Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, was a legendary creative force. His books have sold over a half-billion copies worldwide and remain a rite of passage for children learning how to read.
Prior to finding success in publishing children’s books, he was a political cartoonist and had a long career in advertising.
In his 87 years, Geisel accumulated a long list of honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, three Academy Awards, two Emmys and seven honorary doctorates.
The Secret Doubts of Dr. Seuss
You might think that someone with Dr. Seuss’ success would be filled with confidence. But Ted Geisel was plagued by self-doubt and had a “permanent dread of audiences.”
This doubt and dread stemmed from an event that happened in his childhood. In 1918, Ted, then age 14 as part of a Boy Scouts drive. His aggressive sales strategy and a $1,000 purchase from his grandfather earned him the top spot in his region, qualifying him to receive a medal from former-President Theodore Roosevelt.
With his entire extended family in the audience, Ted Geisel waited patiently as Roosevelt honored the other 9 winners. Thanks to a mix-up, Ted Geisel’s name was inadvertently omitted from the list, and Roosevelt was given only 9 medals to award.
That left Geisel alone on the big stage with Roosevelt, who was fuming.
In a 1986 interview with San Diego Magazine, which is quoted in the book, Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat, Geisel recounted the experience:
“I can hear it now,” Ted said, softly. “Theodore Roosevelt looking around and asking, ”What is this little boy doing here?“ And from the audiences all those eyes staring — staring right through me. I can still hear the people whispering, ”Ted Geisel tried to get a medal and he didn’t deserve it.“ I hear them saying, ”What’s he doing up there?“ Ted paused. ”Even today, I sometimes find myself asking, “What am I doing here?” (San Diego Magazine, May 1986, Dr. Seuss from Then to Now by Don Freeman)
Lesson 1: Childhood Events Matter
First, if you think that what happens in your childhood doesn’t matter, that you can just “get over it,” think again. Look at the power that one isolated childhood event had on this man. Almost 70 years later, even having achieved undisputed success, he was still plagued by this memory of the voices questioning his place.
Whether the voices really came from the audience in 1918, or came from inside Geisel’s head, we’ll never know. But certainly they were ringing in his head for decades to follow.
Lesson: Watch what you say to children. Your words can linger in their minds long after the sound has faded from their ears.
Lesson 2: The Persistence of Self-Doubt
Reading this story brought me to tears. If the most beloved children’s author in the world was plagued by self-doubt and imposter phenomenon — the feeling that he didn’t belong and wasn’t good enough — is there any hope for the rest of us who feel this way?
As I reflected further on this, I realized that perhaps that self-doubt was also part of the gift that Geisel brought to the world. Maybe it was that experience — the feeling of not belonging, of feeling like a fraud, that led him to create Dr. Seuss and the work for which he is best known.
Geisel’s books champion the underdogs and misfits. He creates worlds in which misfits claim their place and find belonging, and through his books opens a world where each of us can imagine ourselves belonging.
It’s impossible to look at his illustrations or read his books and not smile.
Perhaps without that formative experience in his youth, Geisel would not have created these worlds.
The Gift From Dr. Seuss
This is the biggest gift that Geisel gave us: he normalized self-doubt and imposter phenomenon. Thanks to him, we know that these conditions afflict the best of the best.
In fact, research shows that imposter phenomenon is predominantly experienced by the brightest and most successful. Real imposters don’t have the feeling of not belonging. They aren’t plagued by the feeling of not being enough.
The enduring lesson I take from Dr. Seuss is that feelings of self-doubt and non-belonging are inevitable, but that we can harness them and use them for noble purposes in service of others.
- Source: Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat: The Art of Dr. Seuss, Caroline M. Smith ↩