Nervously, I parked my bicycle down the street from the TV station. I had bought it the day before from a flea market. As I secured it with a flimsy lock, I noticed that the frame had been spray-painted, which meant it was almost certainly stolen. It marked me as a summer tourist, an outsider, an imposter in Berlin.
A few months earlier, I had moved into a sublet apartment in the city. I had no real plan beyond living somewhere - anywhere! - that wasn't the United Kingdom.
My former boss generously made an introduction to some contacts in the city. She connected me to Stephen with a short, telegram-like email.
Subject: exceptionally able fellow heading your way.
Stephen was an affable, avuncular Canadian with a beaming smile and a taste for colourful waistcoats. He was the Director of transmediale, the country’s preeminent festival for digital culture.
Before moving to Berlin, I was a festival and events gun-for-hire: co-ordinator, producer, cocktail waiter. transmediale operated on a scale much larger than anything I had worked on before. Berlin's House of World Cultures was the venue, with its 1,250-seat auditorium, cavernous exhibition hall, and view of the Reichstag from the roof.
Stephen and I met for a brief coffee on my first day, and he explained his work at the festival. We agreed to stay in touch.
Life in Berlin was staggering. Roaming around the city in summer, I feasted on mind-altering art exhibitions, following the directions on enigmatic flyers to gain access to hidden courtyards full of intellectual marvels. By day, I wrote urgently in my notebooks. In the afternoons, I ate Turkish pizza under linden trees in the balmy streets and watched the Euro 2008 football finals. At night, I huddled in underground music venues with new friends, gazing in awe at noise bands.
As the deep warmth of summer began to fade, it was replaced by leafy mornings and the smell of coal fires. Summer acquaintances emigrated. My bank account rapidly emptied itself, green characters blinking on the black screen of an ATM.
The party was over; my savings were gone.
More than anything else in my life, I wanted to stay in Berlin.
That night, I reached out to Stephen.
Talking me through his plans, he explained that he had the idea of forming a transmediale team to stream the festival online. He would need someone to wrangle venues, technicians, and streaming equipment.
Could that someone be me?, I asked myself.
There were two complications.
Firstly, I didn't know the first thing about online streaming.
Secondly, Stephen didn't have any money to pay me.
That's where the OKB public access TV channel came in. If we could convince them to support the project, we could obtain the necessary funding. I could stay in Berlin.
The OKB building looked exactly how I imagined the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984. It was a former factory with imposing red brick columns, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a bewildering array of steel frames in the yard. Like much of Berlin's architecture, it held an intimidating, ahistorical air. I could not place it at a particular time then, or now.
Stephen was waiting on the street.
Inside the TV station, an industrial lift ferried Stephen and me upstairs. I felt uneasy as we walked down a long corridor of unmarked doors and were shown into a room.
Two grizzled, old-school television executives sat at a round table. The older man stood up, greeted Stephen, and looked me up and down.
"Nehmen Sie Platz, bitte."
I didn't understand. Stephen replied something in German. I looked at him blankly. He nodded at the chairs and sat down.
I followed suit, wishing I hadn't cut my own hair the night before.
I've suffered from imposter thoughts my whole career.
Patterns of doubt have overshadowed any evidence of my talents and accomplishments. I have never felt exceptionally able. Much of the time, I considered myself entirely unable. I was always convinced my managers overestimated me; they seemed to have no idea how completely unqualified I was.
In the OKB office, it felt no different. Here I was, talking to broadcast veterans, pretending to be an expert in online streaming protocols.
My house doesn't even have wifi, I thought.
Stephen cleared his throat and withdrew four printed agendas from his case. I took out a diagram I had found online in the internet café down the street.
"My new colleague from England is still brushing up on his German skills," said Stephen. "May we conduct this meeting in English?"
OKB Director 1 shook his head.
"Uns wäre doch Deutsch lieber," said OKB Director 2.
I did not understand a word, but I knew that OKB Director 2 had just used lots of words to say no. It's usually pretty easy to tell when Germans are saying no. I nodded and hoped my weak smile conveyed both understanding and apologies.
What's the German for fucked?, I thought.
After the meeting, of which I understood almost nothing, Stephen and I walked down Voltastrasse, away from the TV station. I tried not to look at my spray-painted bicycle as we walked past.
In English, we say one is thrown in at the deep end. I later learned that Germans say one is thrown into cold water.
Either way, I wasn't wondering how quickly I would learn to swim. I couldn't even feel my arms and legs.
It is over, I thought. No job. No German. No money. No prospects. After this, I will take my stolen bicycle and go back to my temporary apartment. There I will pack and find the next Easyjet flight back to somewhere - anywhere! - in the United Kingdom that will let my plane land. And I will wait till someone asks and then I will tell them I failed.
"Stephen, I want to thank you for the opportunity. I'm sorry about the meeting."
We stopped in the street.
"This is clearly not going to work," I continued. "You need someone who can speak German. Someone who knows something about streaming. I've never worked in television. My phone isn't even connected to the internet. Last night I cut my own hair. I don't know what I'm doing."
"I know," he said, smiling.
I wasn't sure if he was talking about my hair, or my lack of experience.
Stephen's faith was a small and brave show of leadership. He guided me to channel negative, imposter thoughts into positive, applied determination. When he said I know, he was really saying everyone feels this way. Inexperience is a necessary first step.
With each new role I have tried to combat my own self-doubt. I have told myself that I am an expert until someone says otherwise. Build with curiosity and open-mindedness. Learning is the work.
Yet, this is only half the story.
As I have grown into leadership roles, I have learned that I cannot address self-doubt or imposter syndrome by attempting to fix the individual. I must create organisations of learning, empathy and translation. The burden is on me, as a leader, to make environments where people feel safe. Just as Stephen did.
Six months after the OKB meeting, with heavy snow falling silently into the Tiergarten outside, Stephen stood at the the House of World Cultures podium for the opening of transmediale. He looked at the one thousand people in the audience and thanked the OKB for their support.
At the back of the auditorium, I whispered "two next" into my headset. The vision mixer previewed camera two, a close-up of Stephen. I checked the live pictures on the monitor; the encoder was working fine. Satellite events in Medellin, Paris, Kinshasa, Amsterdam, New York, and somewhere near the mouth of the Amazon were carrying the feed.
People were watching.
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