I still get heart palpitations when I think about walking into that first meeting. It was a few years after college, and I'd been hired at a public affairs agency in Washington, D.C. I was fresh off of my first job as a field organizer, rallying voters on a local level, and Washington D.C. felt like the big leagues.
I was assigned to an important project—managing campaign organizers in fifteen states. It meant I was expected to attend the Monday morning meetings with the senior team—dressed in a suit and tie.
I showed up in the only suit I owned (a tattered relic of bar mitzvah season 1998), feeling like a kid at the grown-ups’ table. The room was large with a long, menacing conference table and half a dozen phones in a line down the middle. Around it sat Washington lobbyists, former politicians, and political henchmen, all of whom had been at it for decades. I recognized their faces from the news.
As soon as I walked through the door, I was sure everyone quickly pegged me as an impostor. They could probably see my athletic socks underneath my slacks. This impostor feeling was so overwhelming that I made a conscious decision not to sit at the table and opted instead for a folding chair in the corner. I wish I could say this only happened at the first meeting, but it became routine. Week after week, I plopped into a chair in a corner—avoiding eye contact in case someone might try to engage me in conversation.
The fact is I had unique expertise; I’d spent much of the past two years learning how best to rally people as a field organizer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. On the subject of how best to play the “ground game,” I was the most knowledgeable person in the room. But I was paralyzed by fear. These were conversations about how to influence the top lawmakers in Washington. It wasn’t uncommon, in a discussion about an influential senator, for one of the seasoned lobbyists to stand up and proclaim, "Let me just call his cell." So I sat mute, terrified they might realize I didn’t belong.
Then a funny thing happened. After hearing these experts talk week after week in their fancy suits I started to notice something that’s stayed with me ever since. No matter how old, experienced, and confident they were, there was an amount of theater to it all. They used lots of buzzwords. They were steadfast in their belief about how a given situation should be handled. Even when their arguments lacked substance, they didn’t waver. I started to realize that all of them were making it up to some degree as they went along. We all are.
A week came when the meeting topic was grassroots organizing, and I knew I had to weigh in. I decided it was time to take my seat at the table and earn the respect of the others in the room. I was in the same suit, yes, but I walked to an open seat. Not only did the silver-haired lobbyists on either side greet me, but after the meeting began I actually summoned the courage to offer my opinion.
Those meetings continued every week for almost a year. Yes, I still wore the same baggy suit, but I did buy a six-pack of black dress socks —to my mother’s delight. From that day forward, I made sure to arrive early and take my seat at the table—and came to believe I actually deserved to be there.