rousing refusal to accept her words at face value. “Because of my choice, you have diagnosed me with something without knowing me at all. For the world to see,” she tweeted. She went on:

Because you have personally decided, that I DON’T know myself- as a WOMAN you are saying that I need to lean in. Are you unaware, how insulting that can be for a fully functioning person to hear that her choices are invalid? If I wanted my personal choices for myself deemed invalid, I’d go to a mysoginist [sic]. This, quite honestly, hurt my feelings. Also don’t call me a “victim”? How can you call me a “victim” for making a choice for myself. I’m sorry but how? Is it possible that I know &love myself enough to admit what Im not ready for?W/out regard to what other people want me to be? I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I’m truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours. My worth is not my job.

I suspect that Bloom’s piece — which, on its own, might not have ruffled Williams’ feathers — was the straw that broke the camel’s back after over a week of hopeful online speculation about what it would meannn if Williams, a young Black woman, was tapped to replace Stewart. While I’m guessing such attention is flattering, it’s also a lot of pressure — especially because it puts Williams at the center of something so much bigger than herself and her career aspirations. I absolutely empathize Williams’ frustration that she is expected to lean in because an opportunity — one that would be deemed Good For Women — has presented itself, even though it’s not one she feels qualified for or even, it seems, necessarily wants. And while I know Bloom’s heart was in the right place, that she is obviously a fan of Jessica Williams and thinks she would slay as the host of “The Daily Show,” she really doesn’t know what it takes to be qualified for that position, while Williams has first hand knowledge having worked on the show as a correspondent. I’m positive Williams has a better sense of the day-in day-out grind that the job requires and based on that and probably a multitude of other reasons, she has decided that it’s not one she wants to pursue. And good for her, dammit, for making that choice and owning it.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t see the forest through the trees. Bloom swings and misses to make her larger point about women undervaluing their capabilities in the workplace by focusing almost exclusively on Williams and reading too much into her use of the word “underqualified.” So let’s take the spotlight off her and talk more generally. Women absolutely do undervalue and undersell their skills and hesitate to apply for jobs they are more than capable of doing as a result, while men are much less likely to suffer from this “imposter syndrome.” We should absolutely be doing more to encourage women to recognize and emphasize what they are capable of doing, not just what they have already done; I also believe we should be thinking more critically about what we mean when we’re talking about qualifications in the first place. Going forward, when I tell The Frisky’s origin story, I will be more clear about exactly what I mean when I say “underqualified,” because I now understand how loaded that word is.  I will be more clear that while I was underqualified on paper to be the EIC of The Frisky, I was more than qualified in terms of my work ethic, my creative vision and my commitment to putting aside my ego and learning all that I needed to in order to have the best shot at succeeding.  But I ultimately decided to take on that challenge because the job was one I wanted.

This is where “Lean In” feminism loses people, because it ultimately is most inspirational and motivating to those women who aspire to climb the corporate ladder, to get better/bigger/higher paying jobs, to break through the glass ceiling. And that’s great and awesome! But not every woman wants that. Hell, on paper, after 7.5 years as an EIC, it probably IS expected that I would be seeking out a bigger/better/higher-paying job. But if there’s anything I am sure of, it’s that bigger/better/higher-paying does not equal HAPPIER. I don’t necessarily want bigger challenges than the ones I have. Frankly, I don’t really to lean in further than I already have, at least at this point. To quote Williams, it’s not for me.

And not every man wants more and more success, or to be defined by his career successes either BTW. Interestingly enough, I had a big conversation with my 29-year-old brother this weekend about this very subject. Up until recently, he was considering going to grad school so he could eventually get a teaching position at a college. But he’s seriously questioning that plan now as he considers his job prospects after he graduates (there are not a ton of teaching positions) and the impact a whole other chunk of school loans would have on his long-term finances. As someone who has been lucky enough to make a career doing something I love, I cannot help but want the same thing for my brother, because I assume it would make him happy as well. But the truth is, he isn’t me. He is his own person, and while I don’t necessarily “get” why he doesn’t, say, make time to do a cool film internship or start pitching music blogs, since those are his areas of his interest, it’s not fair to assume that he needs the same kind of creative stimulation or even challenges to feel satisfied with his job. In fact, it’s unfair to assume that he has to get a significant degree of satisfaction from his job to feel satisfied and content with his life. For the first time, when he looked at me and said that the most important thing to him is that he get along with his coworkers and has a flexible schedule, I really understood that he meant it, and that I was being ultimately unhelpful by assuming that what satisfies me and makes me happy would have the same impact on him. He has something else in mind for his life, and the best thing I can do is support that whether or not it matches my idea of him reaching his full potential. Ultimately, all I want is for him to be happy. That’s all I really want for anyone, really.