It's a common thing among creative people to wonder, at some point in their career—privately or publicly—if what they're doing is legitimate as art, or whether they've been pretending to be be artists. It's accompanied with the feeling that at any point, someone will show up and demand proof of legitimacy, of worthiness to belong to the profession.
Social media has been cited as the cause of some of these feelings in recent times. Everyone’s having a great time, announcing personal successes, one after another. Career achievements, babies, birthdays, engagements, weddings, biggest pumpkins in the fall and sunny vacations in the winter, best relationships in the world, and the most adorable kids you’ve ever seen. We've been contacted by old “friends” from time to time, just long enough to announce their big recent book deal/release, gallery show, TV pilot, or other success story, pick up a little credit for being awesome and then disappear into the decades from which they’d momentarily emerged.
If these people were the light in the refrigerator, how would they feel when the door is shut?
High achievers in all fields start at a young age and live in a zone of constant aspiration, constant accomplishment and constant validation for their work. They include authority figures to provide a necessary stamp of approval—coaches, parents, peers—that is, of course, until the loop leads to a bell curve.
Competition is a healthy idea in the early stages of any pursuit often because in the beginning, the stakes are smaller. It encourages performance, growth, and other attributes that are easily measurable. Socially too, competition separates the talkers from the doers, and creates a healthy atmosphere of nurturing the right attributes to improve your game. This is true when you’re learning to draw, play an instrument, sell on Etsy, or participating in a 5K race. If you work moderately enough at this stage with simple strategies, you likely have enough reward from the endeavor to continue to pursue it. If you don’t you’ll likely pick up something else.
By the time a practice moves toward a more mature stage, however, a lot of variables have inevitably changed. Turning pro means everyone else you interact with is also working toward that kind of standard—they’re just as committed as you to stick around, if not more. Now, the amount of work necessary for small gains is just more tedious, more demanding. It’s here that you’ll encounter the silver and bronze medalists wondering why or if they should even bother—unless they take the gold. A percentage of these will openly announce that they’ve always known they weren’t really all that great to begin with. They always felt a little like impostors.
Feelings of inadequacy track back to a combination of discouraging authority figures, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. However, the one that comes up again and again both statistically and anecdotally has to do with conflicting signals that authority figures give children about what success and failure mean. Over-praising at small wins, coupled with bitter criticism often for small losses can send a very sharp and exaggerated message that intertwines a person’s sense of capability with their sense of identity or self-esteem.
In teaching undergrad students, for example, there will inevitably be those days when students in my drawing classes get to put their studio session work up on a wall. They’ve all been reproducing the same model/still life/diorama for three or more hours on a big sheet of paper and now it’s time for everyone else to take a look and discus what works, what doesn’t and why. In almost every single session, I reiterate the reminder, “Hey, all this feedback and commentary you’re getting today is entirely about why your work isn’t quite working…yet. That means you can, in fact, improve the work. And let’s be clear, all this talk is only about the work, it’s not about you.” That’s an important distinction I picked up from my own drawing instructor when I was in college. I pay it forward. De-coupling identity from capability turns out to be a very important habit to reinforce. I remind myself of it when the tables turn and I become a student in class for entirely different subjects.
Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a false messiah.
So how do people manage when the questions of self-doubt show up? How did the people I know—my drawing students, for instance—manage to not drive themselves into a wall and stop?
If you already have the role and encounter the Impostor Experience, it’s a good idea to assess whether you can do the core things that would help you keep the role. Not in comparison to another person, but by yourself. Ask yourself if you are familiar with the core values of your role? Do you possess the working knowledge to do the tasks associated with the role? Questions like these will expose the obvious challenges of your craft. But are those challenges opportunities for growth, or do they feel like walls that can’t be further scaled?
For my students, this straightforward line of questioning was enough to dispel doubt and anxiety, and change self-defeating loop into positive action. More importantly, the conversation became less clutted with platitudes about “striving.” Instead, by discussing small wins they had gathered since day one, the students could develop a vocabulary of self-talk around reality and the results of their own work. That taste of self-delivered encouragement inspires confidence.
There are enough cynical people in the world to remind us of how much of a hack everyone else is, how you can't measure up to some imaginary standard. But everyone feels a little odd and out of place, everyone seems to feel like they don’t entirely fit in. Isn't that an opportunity to embrace one's originality?
It takes effort and clarity to figure out how important it is to surround yourself with people who will help you count all the small wins. A true friend is someone who sits with you and reframes for you how your own narrative unfolded slowly, pointing out how failures became learning opportunities, and here you are, singular, an Edition of One.
As we move past the attention economy and into what seems more and more a creative age, the prize goes to the people who can awaken our own sense of authenticity. These are people whose own sense of self has been field tested over and over, in different permutations. They are the ones to watch, the antidote to the Impostor Experience.