Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Imposter Syndrome

Let’s talk about Imposter Syndrome.

Most of us have read the Neil Gaiman’s comments on imposter syndrome in response to a question by a fan:

The best help I can offer is to point you to Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence. She talks about Imposter Syndrome (and interviews me in it) and offers helpful insight.

The second best help might be in the form of an anecdote. Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.


It would seem to suggest that most people, no matter how talented, suffer from imposter syndrome in some capacity. The feeling that we are not worthy to stand among our peers, that their work is valid and real and that ours is somehow false. That one day we are going to be recognised for the fraud we are.

I’d like to address why we feel this way, in the hope understanding the feeling will give us all the ability to move past it. It’s not enough to know that everyone else feels the same way, that won’t seem real until you understand why.

Many years ago I did a blog post on how success can often look like failure. The original blog post was shared on livejournal and while I don’t remember the exact date, it was at least ten years ago now. You can read it here:

It discusses the idea that success is often failure after failure, because that is the process of learning. So what can look, from the outside, like repeated failure, is actually successful learning.

The problem is, that most failure and learning is done in private. It’s simular to the social media effect, where people only post good news and exciting events and makes their lives all seem good and successful. You compare that to your own life and you seem less happy, less social and less successful in comparison. Because you have 20-100 people all posting good news stories all the time, it seems like all of those 20-100 people are doing those sort of thing every week. Whereas if you looked at individual statistics, you would probably see people are socialising and having nice things happen about as often as you. This can be particularly bad if you don’t post all of your beach trips on facebook, so you assume the ones you see on social media are a fraction of the total. But in truth, they probably aren’t.

When it comes to success and achievements, you are only ever seeing the end result. The fantastic book, the amazing painting, the awards, the celebration. You’re never seeing the bits between. You’re never seeing the hard work, the hundreds and hundreds of failures that go into each success, the times that person was depressed and hated themselves and their work. Their public image is happy and generous and friendly and it gives the impression it was effortless.

I suspect a lot of people view my high word counts that way. I often say how much I enjoy writing, how it is a joy for me. I’m not sitting hunched in a back room, grimly forcing myself to write 2000 words every day like someone is holding a gun to my head. And that’s all true.

However because of my health, sometimes I write and edit while extremely sick. I edited an entire novel on my bathroom floor because I was too sick to leave the toilet. It took a month. I get 2000 words a day, but sometimes I am too sick to stand up for long periods and might go three days without a shower. Or even speaking out loud because I am too sound sensitive. Sometimes people say: “I wish I had your word count.” And I think: “Yeah, well, I wish I left the house in the past ten days, but we can’t all have what we want.”

Your favourite author, whoever they are, the writer you think is perfect and infallible and awesome, has almost definitely considered giving up. They’ve hated their work. They’ve struggled and failed and been sick with fear to open their laptop and face the page. Probably not once, but many times. Because they see their favourite author being effortless and skilled and charming and they feel like a fraud too.

I have been lucky enough to observe some of my favourite authors in close quarters and see their processes. One, to help other writers overcome their own insecurities, even shared excepts from their journal in which they berated themselves for their lack of talent and confessed a desire to give up.

It read rather like some of my own journal entries.

It’s important we all know these moments of doubt are normal. Feeling like an imposter, at times, is normal. However you shouldn’t wallow in it. Acknowledge it, realise it is untrue, and move on. Slathering yourself in it and rolling around like you are tarring and feathering yourself with depression and angst is not healthy or productive.

Your successes were all hard won. Be proud.

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