King On My Forehead

Exactly one year ago I left a salaried job to dedicate all of my time, effort, and money to co-founding a consulting firm called Assemble. Looking back, I'm grateful to have reached the one-year mark but my goodness, I'm still terrified. 

Despite the looming fear we won't make it another year, here are the two reasons I was able to make it this far:

  1. Being honest when I need help and asking for it often. Primarily from my magnanimous co-founder, Trevor.
  2. Shifting my mindset from thinking I was an impostor to believing I have a seat at the table. And it's up to me to claim it.

I've already written about asking for help and how much I hate it, so let's talk about learning to quiet the impostor-syndrome mindset. As with anything that matters, it all begins with a story:

Trevor and I were in a meeting discussing the details of potential client engagement when the individual we were meeting with looked at Trevor and said, "Trevor, I know you understand how to start and run businesses - but, Reagan, not so much..." They then went on to make whatever their point was.

I don't remember what happened after that. 

It's not like this individual told me I was ugly or that I had stanky breath or that I was a bad person - they just made a comment about my qualifications. But for me at that time in my life, their comment was very, very hard to hear. My greatest insecurity as a professional is that my approach to delivering work is too warm and fuzzy. When I decided to co-found a business, this was exactly the moment I feared - someone pointing out that my entrepreneurial experience was lacking.

On the sidewalk outside the coffee shop Trevor did a fantastic job cheering me up, but the wound was still there - not to mention an increased fear that everyone else also thought I was a sissy hack who only knew how to talk about culture and quote Brené Brown or Seth Godin.

Two days later, Trevor gave me a gift that changed everything - he reminded me that I have a king on my forehead. 

At the time Trevor and I were both regularly performing improv theater and he asked me to recall an old game we learned when we were first starting out. 

The game is about status. Two people draw from a deck of cards, without looking at their card, and stick it to their forehead so only their scene partner and the audience can see. They then begin a scene by embodying what they believe their status level to be, based on the card stuck to their scene partner's forehead. The highest status is an ace and the lowest status is a two. 

It's hilarious to watch two scene partners - one who might be a 10, and another an eight - believe they have completely opposite roles. So the 10-level status player will gravel at the feet of the eight because they believe they couldn't have more than an eight. This automatically causes the player with the eight on their forehead to behave as if they might be the captain of a ship or the head honcho at the crayon factory - whatever their scene may be about - even though their partner has a higher card.

It's also amusing to see people's different personality types come to bear as the game goes on. There are those who, even though they get consistently low cards, internally believe their card is higher than the other. Conversely, there are players who might receive cards above nine or 10 in back-to-back scenes, but they are pre-disposed to believe they must be a lowers status. 

I imagine we all fall into one of two categories: 1) Those who believe they deserve to be in a room, or, 2) those who question their value in any situation - even if they have a valuable idea or opinion to contribute. I've learned we get to pick which one we choose to be.

Back to the example of the improv game - you can imagine what happens when someone's scene partner gets a king or an ace on their forehead, right? Immediately, anyone in the scene is going to assume a lowlier role than the king. As a result, the person with the king slowly realizes they've got the power.

To be clear, this isn't about being more powerful than others. I'm not saying we should all stomp around believing we're top dog. This isn't some hack to help you dominate at networking events by squeezing everyone's hand a little harder - this is about leveling the playing field by giving ourselves a subtle reminder that our sense of belonging is less about whether or not we really belong, and more about our perception of the status of others, how we see ourselves, and how we decide to show up.

In thinking about the application of this idea I can't help but wonder what might happen if each of us believed we belong a little more than we think we do. What if we all trusted that, based on our own life experience, we always have something valuable to offer?

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Brené Brown says belonging (read: confidence) must first happen inside of us before we can receive it from the world. Brené makes this comment about the strongest people she's come across: "...they didn’t negotiate it [belonging] with the world; they carried it internally; they brought belonging wherever they went."

The beauty of any improv scene lies not in the status differences of the players, but in the willingness for both to show up and believe the thing their scene partner has to offer is the best possible direction for the scene. It is the only direction, in fact.

This past year I've tried to remind myself before every meeting that I've got a king on my forehead. We all do. The real objective has nothing to do with negotiating status - it's about trusting in the value of each person's potential contribution (starting with ourselves) and then getting to work.

The table's as big as we want it to be - slap a king on your forehead and pull up a chair.

PS - I'm fascinated by the dynamics of professional interactions and recently hosted a brief online workshop about how to more comfortably handle social situations where you might feel uncomfortable. You can watch the replay here!