For today’s self-indulgent piece, I want to focus on some PSY-101 sorta stuff as it pertains to… well, I don’t wanna necessarily say “creative professionals”; as I’ll be mostly referencing my own experience, and I ain’t no pro — maybe, I’ll just say “creatives”. Fake-Ass Creatives? Wannabe Creatives? Delusional Creatives? Whichever of those I’m currently referring to myself as.
It’s something many people reading this are likely already quite familiar with… even if you aren’t aware of the exact terminology. Today, we’re going to talk Imposter Syndrome.
Now, there are plenty of other places on the internet where you can read/listen to the words of actual professionals regarding this phenomenon… there are also tons of wildly successful people out there who lived this, and have eloquently shared their experiences. I don’t know about all’a y’all, but… I have a hard time relating to “wildly successful people”. Hopefully, I can discuss this from the perspective of someone whose level of “success” is a bit more realistically attainable than some movie star, scientist, or author.
I suppose I ought to try and qualify that, eh?
What constitutes “success” for a creative nobody? Speaking personally, which is about the only thing I’m almost qualified to do — this originally came down to, what I called “The Two Effs”. I’ve spoke and written about how my priorities shifted and became far less healthy… and how “toxic” my relationship with my work became… but, right off the bat — day one goals: The Two Effs.
The Two Effs were “Fun” and “Friendship”. Isn’t that about the sweetest thing you’ve ever read? What can I say, I’m a pretty basic dude. Or, at least I was. I didn’t have any pollyannaish beliefs that my creative output would lead to anything “tangible”… not because I didn’t see the potential of bloggers/podcasters/internet whateverers parlaying their work into anything greater — I simply didn’t think I had the ability or talent to do it myself. I didn’t deserve it.
I started this project (as I tend to do with all projects) with the box marked “failure” already checked off in my mind. With that said, I lowered my expectations accordingly. Prescribed myself more attainable goals… purposefully nebulous goals. A metric as solid as Jell-O… goals that were far more difficult to accurately measure. What is “fun”? What is “friendship”? How does one even begin to measure that?
Well, that’s kind of the point. If, when I set out to do something, I set unmeasurable goals — I can’t actually deduce success. It’s a defense mechanism… as, if I can’t measure success — I also can’t measure failure.
Pretty sneaky, eh?
Well… kinda. Lemme ‘splain…
For someone like me, who has a weird predestined sorta take on failure… it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Can’t measure success… so, ultimately, failure is the only option. What’s more, no evidence to the contrary will change my mind.
Now, why is that?
Because I “know” deep down that what I do here doesn’t “measure up”.
Howzat for a statement? My rational brain realizes that it’s a ridiculous thing to say… however, rationality often takes a backseat. Let’s break down that sentence… “Because I ‘know’ deep down” — from time to time, we all doubt in our abilities, yes? Please agree, because if it’s “just me”, than I’ve got deeper problems than I realize! It’s normal to doubt… it’s human to doubt. In reality, all I know is… that I don’t know anything. None of us do, really. Gut-feelings are, just that… gut feelings. There’s no predestiny to “success” (however you define it)… and, your main obstacle is oftentimes yourself. We’ll circle back to that in bit.
First, however – let’s tackle the second half of that sentence: “…what I do here doesn’t ‘measure up’.” Well, first off — measure up to what? Maybe “to whom” is a better question? In either case, though — we’ve got yet another nigh-on impossible-to-define metric! It’s enough to stifle ones creativity… and make ya second guess everything you set to doin’… but, it ain’t gonna help make you “successful” (again, however you define it).
Folks who have been following Chris is on Infinite Earths since the get-go will probably remember how… well, extraordinarily ugly the site was… for like six years. It was this horrid orange boilerplate Blogger template… looked like I was writing in from 2004 or something. Early 2004. Why didn’t I put any effort into designing the site?
Well… it’s the same reason why I never invested in top-quality art supplies back when I dabbled in drawing. I wanted to have an excuse as to why my stuff might not be all that great. Sketching out superheroes on printer paper with a 50¢ mechanical pencil… gave me an “out”. Why’s my art so “ehh”? Why am I not improving? Well, it’s because I don’t have the right materials. A-ha! I’m NOT a failure… I’m just not giving it by best shot! Even then, if I drew something that was halfway decent, I could give myself a pat on the back for creating something… with inferior tools. With Chris is on Infinite Earths… if I sucked, or nobody cared — I could tell myself that it’s because “I’m not trying by hardest”… after all, it’s “just a crappy blog”. And so, I WIN… right?
Well, no — of course not. I wouldn’t be writing this piece if that were the case.
My predestiny of “failure” — and, again, I don’t have a definition of failure outside of “not success”… which, I mean, success is another thing I haven’t yet accurately defined — was born out of feelings of fraudulence. Enter: The Imposter.
If you’ll indulge me — a(nother) tangent. I’ve spoken and written a fair bit about my academic career. Believe it or not, the words you’re reading, are written by a fella who holds a couple Psychology degrees. I know, I know… you’d expect an educated dude to be able to discuss these things in a more learned sort of way. Anyway, higher education came late for me. Due to a confluence of events, I ultimately started college when I was 31. There were a number of reasons why I put it off for so long… but, in looking back, the main one was — I was afraid. I was scared that I’d be outed as a fraud.
I’m able to carry myself decently well in conversation… and, every now and again, with the written word. I labor over nearly everything I say or write, in the interest of projecting the appearance of… maybe not so much an “intellectual”, but instead not the dullard that I “know” I actually “am”. When you focus so hard on keeping up… you can train your brain into believing that you’ve been “faking it” all along. Rationally… that makes no sense. It’s also a very self-obsessed way of looking at the give-and-take that goes into discourse and conversation. To The Imposter, however, it’s just another mask you’re wearing to disguise the fraud within.
