Friday, September 13, 2019

The Long, Uncertain Path to Influencing in the Space Community

Having Fun at the Brooke Owens Fellowship Summit, July 2019

For as long as I can remember in my adult life, I’ve been trying to prove myself. My constant effort balancing multiple projects, most unpaid to gain experience, recognition, or networking. My all-too-frequent battles with impostor syndrome, a war within myself to conquer self-doubts and dismiss undue self-criticisms. The hunts and races seeking admission into projects or meetings or circles I felt I belonged in or could belong in if given the chance to grow. The unresolved questions following rejection or disregard: Is it me? Is it my age? Is it my gender? Is it my reputation? Is it something within my control to change or maddingly outside of my control? Despite earning and pushing my way through many doors, I too frequently feel as an outside looking in, striving for more acceptance and more opportunity to prove I can do this.

I was largely ignored by my professors as an undergraduate student, as most undergrads are, only gaining recognition and acceptance by them after I had graduated and proved myself with additional successes. I was ultimately rejected by my primary advisor in my first graduate school, being issued an “it’s my way or the highway” ultimatum and choosing the highway, boldly and unabashedly choosing my own path. I was bullied by a peer in my second graduate school and my self-confidence plummeted despite my more advanced successes. My first full-time job kept me locked in a cage, refusing to allow me the space to grow despite my frequent cage rattlings and occasional breakouts. It was only in my second full-time position when, given the title of Manager and the freedom of flexibility and responsibility, I began to feel myself thrive. Unfortunately, that position didn’t last when the company declared bankruptcy.

My true acceptance of my career success and space community membership didn’t come until I started my own company Astralytical nearly 4 years ago. But it didn’t come immediately. That first year I felt as though I was grasping at straws, pursuing any potential path forward, frequently ignored or worse: being led down rabbit holes by insincere promises and exploitations. The pride I felt signing my first two clients was quickly deflated when the first could not pay me as promised and the second took advantage of my naivety and lack of internalized self-worth.

A constant theme throughout: I was worth more but didn’t realize it.

It's a strange feeling to realize I've operated for so long under the motivation, “I want to make a difference,” to then realize: I am making a difference. It's turning the tables on my career position, my level of accomplishment, my age, my very purpose in what I do every day. I tend to carry with me the ever-illusive question, “What can I do to become successful in my field?” when I really should be carrying with me, “I am successful in my field. What do I want to do with my success?” It's a difficult change in mindset to grasp.

Only now, in my mid 30s, growing my company, feeling the ease of acceptance and belonging (most of the time), do I feel this success. I have moments of doubt which are squashed by someone or something reassuring me. Earlier this year, a colleague reached out to me in concern with a, “What are you doing? You've made it. You're great. You're on the right track and you've got potential to really influence things. You don't need to make this tangential move.” Sometimes an outside perspective can really help breathe fresh air into my lungs.

A blast of fresh air came this summer with 38 impressive, inspiring young professionals I was privileged to meet as part of the Brooke Owens Fellowship. This year I served as a mentor for the program, a position I felt wholly inadequate to fulfill, but I did my imperfect best.

The Brooke Owens Fellowship Summit (along with the adjacent Future Space Leaders conference which I was pleased to volunteer my time to help run) was a series of events and a collection of people who touched my heart and motivated me to become even better at what I do and what I strive to do. The Brookies are a sisterhood who shared deep parts of their heart with us fortunate to be in the room. I have never seen anything like it and I doubt it could be replicated at another event. As I walked back to my hotel room that night with one of the other mentors, my heart felt so full. I did not know I could feel so emotionally connected at a space event.

The strength, passion, enthusiasm, ambition, and encouragement of the Brookies brought me back 14 years to my first NASA internship during my junior year of undergrad, a program called NASA Academy which focused on leadership and the “one NASA” experience. I didn't feel inadequate during my two NASA Academy summers. I felt on top of the world! I had my whole career ahead of me and I knew it was starting off well. I could have never guessed the twists, turns, falls, and heights I'd experience in my early career which carried me to where I am now.

I feel a different kind of pressure now: the pressure to live up to the expectations and admirations of those who are now where I was then. I am making a difference right now, and people are watching. What do I do with this responsibility? What direction do I focus my efforts? Where can I make the most impact in the community I love? What kind of difference do I want to make? What future do I want to help create for those who will carry the torch for us when we're gone?

I don't know where I'll go from here. I'm not sure how I'll do my part to progress space exploration forward. I have some ideas. I hope I'm in for a wild ride!