Remarkable people dress with flair, have an opinion for every occasion and definitely aren’t carrying an ugly backpack around marked ‘self-loathing’. Everything from their significant projects to their faddish hairstyles are, quite literally, remarked upon. Even their failures are fascinating. In the bright buzz of so many doers and designers, instigators and influencers, it is easy to feel no more than competent, horribly ordinary and sometimes even the waste of potential you fear your parents believe you to be.
Here’s the secret you need to know now: everyone remarkable is cheating it. Everyone successful is looking over their shoulder for the day they’ll be discovered for who they really are – a blagger with only a modicum of talent who either grafted hard and long or found herself on the right bus going to the right stop on the right day – or very probably both. Hardly anyone believes they’re the bomb.
I know this because for the past few years I’ve been mistaken for someone who is remarkable. I was a comedian and corporate speaker, making a living and doing OK, but apart from a few small successes, my career was pretty ordinary. Then came 2015. Hillary Clinton was running for president. Thirty-five of Bill Cosby’s accusers appeared together in solidarity on the front cover of New York Magazine. Justin Trudeau was sworn in as the prime minister of Canada and when asked why his cabinet was 50% female, he replied, “Because it’s 2015.” It felt like a Red Sea was parting for women – just a little – and I desperately wanted to go through it to a land of milk and honey (or at least a land of confidence and representation) so I decided to make a comedy podcast called The Guilty Feminist.
The show is about our noble goals as 21st-century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities we have which undermine those goals. It’s about feeling like an unremarkable feminist who wants to build muscle and get stronger and take up more space in the world. I record it with other comedians in front of a live audience and we always start with true confessions like: “I’m a feminist but one time I went to a women’s rights march and I popped into a department store to use the loo, got distracted trying face cream and when I came out the march was gone.” I feared that all the ‘proper’ feminists would tell me I wasn’t worthy of being part of the club, but in fact, the podcast has had more than 56 million downloads and – because I’d grafted at my craft for some time – I had finally found myself on the right bus going to the right stop on the right day.
I warn you, if you come to see me live, I will look super confident. I’ll happily sail out onto a big empty stage in front of 2,000 people and be all, “Hey gang!” I will riff funny lines with my guests and I will look like I’m having a wonderful time – because I am. I’m aware that I might seem remarkable but when I first started comedy improv classes I was so nervous, I used to sit in the loo during my tea breaks reading a book. I hid because I felt out of my depth, less talented than other people there and entirely unremarkable.
All the skills I have now are learnable. I know I’m not the only one who feels like they’ve ‘cheated remarkable’ because I was lucky enough to speak at the same gig as Michelle Obama. And guess what Michelle said in her Q&A? She said that she feels like an impostor: “It doesn’t go away, that feeling of, ‘I’m just Michelle Robinson, that little girl from the South Side [of Chicago] who went to [state] school. Why would anyone listen to me?’”
Whenever you get to know a remarkable person, they always say the same thing: “I’m making it up as I go along.” Here’s the good news: those who are prepared to blag remarkable, are remarkable. Walking into rooms as if you’re remarkable is its own remarkable act. Here are some things I’ve learned about cheating remarkable that you can use today.
Remarkable people don’t wait to be included. They assume they’re included. If a four-year-old behaved at a playgroup the way we adults behave at a networking event, they’d probably end up seeing a therapist. This is because small children assume they’re included. They rock up to the nursery, sit down and start playing with other kids. If a toddler sidled up to the other kids, trying to catch someone’s eye, failed and found a corner to send an email in instead, we would be worried for them.
Somewhere in your adolescence, though, you probably learned to enter a room tentatively, giving out tiny micro-signals, checking to see whether you’re one of the gang. Assuming you’re included in a group of cool teens and discovering they don’t agree feels like you’ve lost something.
If you’re someone who finds it hard to speak up in meetings or starts most of their sentences with, “I just had a thought, I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning”, don’t beat yourself up. At some point, those were the strategies that kept you safe from bullying or unwanted attention. But now that you’re a grown woman who’s great at her job, you can shed that old strategy of apologising like a coat you don’t need anymore.
Think of how you would walk into a room where your oldest buddies are waiting for you. Imagine how you’d glide in and walk towards them with enthusiasm. Now walk into that intimidating meeting or networking event like that. You’re still you. You’re just you on your best day, in your safest place where you feel loved and energised. Take that decisive body language and conversation style into a job interview. Pretend the interviewer is a friend who really likes you and lean towards them, smiling.
When you assume you’re included, your brain relaxes your body and the room often assumes you’re included too. You will seem like the kind of person who thinks they deserve this job and is going to be good at it, which is just the person the interviewer was hoping they would meet.
You might think that this is all great in theory but your nerves won’t let you sail into rooms like Lady Gaga on a red carpet. Your body will give you away.
Here’s the most valuable secret there is: if you are conscious of other people, you cannot be self-conscious. Most people at a networking event will be thinking about themselves: ‘What will people think of me? Will they like me? What if I say the wrong thing to someone important?’ Not you. You’re going to go into the party with a secret mission to find someone who looks nervous and you’re going to make them feel interesting, likeable and charming.
I notice celebrities often ‘confide’ in people they meet, saying things like, “Just between you and me, I hate these things. Never know what to say. Shall we go and meet someone together. Who looks fun? Do you think we can steal a drink? I’m dying for a beer.”
When you are focussed on whether the job interviewer is having fun, or your boss feels heard in the meeting, you forget what anyone thinks of you. This has a second magical effect. Everyone loves being around you. No one wants you to leave the party. You’re the one making them feel interesting and giving them a wingwoman to go around with. Your boss wants you in all of the meetings because you make her feel her ideas are strong. Truly remarkable people don’t just show off. They make you feel better for meeting them.
Most women I know say they have been winked at by a rockstar on stage, but the numbers just don’t add up. That’s because rock gods are amazing at making a large part of their audience feel personally seen (although Paul McCartney really did wink at me at a concert in Sydney).
The best includes have been excluded
If you’re thinking that this sounds great for confident people, but you’re so unremarkable this is out of your grasp, remember this: the best includers are those who’ve known exclusion, because they have an intuitive sense of who needs to be included, how and when.
The most remarkable includers in the world are often the most marginalised. Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres are three of the most influential women in America. They all make their audiences feel entirely included. Oprah and Michelle are African-American women in a society that makes life a lot easier if you’re white. Ellen was a successful comedian who almost gave up on comedy because of the homophobia she faced after coming out as a lesbian. She had to work extremely hard to be included again in such an intolerant landscape and now is acutely aware of how to make everyone who watches her feel like part of a tribe. None of these women wait for you to include them. They all come out onto the stage as if you’re going to love them and then you do. None of them look at the floor and say, “I hope the PowerPoint holds up. Bear with me.” Their life experience tells them not to wait to be included because no one else will do it for them.
Plus, you can’t get anyone else into a party you’re not invited to. Include yourself so that you can invite others. Always look around the room and ask, ‘Who’s not having a good time? How can I fix that?’ and then, ‘Who’s not even been invited and how do I get them on the list?’ This act alone will make you remarkable.
The Guilty Feminist (£14.99, Virago), is out now. The live tour of The Guilty Feminist podcast starts in May; guiltyfeminist.com. For more on Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards in partnership with philosophy, go to stylist.link/RWA.
Photography: Chris Floyd
Other images: Unsplash