When Your Loudest Critic is You

A few years ago, my personal goal was to deliver a TED Talk. I’d been watching them for years – both admiring and critiquing the speakers, refining my topic, then changing the topic slightly, and then changing the topic completely. I paid a coach to help me and thought, “I can do better than that!” I chatted with TED speakers about how rigorous the process is and thought, “There’s no way I can do that!” And I found support in people who told me, “You can totally do that!”

And so, my TED quest began. I searched for upcoming events and created a spreadsheet of cities, dates, and themes where my expertise could add value. I crafted several different talk summaries about fascinating neuroscience findings and quirky human behavior.  I tweaked and massaged and edited the sentences until they crafted a compelling encapsulation of my subject and adhered to the impossibly restricted word count limit of the application.  Finally, I made a note on my calendar as to when the selected speakers would be notified.

Then, I patiently waited for confirmation that, indeed, I had an “idea worth spreading.” Okay, not even a little bit patiently, but my optimistic hope dimmed as each date passed without a congratulatory email and another rejection tally was added. Until the last one…

Dear Melissa Hughes,

Thank you so much for submitting a proposal to speak at our upcoming event. We had so many applications, and our selection committee was quite entertained by the number of people who thought they even had a snowball’s chance in hell of standing in the coveted red spot on our stage. Unfortunately, your proposal was not selected. So, no red spot for you, but you gave us quite a laugh. Have a nice day.

P.S. We checked the TED submission database in the sky and noticed that this is your fifth rejection. While we respect your tenacity, you’re clearly out of your league. For the love of technology, entertainment, and design, stop wasting your time and ours.

Okay, so in retrospect, the rejection email was likely much more polite, but that’s exactly how my brain translated it at the time.

I’ve spent my career learning how the brain works and how to make it work better.  My five failed TED Talk submissions were all about optimizing neural function and understanding how neurotransmitters like oxytocin and serotonin and dopamine don’t just make us happier, they make us smarter because they facilitate activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for complex cognitive functions like impulse control—you know, it’s what stops you from buying that ridiculous Snuggie at 1:00 AM because if you order now, they’ll throw another one in for free for your Boo… or is it Bae now?

I digress.

But seriously, who wouldn’t want to learn how to make the brain work better? Clearly, those are ideas worth spreading, right?


Five submissions.

Five rejections.

At what point does one listen to the critics and give up? My critics seemed resolute, and the calls to give up were getting louder. And then, I realized that the loudest critic lived in my own head.  My inner critic… otherwise known as the Chairman of the Shitty Committee.

And then in a flash, as if KT Tunstall launched into “Suddenly I See” in the amphitheater in my mind, I realized that all this time, I had been a total fraud.

Suddenly I see
This is what I wanna’ be
Suddenly I see
Why the hell it means so much to me

Eureka!  I’ve found my TED Talk!  We all have an inner critic who casts doubt on our abilities and even undermines our accomplishments. From self-doubt to dumb luck, some of the most successful people battle the inner critic and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary are unable to embrace their achievements. Even Albert Einstein struggled with truly embracing his accomplishments.  Instead of a genius, he thought of himself as an involuntary swindler.  Dr. Einstein might have been interested to know that there is a name for this phenomenon. It’s called imposter syndrome. And that was the focus of my talk that was selected for TEDxWabashCollege in April, 2021, as showcased below ⤵︎

Perhaps what is even more interesting is what happened after the talk. A few months later, my talk was posted on the TEDx Talks YouTube channel as well as on I learned that it had been posted by my sister who found out from my niece who stumbled upon it.

My first thought wasn’t, “Wow!  My talk is actually out there… on!”  (#imabadass)

My first thought was, “Shit! My talk is actually out there… on!” (#noweveryonewillknow)

Even after I tried and failed and tried again and got selected and then prepared and prepared and prepared some more and then finally did it, my inner critic was still hard at work. Now everyone will know how the selection committee screwed up…how I had no business being on that stage… that’s my big idea?… how flawed, how imperfect, how much of a fraud I really am!

And that, my friends, is how imposter syndrome works.

Can I get an AMEN?


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa — Your message here is so timely on a couple of levels. (1) It fits perfectly with a weekly feature I publish on Fridays: “Worth a Listen, Look or Read.” I’m going to profile your TED Talk in my 10/1 edition. I’ll be sure to copy you. (2) More importantly, it comes at a time when my I.S. has been particularly active. Your points about social media “rejection” and “ghosting” really hit home. I’m not out of the mental woods by any stretch, but you’ve given me a lot to reflect on. So…THANK YOU! As always, you made perfect sense.