October 7, 2019

“Imposter syndrome doesn’t really hold me back anymore.”

Shari Walczak
Shari Walczak

Meet Shari

I’m Shari Walczak. I’m 48. I’m a veteran of the advertising/creative design business and 4 years ago I struck out and founded my own creative agency with a business partner. I am the co-founder and chief strategy officer of The Garden. I’m also a mom of two boys. I would say I am a passionate, curious, creativity seeker.

What would you say has been the biggest shift in your life since turning 40?

It’s interesting because I didn’t really approach 40 with dread but if I’m being fully honest, I’m approaching 50 with some dread… perhaps because of the industry I work in, I don’t know. When I hit 45, a lot of people said ‘this is the moment when you’re finding yourself’. I struggled with that but when I actually look at my actions and behaviours and what I’ve done, I think I did come into my own. I had a lot of success at a young age, and I’m very proud of what I accomplished, but what came with that was the imposter syndrome that we all talk about. I can’t say I have 100% lost that in my 40’s, and I am a constant work in process, but imposter syndrome doesn’t really hold me back anymore. I have a lot more confidence. I don’t know if it’s the wisdom that comes with experience or just that I understand everyone is struggling in our different ways. In my 40s I’ve been able to embrace a new confidence. And when I do hear that little voice niggling away at me (because it still does niggle!), I now have a more powerful voice to drown it out. I have a lot more tools in my own personal toolkit.

I’ve written an article recently about how in the advertising business we put youth up on a pedestal. And it’s such a limiting perspective. I think that’s why I fear 50 a little; because I look around and ask myself “who is left in their 50’s?”. Thank goodness I started my own agency. Arguably, my age is what’s given me a lot of credibility. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without all my years of experience and I’ve embraced that fact. I was chatting with two women that work for me and they are both in their late twenties/early thirties. They offhandedly asked me how old I was and I found myself saying, “well, I’d rather not say”. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing but they looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Why would you not want to tell us what you’re age is? Why is that even an issue? We know you have a lot of experience.” And I realized, it’s purely me that’s judging and if I just embrace it no one is going to look at me and say, “who’s the old 48-year-old?”! I’ve never said that about anyone and nobody is going to say that about me. Part of it is just being OK with saying “this is how old I am and I’m not going to apologize for it and I’m going to talk about all the good things that come with that. Because if we don’t start doing that, I wonder will the next group of people in their 30s coming up behind us; are they going to feel awkward talking about it? We should be celebrating turning 50, 60, 70! After all, everyone will be lucky to reach all of those age milestones in their life.

Another thing is I feel like I’ve shown more bravery in my 40s. When I made the decision to strike out as an entrepreneur (perhaps one of the things I’m most proud of) it required all of my years of experience. I was 42 or 43 when I was considering leaving. I found that I was approaching the decision to leave a career where my concerns had nothing to do with compensation: I was very well paid, and I was leaping into something where I took more than a 50% pay cut. My fear wasn’t about how I would deal with making less money it was “what if this is venture is a failure; what will I have done with my life?”. My husband Craig and my business partner Shane both asked me, “why are you treating this like a zero-sum game…fail or succeed? You’re looking at this as an end, but what if you look at this as another step on your journey. Even if, in the end, the business itself isn’t viable that doesn’t make those years or months a failure, it just makes them another step in your overall experience and you can pivot again.”

Another shift that’s come in my 40s is being fine admitting I need help and support. As a mom, one of the things I fall victim to is feeling like I need to be the best parent, the best at my career — I now appreciate that the only way I can be my own personal best is to lean on the people who support me. Entrepreneurship is literally an emotional roller coaster. My highs are so high and my lows are so low that the only way to survive is to have a strong support system.

When do you feel you are most powerful?

Around 10 years ago I started my master’s degree in creativity and change leadership. One of the most renowned academics in the creativity space is Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, he’s well known for his book, Flow. It’s the moment when you feel like you can draw on all of your inner reserves and all the pieces around you. That’s when you’re in the flow.

I feel most powerful when I have flow going, and, for me, it often takes shape when I see people who are working for me opening up and realizing their own potential. I’ve got younger strategists on my team and there are moments now that I can step back and I don’t have to be the expert in everything – they’ll have an idea about something and you can see the sparkle in their eyes. When I can foster that in other people I feel at my best. It’s similar with my kids (though it’s harder to get a sparkle out of a teenager). Or when we’re having so much fun and I can let go of all the pressure and stresses. It’s really hard for me to just be in the moment. I have a brain that never stops ticking. It’s a problem at night when I wake up because my brain’s rattling around with a million things. I think that’s the next big thing for me to conquer.

I operate in the world of ideas, and potential and creativity and whatever way, shape or form those all come together: that’s when I feel most excited and most powerful.

What are the top 3 most important things to you right now?

  1. Definitely my family…my kids and my husband, their happiness and our happiness as a family.
  2. The health of my business –my purpose is to create the kind of company that I’d always have loved to work for, so that hopefully other people will love to work there too. An environment that makes people feel happy, confident, fulfilled and, quite truthfully, is a lot of fun.
  3. This is a desire and not a reality, but my health. I think I sacrifice that too much. I used to be really, really disciplined about exercise because it makes me feel good – physically and emotionally. That’s one thing that has fallen to the wayside more often than not and this is the exact wrong time in my life for that to happen. So although it’s so important to me, I worry that I am not actioning my health as a priority.

How do you make sure your actions are aligned with what’s most important to you?

