Impostor Syndrome, or Not
Posted on January 30, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 115 Comments
At ConFusion last week, I had a great many conversations with a great many folks on a large number of topics, but there was one topic that seemed to pop up more than usual: Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome, briefly put, is the feeling that one’s achievements and status are a fluke, and that sooner or later one will be revealed as a fraud. Anecdotally speaking, it seems, Imposter Syndrome affects a lot of writers, editors and other folks in the publishing life. I think this is in part because the writing life is a precarious one, financially and otherwise, and also in part because people in publishing seem to be a generally neurotic lot anyway. Imposter Syndrome is just another log on that particular fire.
Imposter Syndrome is a real thing and it’s not something I’d want to make light of because I think it has harmful effects. I think it can make people cautious in the exercise of their art and their career when they could be (and want to be) taking chances, and I think it can make people vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people/organizations who intentionally or otherwise leverage those feelings for their own advantage.
It’s pernicious, basically, and it frustrates me that so many talented people who have earned their places in the field with their work battle with it. I think it’s good that people are talking about it, however. It means that they are aware that it’s a thing and that it’s a lie. Naming it and describing it and knowing of it goes a long way in fighting it.
The discussions over the weekend also made me reflect on the issue of Impostor Syndrome and me, and the fact that as far as I know I have never had it, particularly in regard to being a writer. This isn’t an accomplishment, mind you, or something to brag on. It’s just an observation; at no point in my writing career did I ever feel like I didn’t deserve to be where I was, doing what I was doing. I’ve always been, yup, this is who I am and what I do.
Which is nice for me, you know, but also prompted me to think about why it was that I felt that way. I mean, it could be the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which incompetent people don’t believe they’re incompetent. Certainly I have enough detractors who would be happy to suggest that this is exactly the case, when it comes to me. Which, okay, sure. Maybe. Why not.
But if it’s not that, and I’m pretty sure it’s not, then what explains my lack of Impostor Syndrome?
Here’s what I think.
One, I knew fairly early that I wanted to be a writer and worked toward it directly. I knew at age fourteen that I wanted to be a writer. Having decided that, I was done seriously considering any other career choice. I didn’t have a back-up or fallback plan.
It helped, I suspect, that the type of writing I wanted to do back then was journalism, which was at the time both a practical and achievable goal — there were newspapers in the 80s! And they hired people to write in them! — rather than to be a novelist or fiction writer, which was (and is) a more amorphous thing.
But basically, having decided in my early teens that I was going to be a writer, I did not doubt I would ever become a writer. So when I became a professional writer I didn’t question how I got there. I got there because I had planned it all along. That said,
Two, no one ever questioned my intent or ability to be a writer. Which is to say that, particularly in high school, no one ever pulled me aside and said to me either “hey, you know, writing is a tough gig, maybe you should plan to do something else with your life,” or “you idiot, what makes you think you can be a writer?” Not my mom, or any of my teachers, or any of my schoolmates.
Indeed, quite the opposite: At every step in the early years of my ambition I was encouraged. My mom encouraged me because among other things that’s what parents should do at that point. My teachers were more grounded about it but did the same — they gave me tips on how to write, and pushed back at me when I got lazy (which was often), and otherwise were very much like, this is what you want to do? Okay, let us help. And as far as my schoolmates were concerned, they very quickly accepted my persona as That Dude Who Wants to Be a Writer (plus I wrote stories where many of them were characters, and they were all very clever in the stories, and who doesn’t like that).
So: I knew I wanted to be a writer early on, and early on everyone I knew — really, everyone — accepted that I was going to be a writer. That early determination and reinforcement went a long way.
Three, I progressed without impediment early on. This means that I never found a problem in leveling up to doing the things that reinforced that writing was a thing I could do, was good at, and that people expected from me. When I showed up to the University of Chicago, pretty much the first thing I did after dropping my stuff in my dorm room was head to the offices of the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, and announce that I was going to write a column for them. And what did they do with this cheeky twerp who said this? Well, they let me write a column. And then another, and then after that I was a weekly columnist and reviewer of music, books and films.
Later I became an editor and then editor-in-chief, these things in turn opening doors to become an intern at a daily newspaper. That in turn helped me become a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in Chicago, which (in addition to my degree from Chicago) helped me land my first full-time professional gig as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper.
All of this socially reinforced the idea that I was a writer. At Chicago, most people who knew of me knew me first through my column in the newspaper. So, literally, what people knew about me, before they knew anything else, was that I was a writer. That column also gave me cachet and status (to a minor extent, let’s not overegg the pudding) because the students read it, or at least knew it existed. They might have thought it was terrible and that I was a jackass, jackassedly spouting jackassed opinions, but they knew who I was nevertheless. Later as the film critic and a columnist at the Bee, it was the same dynamic, on a larger scale.
Again: The way most people knew of me, if they knew of me at all, was as a writer.
Four, when I went upward, my reaction was not “now they’re going to find me out for sure,” it was “look what I just pulled off!” When I got that column gig at the Maroon, I was proud of the fact that I was a first-year student writing a weekly column. When I got the gig at the Fresno Bee, I was inordinately proud of the fact that, at 22, I was the youngest full-time syndicated film critic in the United States. A couple of years later, when I got a weekly opinion column, not only was I the youngest nationally-syndicated opinion columnist out there, I had achieved my actual life goal — Hey! I’m newspaper columnist! Like Mike Royko or Molly Ivins! — before the age of 25.
