I participate in a lot of activities people fear. I fly regularly. I ride a bike in the city. I routinely risk my body—and my pride—on a roller derby track. If only my fears were as clear-cut as “being afraid of heights,” or “scared of large dogs.” If only I were scared of ghouls and zombies and terrible movies. But my biggest fear is ill-defined, murky, opaque. I can’t pack it into a pithy sentence. I can’t even clearly explain it.
When I joke about it to friends—laughing to numb my nerves—I describe it as “being afraid people will think I’m Sarah Palin.” Which is a good way to skim the surface of the problem: I’m afraid of people thinking I’m not smart enough. Not well-read enough, lacking the encyclopaedic knowledge expected in certain situations. Unable to form brilliant sentences or trade metaphoric entendres.
On the surface, the problem seems absurd. I love learning. I go out of my way to put myself in situations where I’m not the smartest person in the room. I want people to argue with—conversations that enlighten all sides. If I don’t know about a topic or an event, I immerse myself in information. Because I hate not knowing—I hate being in a situation where someone is vehemently attached to a single argument and I can’t weigh the facts myself and rebut. Even on subjects I’m well-versed in, I try to seek out those who know more. I’m the annoying person who won’t make a reference in a conversation without double-checking I’m quoting the right thing or spouting the correct fact.
With an attitude like that, it seems silly for me to be scared of being called stupid, or of faking it. And yet.
The first Incomparable episode I ever did—on the BBC’s new series Sherlock—I misspoke about halfway through the episode, citing the detective Lestrade as “Lestrange”. It being the first podcast episode I’d ever done, I was mortified. I love Doyle’s short stories, and I’d inhaled Sherlock like a madman, but all the knowledge in the world can’t rescue you when you’re nervous and your brain thinks faster than your tongue.
And no one knew these credentials. Not Jason, Dan, Glenn or our four listeners would know that as a girl, I’d stayed up far too late reading Conan Doyle’s stories. Instead, all they heard was a jittery 22-year-old swapping a Harry Potter character for one from Holmes.
I emailed Jason, ever-so-casually asking him to cut it, utterly terrified that on my very first episode of a geeky podcast, someone would accuse me of faking my love and knowledge. He didn’t. Since that point, I’ve been on 50-something episodes, I’ve almost certainly made more goofs, and no one has accused me of faking my interest in a subject. Yet.
But the fear is always there. It’s lurking, leering at me whenever I go on air or get up on a stage without a prepared speech. I’m sure I make more slip-ups and lose my train of thought thanks to this unwieldy demon on my shoulder—which, of course, only feeds the beast. There are more blog posts and conference talks and speeches than I can point to about this feeling—that you’re not worthy, you’re not an expert, you shouldn’t be talking, you shouldn’t be doing this job. For most people, that fear stays inside. You may feel like a charlatan, but you work harder and you learn more and sooner or later you’re seen as an expert, even if you don’t feel like one.
When the fraud police come knocking down your door, however, it’s a different matter. Your fears, perfectly manageable when limited to your own self-critique and determination, become altogether something else when someone calls you on them. I can say honestly that if a member of the Incomparable’s audience ever insinuated that I was some sort of “fake geek girl,” I’d raise hell on Twitter—but inside? I don’t know if I’d ever be able to do another episode of the podcast again. That’s the kind of insult that turns what was an enjoyable hobby into a miserable experience.
Luckily, we have wonderful listeners on the Incomparable, and I haven’t had to deal with that. Yet. But I fear it because I’ve seen it happen elsewhere. Not just black-and-white instances of assholes calling a cosplayer a “fake geek”—but good-natured critiques. Helpful nitpicks. “We don’t want to see you make that same mistake somewhere where people might judge you for it, after all.”
Yes. There are absolutely boisterous braggarts who come into a situation ignorant to the facts and who want to be the center of the discussion—even if they have no idea what the discussion is. Believe me when I say they drive me as crazy as they drive you. And there’s a certain sort of smug satisfaction that comes with taking them down—it’s clear they don’t respect your subject, so why should you respect them?
But there’s a clear difference between that person and the one standing on the sidelines, piping in when they feel they have something to contribute. The one who’s trying their hardest to step into a new world, even if that place is occasionally confusing and overwhelming. If they goof—and they will; it’s how you learn, after all—trust me, they know it. But take that, and slap that person’s curiosity away one too many times, and they won’t come back.