You’re intimidated? Good.

I was raised bold, brave and confident.

From a very young age, I was encouraged to voice my opinions, trust my gut and confidently speak about my accomplishments. Having grown up around them, I was never intimidated by grown ups as a kid and as a result — I entered the workplace without any anxiety about interacting with bosses, co-workers or decision makers.

We were all professionals, all people and all there to collaborate.

I can’t thank my parents enough for that magical confidence that so many young girls and women lack. But there is one down side.

When I do become intimidated or impressed with someone, I tend to clam up and start fumbling over myself like a incoherent loon. It’s such a rare feeling that it completely throws me off, it stuns me with its intensity, it makes me feel terrified and icky.

The last few months have thrown a couple of pretty intimidating people on my path. And though I’ve inevitable turned into a self-deprecating and rambling idiot, I’ve decided to resist the urge to run and stick around this time. Because as it turns out, intimidation can be a bit like a powerful mushroom trip: once you get over that first gut-twisting combination of envy, self-doubt and blinding admiration, your mind opens up and your focus shifts away from your own navel-gazing.

Here’s what my psychedelic ego buzz has taught me so far.

Intimidating people are actually human. Mostly.

A few weeks ago, one of these intimidating creatures threw me a curve ball.

You know how it is,” he said in an email. “One minute you think you’re on top of the world, and the next you’re sure everything is going to come crumbling down around you.

I was floored. Wait, you feel that way too? But…you’re one of those people. You know the people. The ones with incredible discipline, booming confidence, resounding success and constant drive. The ones who have found that perfect work/life balance, who’ve figured out their process and protocol, who know what the hell they’re doing and who end their stupidly productive days by going out for a half-marathon run — just to make the rest of us look like shit. Or worse yet, they run for the sheer joy and healthy release, with no desire to impress anyone at all.

Lord. Jealousy makes me so petty.

Well, it turns out that if you allow yourself to stick around and cut through the fog of your own petty and fragile ego; you’re usually faced with another human — one as fumbling and incomplete as you. And that alone has huge value. Taking them off their pedestal makes their accomplishments and balance seem much more attainable.

It’s also the first step to feeling less isolated in your fears and insecurities.The one difference you’re likely to find? Through the same trial and error that dictates your own painful growth, they’ve probably figured out a few more coping mechanisms to deal with those moments of self-doubt and panic. It’s those methods and mechanisms that you should be paying attention to. They’re likely the most precious thing those intimidees can teach you.

Stop feeling too stupid to ask questions.

The first step to learning from people who intimidate you is to get over your fear of looking stupid.

Believe it or not, I was once a tech reporter. Barely able to get my phone to function properly, my first assignment involved me being dropped smack in the middle of an incredibly intimidating academic conference that paired up high-level developers and programmers with doctoral candidates to see what they’d come up with. That day, as I tried to work my way through their acronyms, jargon and intellectual acrobatics, I learnt that silly questions are one of my biggest professional weapons.

They work on a few levels. First of all, they break down any pretense and pomp that both people are on the same playing field and clearly establish one person as the expert. With that out of the way, you can quit the ego games and just focus on learning and understanding.

Secondly, they force the intimidee to pair down their thought process and actually consider their answers in ways they may not have for years. Being the instigator of that kind of self-reflection and simplified communication leaves a mark on the person you’re speaking to. It shows genuine interest, curiosity and humility. In fact, many have later told me that my simple/stupid questions were catalysts to them reconsidering how they approach or pitch their projects. That’s what I call making an impression.

But you have to listen in order to learn…

I won’t lie. In my first interactions with people who intimidate me, I often spend a good part of the conversation in my head, planning my next response, wondering if I sound like a lunatic and trying to fight the creeping sense of defensive jealousy. But once I manage to quiet things down, there’s a particular kind of attention, presence and focus that settles in.

Meeting someone talented that you admire to the point of intimidation means having access to an incredible wealth of wisdom, knowledge and experience. So shut up, stop trying to impress them and listen.

Keep your ego in check.

Nothing reminds you of just how much you have yet to learn quite like another person who seems to have it figured out. And though being reminded of the gap between who we are and who we want to be can be uncomfortable, it’s essential to lighting a fire under our asses.

I realized recently that I still have some work to do when it comes to accepting criticism without letting my fragile ego take me for a spin. I had just started working with a talented new editor, a man with years of marketing, copy-writing and copy-editing experience who knew better than to coddle me if he wanted powerful results. He returned my first draft butchered by red comments, sliced by cut-throat edits and accompanied by kind but to-the-point feedback.

If you look at the changes I made, you’ll see how we took it to the next level, which is where we want you to get to (…) I know it’s a lot. And I know it may feel like we’re unhappy. We’re not. We’re thrilled to have found you and we want to see you be awesome.

He was right. After years of writing without an editor, seeing my work completed transformed and — let’s face it — improved, made me feel like an incompetent fool. I started spiraling and looking for an out.

What had I been thinking all of these years? How could I have believed I was actually a good writer? Wasn’t I already at the “next level”? Wait…I am a good writer. Who does this guy think he is basically dismissing everything I’ve written? Obviously, the directions weren’t clear enough, it’s his fault. Obviously, he’s just re-writing the whole thing and completely disregarding my personal writing style and preferences. I don’t think I can work with this guy, he’s just trying to cut me down to size. He probably thinks I’m a complete sham.

I walked away from his edits and gave myself a day to calm down before opening the document again. I needed to get better at this, I needed to stop being defensive and manage to see his comments as an opportunity for growth. When I came back for a second look, I found some of the most constructive, well-formulated and clear editing feedback I’d ever received. One by one, I winced my way through every comment and change, and felt humility clear up a space for an entirely new approach to my writing.

It hurt, I won’t lie. But it also gave me the distance and urgency I needed to take myself out of the equation and make it about the craft. I was getting a little too cocky and defensive for my own good. It was time to give my vanity a good slap upside the head.

Gender-neutral Shine Theory, Bae.

On my favorite leather jacket, I have a tiny pin that has inadvertently become a bit of my life motto.

One of the things Bae does best? Surround herself by bold, talented and powerful people. Granted, it may be easier to keep your cool confidence when you’re one of the fiercest ladies out there, but I think there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

When we surround ourselves with intimidatingly smart, talented and powerful people, we’re building some serious back-up and holding ourselves up to higher standards.

First, there’s the associative property of awesomeness: People know you by the company you keep. I like knowing that my friends are so professionally supportive that when they get a promotion, it’s like a boost for my résumé, too, because we share a network and don’t compete for contacts. (…) it’s worth asking why we’re spending all this time creating a ranking system in our minds. When we hate on women who we perceive to be more “together” than we are, we’re really just expressing the negative feelings we have about our own careers, or bodies, or relationships.
- ann friedman on Shine Theory

Though Shine Theory is usually used within the context of female dynamics, I think it can easily be extended to intimidating relationships of all kinds.

So to a culture that tells us to fight feelings of intimidation and see them as petty, I say bullshit — it’s important and healthy to feel its occasional sting. Just as I’ve previously argued that we should allow ourselves to settle into the discomfort and chaos of failure, I think we should embrace and celebrate the deep-rooted stirrings of humility, envy and admiration as signs of self-awareness, ambition and honesty.

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