How To Be the Youngest Person in the Room

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Catie Carlson, Director of Pfeiffer Library at Tiffin University.

If you were a traditional student who went straight to library school and then found themselves working in an academic library shortly later, you probably experienced it. It being the confident, new librarian who wants to help students succeed only to be confused for a student yourself. At first it can be flattering, but it can quickly become frustrating when you want to have authority and respect in a room. For good examples of why and how that can happen (as well as for a few unfortunate trolls), I recommend reading the comments and replies to Jenny Howell’s tweet.

Dr. Howell is describing the biases and discrimination that exist for young women in academia. She is also touching on imposter syndrome, which is no stranger to ACRLog posts. We all feel not-smart-enough, not-good-enough, not-insert-adjective-here-enough to belong in librarianship and academia at some point. Typically this is just described as a state of mind, such as Veronica describing her internal monologue or Zoe confessing her insecurities fueling her imposter syndrome. However, age and gender can create a physical embodiment of those feelings. These can manifest in ways such as Dr. Howell’s description, being confused as a student, or even being called a “baby” within the profession.

I am no stranger to feeling imposter syndrome. As a young librarian, working with senior faculty could be intimidating with their vast experience in comparison to my newness. I would get nervous if I couldn’t come up with a quick answer for a student fearing they’d think I was useless. These are natural scenarios when you are a “baby” in a profession. With personal relationships eventually forming with these people, it became less intimidating to work with the faculty. As I became more familiar with student needs at my institution, I was taken less off-guard by surprise questions. Slowly, though I was still a “baby librarian,” imposter syndrome started to wane, which is good. Being a “baby librarian” is a problematic way to describe yourself because you’ve worked hard to be in this profession, but it’s even more troublesome when you feel you can accept the term regardless of its connotations. However, imposter syndrome would still appear at times: on an insecure day, when I made a mistake, or in a new interaction with someone.

After just a few years at a small institution, a retirement left the director role as an option. I had only been a librarian for a few years, but I had shown my value to the institution over that time. More than one person encouraged me to apply to the job, but I was on the fence. While I welcome a challenging opportunity to enable self-growth, this seemed like a stretch. Imposter syndrome would start all over with such a promotion. Despite these doubts, I applied, I interviewed, and I accepted a directorship before the age of 30 years old.

While I knew my insecurities in accepting a leadership position going into the role, there were some things I did not expect. Having never been in the position, I had no idea what it is like to be a young female in a leadership meeting, and by that, I mean being the only young female in a leadership meeting. When I sit at a table with our three school deans and Provost, I am one of two females in the room and I am the only millennial. I think it is safe to say there isn’t even a Gen X in the room. When I attend library director meetings across our state, the scenario does not change much. Essentially, I went from being a “baby librarian” to a “baby leader” and so the problematic way of viewing of oneself continues.

It can be scary and lonely to not see a peer in the room, especially when the expectation is for you to be a leader in that room. With just a few years now under my belt, I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I hate leaving problems unresolved. Therefore, here are some things I have found helpful to shed the imposter syndrome again:

Be Confident
Years of experience are important, but they are not everything. Always remember that you got this far for a reason. I have to tell myself every day: You weren’t given a position; you earned it. I tell myself twice, three times or four when I have big meetings. It helps even if just a little.

Play to Your Strengths
I love utilizing technology in my work and life. I once sat in a meeting where the leaders talked about an upcoming survey for us. I offered to just do it then while in discussion because (as always) I had a laptop and it would take 5 minutes to create, distribute, and move on. While it prompted millennial jokes from my colleagues, one approached me after the meeting, apologized for the jokes, thanked me for my initiative, and complimented my technology skills. Moral of the story: People will notice when you know what you’re doing.

Be Proactive
Volunteer for things. It’s how they will eventually notice your great work just like in my survey creation. No one asked me to do it, but I knew I could do it quickly and it would ease the load for others. People like this, but academics must always be cautious about burn out.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
You’re the youngest one in the room and you will be judged. It’s unfair, but I still think it’s the truth. If you screw up, they will notice more than if you succeed. Research, prepare, and practice for everything – then do it again and again. If you succeed enough, maybe you can continue to be that youngest-in-the-room scenario.

Build the Relationships
Senior leaders can help, and those that are willing will mentor you. Without some great mentors in professional organizations, I would not know half of what I know now. Your mentors can help you prepare as suggested in number 4. Their years of experience do come with knowledge, and we’re fortunate enough to be in a profession that values knowledge sharing. Key example, look at the blog you’re reading. Also, don’t forget that the more you work with your colleagues, the more you get to know them, and that personal relationships will again make it less scary to be there.

Be True to Yourself
When I became a leader, it felt like I had to do a lot of image related things to make it true and to be respected, especially at a young age. I’ve realized that trying to fulfill that preconceived notion won’t make it so. Therefore, I won’t be the post that tells you to network if that’s not your thing. People notice you for you and will also notice insincerity and discomfort. To be successful, you have to be yourself.

Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to have the years of experience (though they don’t usually hurt). Not a day goes by for me without thinking about the day’s growth opportunities and how each day builds on the last day. However, being new to a field, to a position, or to life doesn’t make your ideas and hard work any less valuable. We need fresh ideas, eyes, and experiences to continue to grow and adapt our profession so don’t let anyone refer to you as a baby. (Question: Have any men new to the profession been referred to in this way? I’d love to hear from you!)

At the very least, remember that you’re only young once. You get older every day of the year. One day, you won’t be the youngest in room any more. That may be a sad day; I certainly am no longer looking forward to it. When that day comes, remember where you started and be the always-needed-mentor.

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