Lean In Moments: Anne Madoff at Palantir Technologies

When I was 16, my friend Sofia gave me a New Yorker article on Sheryl Sandberg. This article preceded the publication of Lean In by two years, and I hadn’t yet heard Ms. Sandberg’s name. “She’s the COO of Facebook,” Sofia explained. “I know you like computers and tech-y things, so I figured you’d be interested in reading about her.”

Sofia was right. I loved the article, and one passage particularly struck me; the torn-out magazine page that contains it still sits on my desk at college, where I now study Computer Science.

A meeting of Harvard Undergraduate Women in Computer Science, of which Anne is the Founding President

From the article–

Sandberg graduated first in the economics department. At her Phi Beta Kappa induction, there were separate ceremonies for men and women. At hers, a woman gave a speech called “Feeling Like a Fraud.” During the talk, Sandberg looked around the room and saw people nodding. “I thought it was the best speech I’d ever heard,” she recalls. “I felt like that my whole life.” At every stage of her time in school, Sandberg thought, I really fooled them.

“Wow, it’s not just me,” I thought to myself. Like Ms. Sandberg, I suffered from the impostor syndrome. I was convinced that I had been “fooling everyone” throughout my academic career, that I wasn’t really as good as my accolades would suggest. I kept this passage on my desk to remind myself that this feeling of inferiority was just that– a feeling, not a reality. Ms. Sandberg’s fears were clearly misguided and I hoped mine were too.

When I started work this summer, my confidence was at an all time low. After some seriously nerve-racking interviews, I had been offered an internship at Palantir Technologies. Working at Palantir is a Computer Science student’s dream: everyone who works at Palantir is extraordinarily bright and they enthusiastically tackle some of the world’s most important data-driven problems.

Needless to say, I really didn’t want to screw up. I kept thinking, “I wonder when they’re going to realize they made a mistake by hiring me, that I am not as skilled as they think I am.” Despite how kind and welcoming my team was, this fear persisted through my first month of work. Everyone I met was brilliant and I couldn’t quash the feeling that I didn’t measure up.

One day at lunch, my insecurities finally subsided. I was sitting with some interns I didn’t know very well, and one of the girls I’d just met said, “Ugh! My Palan-fear was out of control when I got here. I’m so glad it’s eased up.” I looked at her confusedly, and asked what “Palan-fear” meant. “You know, the fear that everyone here is way smarter than you are,” she replied. I felt just like I did at 16 when I read about Sheryl Sandberg’s anxieties: “wow, it’s not just me.” Keeping that Sheryl Sandberg article on my desk was a good first step towards combatting the impostor syndrome, but it wasn’t enough. Fighting the Idonotdeserveanyofthissuccess feeling required more consistent reminders and conversations.

After lunch, I was talking to some other colleagues and told them about the term I had just learned. “This girl I met came up with the funniest expression,” I nervously offered. “Palan-fear, the worry that you’re the dumbest one in the whole company. Story of my life.” Everyone quickly started laughing. “I’m so glad someone else is worried about that,” said one. “Glad to know I’m not alone,” said another.

Anne and her fellow Palantir intern

Next time I start to doubt myself, I will remember this moment. I will remember that sharing my insecurities with others – not fretting alone – is what helps me. I will remember how much the girl who was bold enough to talk about her “Palan-fear” in the kitchen did for me, and I will do my best to be that voice for the next girl who is sitting there quietly doubting herself.


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