My first day of law school rattled me. I sat at a table and discovered that, out of the nine of the 10 of us, I was the only one who had not graduated from an Ivy League undergraduate college. I felt out of my league.

             How was I going to compete with these classmates? After a semester of low-grade anxiety over this question, I found that I could. And I did.

            There are multiple kinds of intelligence.  Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor who is well-known for his study of multiple intelligence theory posits:

“I claim that human beings have a number of relatively discrete intellectual capacities. IQ tests assess linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, and sometimes spatial intelligence…. But humans have several other significant intellectual capacities. In my original book, I described musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal (social) intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence (understanding of self). A few years later, I added the naturalist intelligence: the capacity to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature. I also have speculated about two other possible intelligences: existential intelligence, the intelligence of ‘big questions’; and pedagogical intelligence, the intelligence that allows human beings to convey knowledge or skills to other persons.” (accessed February 17, 2019). I believe this.

            I never felt as logical-mathematically intelligent as my law school classmates. But I always had confidence in my resourcefulness. If I did not know the answer, I knew how to find it.

            I fared just as well as my classmates in the legal market and was hired straight out of law school by one of the largest law firms in Washington, D.C. I later won a political appointment in the Clinton Justice Department. I believe my professional success derived as much from my interpersonal intelligence as it did from my linguistic and logical intelligence. I interview well. I build strong professional relationships. I have good timing and what is sometimes colloquially referred to as “street-smarts.”

            It took me a long time to appreciate my individual strengths and to stop feeling less than others around me. I learned to practice affirmations to help increase my self-confidence. It took my willingness to learn from my mistakes instead of running from them, in order to grow into myself. I changed the negative tape in my head that berated me and told me I was not as good as others. I accepted myself and my personal abilities.

            I would have appreciated a mentor to help me learn these things earlier in life. I do my best to help others, especially young women, know these truths about themselves. Sometimes, it takes so little to lift someone else up. A word of encouragement to someone who is struggling with self-doubt can help immensely. I build self-esteem by doing esteemable acts. I sometimes envision my young self as I do so.

            As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other…. I do not have a magic formula for how every woman should live her life, but I do know that we need to give one another a hand.” At a time when the glass ceiling has been raised, but still exists, women need to step up and extend their hands to those behind us.

            It took me almost half a century to get to the place of self-acceptance I now enjoy. Hard-fought lessons enabled me to escape the imposter syndrome that hounded me for decades. Of course, life still throws me curveballs, and will continue to do so. But I am now able to tolerate discomfort, and to look for lessons in every situation.

As I continue to navigate life’s ups and downs, I do know one thing. I am enough. And always have been.


  • Maria Leonard Olsen

    Maria Leonard Olsen is a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and author of “50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life” (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2018).

    Maria Leonard Olsen graduated from Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law. She is an attorney, radio talk show host of the Washington, D.C. show “Inside Out,” writing and women's empowerment retreat instructor, editor, and public speaker on diversity issues and living a life authentic to one's values. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Bethesda Magazine, among others. She also served in the Clinton Justice Department prior to having children, and recently returned to practicing law now that she is an empty-nester. Olsen is the author of four books, including the children’s books Mommy, Why's Your Skin So Brown? and Healing for Hallie, and the non-fiction titles Not the Cleaver Family--The New Normal in Modern American Families and her newest book, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life.