Imposter Syndrome: a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
I think that this feeling is more prevalent among creative types than any other group of people.
My reasoning for that belief is something that is rarely talked about, and that’s probably because it’s somewhat of a uncomfortable subject for people who are essentially asking others to judge them by their work (creative types—artists, authors, musicians, etc.).
This is something that has bothered me for years and years and I think it’s important that artists start to open up a dialogue about it. It’s hard enough for us out there as it is! I should note that I think most people who are guilty of this kind of talk or behaviour don’t even know they’re doing it.
So here I am, stepping onto my soapbox to tell them. There are plenty of more important issues in the world to bitch about, but this is my soapbox and this is what I’m bitching about today.
Many of our friends who aren’t creative types themselves, while they are positive and sometimes INCREDIBLY supportive of the tangible art we produce—whether it be books or songs or paintings—are generally not supportive at all of the work that goes into producing it.
Many times (yesterday, for example) I spend an entire Saturday or Sunday working on a project. That’s from the moment I roll out of bed and get my coffee (around 8am) to the moment I go to sleep, (which, if the creative juices are flowing, could be the early hours of the morning).
Many times I’ll do it again the next day. It has to be done if I want to hold the finished book in my hands. Or release the song. Or launch the website.
These are the hours it takes to produce books, screenplays, songs, or any other creative content. Hours of practice, hours of toiling over rough drafts or research … hours and hours and hours. TIME is what it takes to be an artist of any kind. You either put in the hours and release the book, or you don’t put in the hours, and you don’t ever finish the book. Simple as that.
But frequently, friends say things like: “let me guess, you’re not doing anything tonight…” or “big surprise you’re sitting at home on a Saturday…”
It’s no secret that art is largely undervalued in our country. But if the art itself is undervalued then the work that goes into producing it is practically nonexistent in the eyes of many non-creative types.
We are a country of credit cards and payday loans. Instant gratification and general availability of anything we could possibly desire. As a result, we take a lot of things for granted. Things are just THERE, ready and waiting for us. And when we decide we want them, we want to get them instantly.
How they actually GET THERE, well most of the time, to us, that’s just some shadowy elfish figure behind the curtain pulling levers and pushing buttons.
“Cool, the Obama Pez dispenser I ordered from Amazon is on my front porch! MAGIC!” Which magic elf drew up a caricature of Obama’s face and put it in a CAD machine? Which elf made the machine that manufactured it? Packaged it? Which Amazon employees pissed their pants because they had to throw it in a truck before taking a bathroom break? Who the fuck cares. I came, I saw, clicked … then MAGIC … then here it is in my hand. Thanks for the Pez, Obama.
But all products are not created equal. Some things we can SEE being built, so when we see the finished product, we appreciate the effort that went into building it.
A carpenter spends months building a home. And people value the time they put into it because they can drive by every day at 8am and see the carpenter working. They can come by again at 3pm and see the carpenter putting tools back into the work truck and leaving for the day. But each day, the carpenter left a visible record of their progress: New walls have been framed, then sheeting, then shingles, windows, siding, and then after a lot of work—as the folks driving by will attest—a beautiful, finished house is sitting on the lot.
Ask the carpenter if the person who’s driving by each day understands how much work they put into building that house. “No way,” they’ll tell you. “They didn’t see all the cuts with crazy angles I needed to make to connect all the roof trusses. The time I spent framing a tray ceiling in the living room. The runs to the lumber store or the smashed thumbs. No, they couldn’t possibly understand how much work went into building that house.”
But even without seeing all the little details going on inside, people still saw the work the carpenter did, because each day they drove by and saw people working on the house and cutting two-by-fours or driving nails.
They look at the finished home and they understand all of the work, the hours, that went into turning a patch of land and a bunch of wood, metal, and glass into a beautiful home.
Ask the carpenter, and he’ll say you STILL don’t understand how much work went into it.
With books, songs, paintings, people don’t even get to drive by and see the progress. They don’t see the surveyors flattening the land. Not the rough framers, not the roofers, the siders, the electricians, the plumbers, none of it.
They simply drive by and see a house that wasn’t there before.
Like somewhere, the elves magicked it into existence and dropped it on the lot.
Could they possibly know how long it took to build it? How many people were involved? It was not there before, but today it’s there. Wow! Look at it!
I don’t swing a hammer to write books or screenplays (although sometimes I’d like to) but I spend the hours. I put in the work. Building things. Tearing them back down when they don’t work and rebuilding them. Going to the “lumberyard of ideas” in my head for more supplies (and sometimes they’re out of stock). Hunched over a manuscript, late on a Saturday night because I didn’t make enough progress after 6pm on weeknights when I get home from my day job. Or maybe during the week I had two other build sites which needed my attention.
But to many of my friends, this isn’t work. Because “work” is something you do for a boss from Monday through Friday in exchange for a paycheck. Or “work” is something they can see as it progresses. They can drive by and see new windows. Hey, it’s starting to look like a house! Not with art.
With art, to those on the outside looking at the artist’s door, it’s just “there” one day. “Hey, here’s my new book, song, short story! It was not here yesterday, but it’s here today! Voila!”
