Last Thursday, I got up extra early, put on a snazzy wrap dress and my favorite boots, and headed downtown for a work conference at an elegant hotel. I was on the planning committee, so I’d known about the conference for months, and had spent the last few weeks attending to many last-minute details. I knew where to go and which sessions I was scheduled to introduce.
But as I rode the escalator up to the fourth floor, I was terrified.
My roots, and work experience, are in the world of higher education, at small, friendly liberal arts schools with modest budgets. I am a bit awed by the slick world of corporate sponsorships, glossy banners and well-appointed conference rooms. I’d agreed to serve on this planning committee only if I didn’t have to chair a subcommittee, because I’d never attended a conference this large before, much less helped plan one. I am young and petite and introverted and still an outsider in this part of the country, and as such, I felt a bit like a kid among the grown-ups, like the wide-eyed wallflower who didn’t quite belong.
I kept thinking about the time, several years ago, when my husband flew to Nashville for a conference with a group of his co-workers. Several flight delays eventually resulted in them getting upgraded to first class. My husband, the youngest member of the group, who hadn’t done much flying, was dazzled by the experience. It must have shown on his face, because Gina, his supervisor, elbowed him and whispered, “Act like you’ve been here before.”
I got through the first day of the conference largely by repeating Gina’s phrase to myself, over and over again. I smiled and shook hands with fellow committee members and session presenters. I double-checked my program for the right times and rooms. During the lunch break, I pulled one of my classic self-care moves: escaping for a solitary burrito and a few chapters of the latest Flavia de Luce mystery. Armed with snacks, I then returned to the hotel to introduce my afternoon session and attend a keynote speech, then headed home to collapse.
The next day felt infinitely calmer. Part of it was my reduced assignment load: only one session (instead of three) to attend and introduce. But the unknown factor was wiped away. I didn’t have to act like I’d been there before, because I had. I was able to walk more confidently into the main room, spot people I knew, sit down next to them, make conversation. I knew what I was doing that day; I could handle it. I didn’t have to fake it any more.
Sometimes the only way to handle a situation is to bluff your way through. I am not good at bluffing; I prefer honesty and openness, even vulnerability. But faking it can sometimes hold you over until you’ve figured out what to expect. Sometimes acting like you’ve been there before provides a stopgap, until you’ve mapped out the lay of the land, until you can navigate it with relative ease.
I haven’t seen Gina for a couple of years, and I doubt she remembers that incident so long ago. But her advice helped me survive that nerve-racking first day. And next time (I hope), it won’t be so intimidating. Because I have been there before.