A few years back, I was working on a piece for Lion’s Roar, a magazine that focuses on ancient wisdom for modern times.
I don’t consider myself a particularly good Buddhist; the irony in that statement proves the point. In the piece I kept quoting from other thinkers.
After the second round of revisions the editor wrote me: This is good, but I want to hear more about what YOU think. Not what Jack Kornfield or Tara Brach thinks, but what YOU think. Own your seat.
The last three words of her email have stuck with me ever since.
I was suffering a classic case of imposter syndrome.
By this point in my career, I’d already published two books and written essays for The New York Times. It didn’t matter—this was a new publication, a wisdom publication. Who was I to offer wisdom?
When I was sharing my experience with a friend, she reminded me that anyone who says (and worse yet, genuinely believes) that they have it all figured out is probably a good person to run away from, and fast.
That I was hesitant about writing the piece wasn’t a bad thing. If anything, it was a good thing! The problem was that I was comparing myself to some illusory bar of enlightenment peddled almost exclusively by spiritual grifters and charlatans. The fact that I felt a bit uncertain was completely normal—after all, there are very few things about which we should feel certain.
What, then, did it mean to own my seat?
It meant realizing I’d done plenty of thinking, research, writing, and coaching on the piece’s topic. Perhaps I didn’t have it all figured out, but that’s because nobody does. Even so, I could be confident because I’d done the work. A good editor, coach, manager, mentor, or leader won’t call you up to bat until you are ready. It doesn’t mean the at bat won’t be uncomfortable, but you can own your seat no less.
First, a lesson: confidence comes from evidence, and confidence allows you to own your seat. Owning your seat does not mean certainty, nor does it mean a total lack of impostor syndrome. It means taking your doubts with you and stepping into the arena no less, because you’ve done the work that is required to step into the arena.
Second, a paradox: the people who have no doubts and know the least tend to yell the loudest; the people who speak softly, tread lightly, and embrace the words “it depends” tend to know the most. Because the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.
Whereas arrogance and certainty almost always emerge out of insecurity, owning your seat means understanding that confidence comes from evidence, and that a bit of impostor syndrome is okay; it’s often a sign that you are exactly where you need to be.
In the end, I wrote the piece. (You can read it here.)
The best part wasn’t getting published in Lion’s Roar or the $300 I got paid. It was getting to wrestle with this idea of owning your seat. Nowadays, I frequently ask myself (and my coaching clients) Do you have what you need to own your seat? If so, own it. If not, what evidence do you need before you can?
Now you can wrestle with these questions too.
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