I avoided college… until I couldn’t anymore. College isn’t for everybody… and there are folks out there who have found spectacular and unreal levels of success without it. During my young adulthood, I convinced myself I was one of those people. I… was not. In reality, I was defending myself from failing… because, I was certain I would. As mentioned, in “creative” work, success and failure are self-defined and often self-dependent — something like PSY101 has an objective metric… and a clear pass/fail. In school, I could fail… legitimately.
Would it be the end of the world if I did? Of course not. Would it suck? Well, yeah. Is that enough of a deterrent not to try in the first place? Well… it was… until it wasn’t.
Of course, this isn’t a 1:1 comparison. I went back to school because I had to. It was post 2008, which was the year in the United States where… ya know, everything went splat. The housing bubble burst, banks were getting bailed out… smaller businesses (like the one I worked for) couldn’t compete with the ones that were proclaimed “too big to fail”. It was a wildly unpleasant time. It was also a time wherein my wife and I were literally minutes away from being homeless. To say I had incentive to “better myself” would be an understatement. This is worlds different than being some knucklehead on the internet worried about being a failure on his blog.
Which is to say… the “need” to be “successful” (again, insert your definition here) isn’t quite as pressing (as in, at all) — it also remains something I can’t quantify/qualify/whateverfy. I could allow my fear of being “outed” as a fraud to “take the wheel” here.
Back to the point… if, I even have one.
Earlier in this piece, I said something wildly basic that I said we’d circle back to. Your main obstacle vis-à-vis success is oftentimes yourself. I know, I know – hot take! But, it’s important to understand when talking about some of the internalized struggle of The Imposter.
As I said, purposely not setting any straightforward or definable goals — makes it wildly difficult to track your progress (or lack thereof). And again, that’s by design. It would be easy for me to start this project with a goal of “getting X amount of comments a day”, or “getting X amount of views”… but I didn’t. Because, those are (relatively speaking, and “bots” excepted) hard numbers that I could fall short of. In those situations, I just assumed I’d fail. Can’t be disappointed when you get exactly what you expect, right?
I could’ve set a goal to work alongside other creators whose work I’d admired… I mean, that could easily fall into “The Two Effs”, right? It’d be fun… and, hopefully, I’d wind up making a few friends! Success!
The Imposter “knows” deep down that their work doesn’t “measure up”, remember?
The Imposter will never be as good as [insert other blog/podcast/whatever yer pleasure]… so, why bother even trying? If The Imposter does somehow luck their way into the “circle”, the only possible outcome is that they’ll be “outed”. And, hell — the only reason The Imposter would be allowed into the “circle” in the first place, is because a) they faked it well enough, or b) the “circle” took pity on them. It certainly isn’t because they’re good at what they do… or have anything of value to add.
Does this sound familiar to anybody? Hopefully it isn’t just me. I’m sure it’s not… right?!
The Imposter… despite being so worried about how they stack up… doesn’t put much critical thought into exactly what they’re trying to stack up to.
Think about someone you admire. If you are “a creative”, maybe think of someone whose work you’d like to emulate. Now, let’s try and reconcile some stuff. First, let’s think about how hard it would be for YOU to do what THEY do. Next, let’s think about how easy THEY make it look.
I have had people write in and reach out to tell me how effortless I make blogging and podcasting seem. To them, it’s as though I’ve cracked some sort of code, and transcended into this self-actualized creator of stuff. It’s said as a compliment, of course, and I always take it as one… while, also a) realizing that I’ve “conned” them, and b) attempting to reconcile their take with my own. Ya see, here’s the big secret: this isn’t easy for me. In fact, I make it far more labor-intensive and complicated than it has any right (or need) to be!
That said, the people whose work I admire… make me feel like what they do is effortless. Starting to see the disconnect?
Why do I assume what other people do comes easy to them… when I have firsthand knowledge that it’s not? Why do I assume that they’re naturally better at this than I am? Sure, some (many?) are… that’s just life. But why can’t I wrap my head around the likelihood that they might be struggling with this just as much (if not more) than I am? Well, that’d ruin The Imposter’s narrative, wouldn’t it?
Imposter Syndrome, at least for me, is most certainly a defense mechanism. It’s a cursed suit of armor… that drains 1HP with each step taken. It stops me from doing things… because it tells me there’s nothing worth doing. It won’t allow me to celebrate any successes… because, it tells me that my successes don’t actually belong to me. Anything that goes “right” is because… I got lucky, someone “higher on the food chain” shared something of mine, or “the algorithm” tossed me a bone. It’s a very counterproductive mindset, as you can see.
Speaking of successes… the first time I felt “success” here at the site was the first time somebody left a comment on a piece I wrote. It was my now-great friend Walt, who left a few words on… I wanna say a “Bin Beat” article where I was kvetching about people breathing over your shoulder at the back-issue bins. It was the first sure sign I had that someone was reading the words I’d written. After reading it… I couldn’t even “celebrate”. It was everything I wanted, but I couldn’t appreciate it… because I didn’t think I deserved it. I’d conned him into writing. And… if I reply, the mask might fall off, and he’ll realize that I’m an idiot.
I still struggle with that. I read and appreciate every comment I get… but, a big part of me still feels like I’m conning you all. Rationally, I know that’s ridiculous — but, unfortunately, these sort of internalized feelings aren’t so easily changed.
I’m pretty sure I’m all outta words at this point… though, I wish I could end this with a bit of advice. If nothing else, I hope that — should this piece resonate with you in any way, it shows that you’re not alone in feeling like you’re pullin’ a fast one. You’re not alone in setting nebulous goals. You’re not the only one wearing that poisoned armor. Most importantly: I know deep down that you do measure up — so, don’t quit.