Imposter Syndrome and the Big Lie All Creatives Tell Themselves
When self-doubt comes knocking, try these tips for getting past it
As far as pills go, defeat might be the most bitter one to swallow. I’ve spent a good amount of my career as a designer finishing a project, kicking my feet up, and proudly looking over what I thought was the Mona Lisa, only to hear a big bunch of “we like the direction, but…” from the client. And that’s what this whole “life” thing is about: failure.
Let me let you in on a little secret:
Up until Instagram, Behance, and all those other hyper-polished sites came along, everybody’s work looked like steaming garbage until it didn’t. It stayed in the dark until it was signed, sealed, and approved by 15 art directors, three clients, and the designer’s dog. The result of all this polish and prettiness is that we never got to see the grit and grime that covered that shit before it got to be somebody’s logo, billboard, or poster.
We’re so soft.
But that’s nothing new. Sure, we’ve weaponized it a bit, turned it up to eleven, and mass-produced it all over the world. But that feeling of inadequacy in a never-ending sea of polished, near-perfect creations is real: It’s called imposter syndrome. Think of any person you’ve ever idolized in your given field (or really, in any creative profession) — your favorite actor, musician, writer, or designer. They’ve probably run head-first into a bout of imposter syndrome.
First, let’s define imposter syndrome. What is it and how does it feel?
As a creative, imagine this: You work hard every day creating art (which is already a completely subjective product to begin with, open to wild interpretation and varying degrees of critique) until finally, you get your big break: Maybe Nike, the NFL, or Def Jam calls and brings you on board. You’re living the dream; millions of people will see, hear, and touch your work.
But for some of us, it never feels real. That, my friends, is imposter syndrome: The feeling that creatives get once they’ve created a work that they are proud of, cherish, and maybe even feel perfectly checks all of the boxes for the client or audience — but the work doesn’t ever quite feel like it reaches the mark or rises to the level of quality that the occasion calls for.
I know, I know. I just gave it a name. This shit is like Voldemort — the second you start talking about it, you end up spiraling and thinking about the quality of your work, the client’s real or perceived reaction, and everything in between.
This nasty little devil is especially prevalent in my chosen field, graphic design. It’s not uncommon for graphic designers to toil over a project for multiple hours, working through thousands of iteration and ideas before finally landing on a finished and final product that should satisfy their clients’ needs, their standards, and industry standards as a whole. And then BOOM — it’s not good enough, the texture is all wrong, the shapes are too uneven, the symmetry is off, and the colors are set wrong. (Remember that scene in Willy Wonka on the creepy acid-trip river? All the self-doubt starts to look like that.)
But we persist. We turn in work that we hate for no reasonable reason to clients that don’t know the difference. Then we receive feedback like:
And, thus, we are doomed to the feeling of inadequacy and dissatisfaction that comes with creating.
Alright, Kyle. Alright. You’ve sufficiently depressed us, people are clicking away, and this whole blogging thing is not going to work out.
I have solutions!
The munchies that cause your once-confident, creative mind to morph into a spewing gremlin overnight don’t have anything to do with psycho-babble or magic. It’s as simple as every other slip in self-confidence we all face. Like momma always said, “Idle hands make mischief.”
I’ve found that the best combatant against imposter syndrome and general feelings of artistic inadequacy is to continuously engage the process. Keep creating, damn it!
That doesn’t mean you need to re-kern the letters in a logo 2,463,978 times and drive yourself crazy with perfecting geometric shapes and spacing until your head explodes. No, the best way to accomplish this is to take a break from your requirements, like client work or important administrative stuff for the business, and engage with the creativity you’re actively yearning to let out. Every time the fun goes away from creating the here-and-now, take a break, disengage, and decompress. Then return to work refreshed and excited about the end product.
I would be lying if I told you that my workstation isn’t littered with 20 or 30 just-started, work-on-them-when-I-get-to-them, and “Jesus-Christ-this-client-has-really-pissed-me-off-and-I-have-time-to-doodle” projects. I’ve illustrated countless re-branding ideas, logos, and merchandise for my business that may never see the light of day. But this work scratches that creative itch and allows me total artistic freedom along the way, ultimately pummeling the spiral of continuous tweaking and self-critique.
I’ve found that the best combatant against imposter syndrome is to keep creating, damn it!
At the end of the day, we choose these professions so we can be free: free from the 9-to-5, free from the constraints of a bullshit job with bullshit busy work, and free from team-building exercises. But freedom doesn’t pay the bills — clients and professional work do — so sometimes we just have to crack our knuckles and get to work on some basic, corporate, constraining work, even if that work comes in a style that isn’t necessarily our first language. That’s where these little breaks come in.
So when I’m feeling like I don’t belong in this field, I switch over to something I enjoy designing or creating. Then I set a timer for 25 minutes (because if you don’t have a spare 25 minutes, wtf?), and I work out some of those forehead wrinkles.
But it’s not just keeping busy that beats back this nasty little devil. We also have to think about the long-term effects of imposter syndrome and how to cure it rather than slap a Band-Aid on it. Over time, we as creatives have to take the initiative to reach out to our community for help.
Yes, the internet is a hell-scape hitherto unseen by the likes of mankind. But just like everywhere else, there are good people somewhere out there; you just have to look. And a lot of the time, they are suffering from the same feelings of creative inadequacy and reluctance. Reach out. Find a home:
Pick your poison.
Whatever your chosen creative field, there is a community out there that does the same stuff, suffers from the same nagging annoyances, and critiques themselves harder than anyone else could. After all, sometimes, when we get to see how the sausage is made, we decide we definitely don’t want to eat it. Right?
Reaching out to another (or an aspiring) member of your community and asking for feedback (and being willing to accept positive or negative criticism) helps to strengthen your belief in your talents. For instance, if you create something that you are only about 85% happy with, but someone compliments it and admires it without your input, that feeling quickly jumps north of 90%. Imagine that effect turbo-charged by the sheer volume of social media platforms out there and then multiply it by the number of Facebook Groups, subreddits, and forum sites like Quora, and this psycho-babble starts to sound a little wacky.
We all need someone to be nice to us. that connection goes a lot farther than we care to admit.
Hear me out: You are not an imposter. Those people who stay chained to their work desks are the imposters. It’s never a futile attempt to chase freedom; the missteps come when we give up. If you work hard, hone your craft, care about your clients and audience, and work at a manageable and consistent pace, the world is yours and you can do whatever you want. For money.
It’s 2019 for cryin’ out loud . People are making millions playing video games! Go out there and build some cool shit and sell it to people. But never lose sight of who you are and the confidence that got you this far.