Do you feel like an impostor?
Professionally, 2012 was an important year for me. Although it started slowly, about mid-way through the year, something changed. I became aware, that for the first time in my career as a Digital Designer, I had stopped feeling like a fake and was beginning to feel like I knew what I was talking about. My stuff began to look better, my clients seemed happier with my work, I was smashing deadlines and my normally manic workload actually seemed manageable. Best of all, I was less dissatisfied with my output, and more forgiving of its faults.
Looking back, I can’t put my finger on exactly what changed or what set of events or circumstances precipitated this shift of attitude but I can say for certain that I feel very differently about my career today, than I did a year ago. I no longer feel like an impostor! I may actually be the real deal!
To back this up, throughout the tail end of 2012, I found myself stumbling upon various articles and interviews featuring a diverse range of influential creatives. They all seemed to back me up with similar epiphanies of their own. It seemed like everyone creative (film directors, architects, broadcasters and musicians) had been through the same process I had gone through.
In his documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Sidney Pollack makes an interesting point during an exchange over Gehry’s dinner table. He claimed that for the first few years of his career he felt like he was pretending to be a director. This feeling disappeared gradually until one day he woke up and shrugged “Hey I’m a director.” Gehry agreed enthusiastically, remembering his own lingering feelings of inadequacy.
So, I’m not alone, I thought. What is it that’s changed? Is it experience?
In the documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on The Edge of Town, Bruce Springstein draws a distinction between Creative Instinct and Creative Intelligence. The former you heavily rely on when you’re young. “That doesn’t feel right, try something else.” It’s only in later life that the Creative Intelligence allows you to pull the ace out of your sleeve.
This idea of Creative Instinct and Intelligence seemed to be reiterated by the American broadcaster Ira Glass. I heard a podcast in which he played a radio story he recorded after eight years in the business, as an experienced broadcaster. It was rubbish! Barely comprehensible. He then explained that in his opinion every creative person goes through a period in which there is a disconnect between their taste and their ability. Everything they do is short of the mark, and they don’t know why. That’s when most people quit. He believed that the only solution is to do more more. Paid or not. Keep going.
I was flicking through one of my old notebooks, when I re-descovered some of the notes I had made of a talk given by Joe Sparks, the American Flash animator during a Flash Forward conference I attending in Amsterdam in 2003. He casually remarked that the lead time for one of his Devil Doll and Radiskull animations was two weeks! It was as if I’d been given a unique insight into the process. I asked myself, could I have done the same in two weeks? Was he faster than me? It seemed like I had been given a yardstick with which I could measure my own skills. Why had this snippet of quite useless information been so important to me? I had even underlined the “2 weeks”. I rarely underline anything.
I think the final contribution to my enlightenment came thanks to a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme. I didn’t catch their name, but given that they were talking to Kirsty Young, they must have been fairly successful in their chosen field. The guest confessed to sometimes suffering from “Impostor Syndrome”. What? Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Finally my condition has some legitimacy!
My blog, has always carried the strap-line “A Blagger’s Guide to Multimedia” because that’s how I felt when I first got into the business. I was winging it and flying by the seat of my pants. My self-confidence was far outstripped by my ambition. This ambition was enough to keep the momentum going, if I worked hard enough I didn’t need to worry about my self-confidence. So maybe I’m not a blagger after all. Maybe it’s time to design a new WordPress theme? Although, as I was copying and pasting the block-quote above, I stumbled upon another psychological condition that may prove more difficult to grow out of. The Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.
Did this new found self-confidence come as a result of noticing these interviews and articles? Did the confidence itself, once acquired, somehow lift a veil that enabled me to recognise their importance? I don’t know. Either way, I don’t feel like an impostor any more and neither should you. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you are going through a similar journey. Good luck.
We’re a funny bunch aren’t we? You, me, Sidney Pollack, Frank Gehry and the Boss. Take heart we are in good company!