“I’m so proud of you!” the friends say. “GREAT JOB!”
And then when you tell them you’re not going to the bar on Friday night they say “Sounds about right, probably just laying around your apartment again.” I guess the elves are working on the next book.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished (usually in a moment of overwhelming stress or frustration around a project, naturally) that I didn’t have whatever this thing is, the thing that makes me want to write or produce or whatever it may be.
I could just go to work, get my paycheck, and then I’d have all those hours back. Hours, which add up to whole Saturdays and Sundays, to spend going out with friends, to the movies, to dinners, hell even just laying on the couch and watching TV.
I still do all those things now, sure. Not as much as I’d like to, but I do. I’ve even forced myself to do them a lot *more* as of late. Go on a hike. Go to the movies. Meet friends for dinner. I’m always happy I did, too. Life’s too short to work ALL the time. Work time, play time, balance.
But then I’ll hit a weekend where I know I need to put in some hours and finish a project or projects … and I tell everyone to fuck off, and I lock myself in, and I work.
But many don’t consider it work. Because … well, because why?
At what point is working on your art considered real work?
Real work meaning, “I’m working late tonight” is met with respect rather than an eye roll.
Real work meaning, they might see me comment on a Facebook post or Tweet and think I’m just laying around on the couch all Saturday instead of taking short breaks between writing sprints (I’m a big fan of the “Pomodoro Productivity Technique” of working in blocks and frequent short breaks).
Real work meaning that people can see you “framing the walls” in their mind’s eye.
At what point is it “real work”? When your book hits the NYT Best-Seller List? When your screenplay is made into a big-budget film? THEN will the “I’m working late, sorry” text be met with a mental vignette of wall-framing rather than couch-sprawling?
I recently learned of the Stanford Prison Experiment, where volunteers were placed into a mock “prison” and assigned to either “prisoner” or “guard” roles.
Within 36 hours, the “prisoner” volunteers had been treated like real prisoners so effectively that some of them started to actually BELIEVE they were really prisoners.
36 hours and normal folks who had volunteered to enter this university experiment now believed they were real prisoners. Some even asked to write letters of appeal.
I’ve been told I’m a prisoner so many times that eventually I started to believe it. It turned into a behavioral complex to me at some point. I’ve been told that I’m lazy by friends because they see the door shut, but don’t see the hammer swinging inside.
As a result, I feel like I HAVE to work all the time or I feel guilty. Watching TV at 8pm on a Wednesday? Get your lazy ass off the couch and go work on something. There’s plenty to be done.
I have to justify my leisure time or I can practically FEEL someone saying “Yep, see, told ya, just lays around his apartment.” BUT I’M NOT! I want to scream. I’VE BEEN WORKING SIXTEEN HOURS A DAY ALL WEEK!
Like when you’ve been scrubbing the floor for three hours straight, and finally decide to take a smoke break, and that’s the moment when the boss walks in. “Sittin around playing grab-ass all day?”
I think most of my supportive friends truly understand the work that goes into art. I’m appreciative of that and I don’t want to pretend that NOBODY understands this stuff. Not at all.
Like I said at the beginning of this rambling soliloquy, as an artist, the gasoline that keeps my engine running is “GREAT JOB!” and “I JUST BOUGHT A COPY!” so I appreciate the hell out of those folks whether they understand the work that went into building the house or not.
But what about the other friends? Those who support the finished work but not the hours that went into making it. When I was writing the book and all the hours I spent working were met with eye-rolls and accusations of laziness or lameness?
THIS, in my opinion, is where “Imposter Syndrome” is born. When we finish the book, the album, the screenplay. And (god willing) it’s well-received and people like it.
Some of the people who say “GREAT JOB!” “SO PROUD OF YOU!”
Were saying yesterday, “QUIT SITTING AROUND ALL DAY. DO SOMETHING.”
So when I release the book or album and (god willing) people congratulate me, and I feel proud of the accomplishment, I also feel guilty for accepting the praise. Did I *really* do anything? Do I deserve any praise? Do I have any right to brag?
I feel proud to tell someone my job title but I feel ashamed to tell them I’ve had two books hit #1 in their category Amazon. Why is that? A lot of times if feels like I don’t deserve it. Or that it doesn’t matter because it didn’t make me a millionaire. Or even a thousandaire.
I was told I was being I’m a lazy recluse half the time I was building the house. Now the house is built. Yesterday it didn’t exist. Today, they drove by and it’s here.
“WOW, I LOVE THIS HOUSE! GREAT JOB!” the friend says. I go, “Yeah, thanks,” and inside I’m thinking it looks more and more like a big cardboard cutout with a picture of a house on it rather than the real thing.
Then I leave to get lumber and nails to start on the next house. And I head to the job site every night after I leave my day job. A few boards here, a window header there.
And the following weekend I think, “Ahh, finally I have time to finish the rough framing. I pick up a load of two-by-fours and nails (beer and pizza) and head to the job site.
And the friend who said he loved that last house I built goes “So you’re just going to sit around and whittle some sticks all weekend?