Well, I’m really good at numbers 1 and 2. Even with the stresses that come with owning my own business and in today’s entrepreneurial world, the so-called “startup culture”, there is so much focus on growth, growth, growth. But one of the ways I’m able to take care of my family is by building a healthy business. To create the kind of company I love, I need to set an example for everyone who works for me. Shane and I, when we started the company we had a few key beliefs and principles that we backed up with actions. One of those things was banishing time sheets because we wanted to value our quality of outputs not time. When you use time sheets, you’re essentially saying to people that the thing I value most about you is you sitting at that desk. We decided that we really just have two requirements in our business: 1) we’re in a service business and so we can never ever miss a deadline and 2) we need to exceed both our clients expectations and our own with everything we create – knowing we’ve all gone the extra mile to do our best work. How every individual chooses to do that doesn’t matter to us. We also have an open vacation policy, we don’t track people’s vacation time. It’s our belief that if you treat people like adults they will act like adults. Shane and I found we had to demonstrate that for everyone who works at The Garden in order for them to believe it. If they see us working 60 or 70 hours a week, it’s difficult for them to feel OK taking time for themselves. We have found ways that we can work smart and we model that. And that gives me the balance to be fully involved in my family and create a sense of “balance” that feels great and works for my family. I spent Monday at my youngest son’s track meet and the next night at my eldest son’s soccer match. Don’t ask why I can’t put the same level of discipline behind my own health!

What seeds are you planting today for the future?

The first seeds I’m planting are with my kids. I absolutely adore my profession and my career and I want them to see that it’s possible to love what you do. I also want my boys to see a strong female role model. Since they are older, they comprehend the discussion around inequality when it comes to pay and women in business, but they don’t truly understand it because what they see is me running a company and their dad cooking all of our dinners. So the most important seed I can plant is for them to grow up believing that anybody, no matter who they are, what they look like, what their background is, can become anything they want. There shouldn’t be artificial constraints around that.

The other seed that I’m planting is with my company. I hope we’re changing expectations for what an organization can be and stand for, especially in the advertising business. I want to be a professional role model for young people – especially young, ambitious women. I want them to know you can be yourself, you can be authentic, you can be vulnerable, AND you can be successful.

What advice would you give someone who is interested in redesigning midlife?

Even though it’s one of the hardest things to do, I would say try to set aside your fears and be inspired by the possibilities.

When I’m facing a decision in my life– it could be professional or personal – and it’s not clear to me what to do, there is a framework that I use to help me think through change. Part of why it works for me is because my thinking can be all over the place and it helps me channel the best of that thinking and transform it into action. This one framework I use was originally introduced to me as a tool to evaluate ideas and I apply it to a variety of different opportunities. It’s called PPCO.

When I was thinking of starting my own company, I used it to help inform my decision. You start with stating the challenge or opportunity: for me it was leaving the safety net of a corporate full-time job to create a start-up. The first P is listing all the POSITIVES with that opportunity. Don’t let your negative inner voice in, just list everything that excites you most in the moment about the idea, e.g. freedom, independence, charting your own path, hiring people you like and admire to work with you, etc. The second P is about POTENTIAL. If I were to say yes and pursue this opportunity, what are the potential things that could happen or arise from that ‘yes’? Now that you’ve focused on all the positives, you get to the C which stands for CONCERNS. You now look at the negatives- but you can’t write them down as problems. i.e. “I’ll have to cut my salary significantly” or “the business might fail and I’ll be unemployed”. The key is to restate your concerns as questions to be solved. So instead of saying that your concern lack of income, you would write down, “How might I make up for the large reduction in salary?” or “How might I keep doors open for other job opportunities?”. Finally, you come to the O which is OVERCOMING CONCERNS and since you’ve now written each concern as a question, you start with the one that’s most critical to you. It is sometimes helpful to bring in friends and family at that point to do a rapid idea generation and say “how might I replace the income that will be lost in the first couple of years? Go!”. Generate as many ideas that you can think of and then choose the next most important concern from your list. What that process does is help you cope with all the potential obstacles and negative thinking to more objectively evaluate whether this opportunity is the right one or not.

In most cases, PPCO helps me get clear on whether this is the right thing for me and provide me with a sense of what I have to do to make it happen. It makes it manageable. I was first introduced to this framework when I was completing my Masters degree in Creativity and Change leadership and that one single thing made the cost of my entire degree worth it! [Shari wrote about this tool in her story about reinvention in the recently published book of essays called, “The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women: Leadership Lessons from The Judy Project”].

How can people connect with you and your work?

The best way to connect with me is to reach out on LinkedIn but please send me an actual message to let me know if you have an ask of me or if you’d like to meet in person.

You can also check out The Garden website and send me an email through there or directly to shari@thegardencollective.com.

Welcome to my Power Profiles Series

Here I introduce you to powerful midlife role models in our community. May these stories inspire you, motivate you, and show you what is possible.

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I'm here to reclaim the term 'midlife' and embrace the power these years offer us.

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  1. Paul on October 7, 2019 at 6:49 PM

    I’ve worked for Shari in the past. She’s the real deal; smart, kind, someone you always learn a lot from.

    • Sara Smeaton on October 7, 2019 at 9:11 PM

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. I worked for Shari as well. I looked up to her then and I still do. Amazing woman.

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Sara Smeaton Coaching SS-177 Photo by Marina Dempster


Sara Smeaton

Sara Smeaton is a certified professional coach and facilitator who helps midlife women follow their dreams after forty. She works privately with clients in Canada, the US and the UK.

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