The fact that I was objectively not a very good newspaper columnist at age 24 was immaterial to this feeling (I was just good enough, barely, and had a lot of slack cut for me, although unsurprisingly it wasn’t until later that I realized that fact). The point was my ego was and always had been turned to “this is good for me!” as opposed to “this is where they find out I’m unqualified.”
This can be a dangerous thing — remember that Dunning-Kruger thing? Well, my attitude is pretty much exactly how that happens — but I was also fortunate at every step of the way to be surrounded by people (editors, other writers, friends, etc) who helped to rein me in and also pointed out when I was being a jerk, or oblivious to the point of being an ass.
I even listened to them, from time to time. I remember at one point blathering on to my non-fiction agent about something and mentioning my age at the time as a qualifying feature, and he said, offhandedly, “You know, 28 is kind of old to be a prodigy at anything.” Which I’m sure he meant as a throwaway point, but which I took very seriously. It meant that I had stop being proud of stepping stone achievements, and start investing more in the quality of the work at hand.
Like I said, offhand comment, but it mattered, and I’m glad that at the time my ego was not so enormous that I couldn’t listen.
Speaking of which:
Five, when things hit a wall, I re-invested in being a writer. My ego in my 20s, particularly with regard to being seen as a writer, was huge, in part because it had never been challenged. Turns out it’s easy to cruise along in a wafty cloud of clueless self-regard when everything’s pretty much gone your way. What’s interesting is what happens when it doesn’t — as happened to me, in 1998, when I was laid off from America Online, where I was then working as a writer and editor.
I’ve written about this before, but the short version was that being laid off hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. All my self-regard and ego did not save me from having my job cut out from under me for reasons that didn’t have much to do with me (the group I was in was dissolving; I as the in-house writer/editor was a company-wide resource; no one wants to put a company-wide resource on their departmental budget). I was not so special that I was not expendable. Yeah, that hurt.
More importantly, it made me question a lot of things that I had previously just assumed, including centering my image of who I was on my job, and the fact I was a writer. When it was all over, I reordered my self image a bit. I was a writer, yes. It was what I wanted to do with my work life and I was going to find a way to make that happen. But I was also not just my job anymore — or more accurately, the amount of my ego that was invested in “John Scalzi, writer” became less; it got refocused into being a person and husband and (soon-to-be) father. I was comfortable enough about what I did as my job that I didn’t have to let it define me to the extent I let it before. I could have the confidence to let it go a bit.
The conscious re-investment in being a writer, and re-evaluation of what being a writer meant to me, mattered. I can’t speak to anyone else, but for me, as drivelingly cliche as this is to say now, this crisis did become an opportunity, and (this must be noted) with the help of my wife particularly, and with the help of friends, I was able to take that advantage of that opportunity.
Much of what my life is now is because of that. This is why I often say now that being laid off turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
As a result of this:
Six, my view of myself of a writer is now not focused on whether other people consider me so. It’s not a coincidence that I started writing a blog soon after I was laid off from AOL; it’s not a coincidence that the first novel I wrote I decided to post here, rather than try to sell to someone else. To be clear, I like selling work and I like being financially successful as a writer — doing both gives me freedom to make more (and usually better) choices in terms of my career. Nor am I disingenuous enough to suggest that at this point in my career, the awards and contracts and so on aren’t useful signifiers.
But ultimately, I’ve done enough and I know myself well enough that if I never sold another piece of work to anyone, it wouldn’t matter in terms of my self-image as a writer. That is what I do. I have millions of words to speak to that point, but more importantly, I have self-awareness of who I am and of what writing has meant to me.
Now, it may be that some other people might then want to deny that I’m a writer, for whatever reason that they would need to do that. But you know what? That’s their karma and I wish them joy with that. I’m not obliged to care what they think. I don’t need anyone else’s approval or approbation to know what I know about myself. I’m a writer.
So there’s that.
(And having said aaaaall of that, let’s note a couple other things. Like: Hey, did you know I’m a straight white male who benefited from a really elite education? That helped — for example, when I forgot to apply for newspaper internships and a friend of mine called his dad, who called his pal the publisher of the San Diego Tribune, and a couple of steps later, whoa, look, an internship! Also, I happened to be in my 20s at the same time the first Internet Bubble was puffing up, which was great for finding gigs and building a resume. Also also, with respect to novels and fiction, I had been a professional writer for fifteen years before my first novel was published, so I had a decade and a half (not to mention several non-fiction books published prior to Old Man’s War) to get used to the idea that writing was a thing I could do. Also also also, I appear to be generally less neurotic than most writers, or at least, neurotic in somewhat different directions. And so on. It all helped, and helps.)
I think it’s important to note something at this point: These are reasons why I believe I’ve never had Imposter Syndrome. But at the end of the day, the main reason I would say to writers that they shouldn’t ever have to feel like they are impostors is that if you write, you are a writer, and it really is that simple. Whether you sell a book to a publisher is immaterial to this fact; likewise whether you become a bestseller, or award winner or if you write a book that people are still talking about two hundred years from now.
Here’s the question: Do you write? If the answer is yes, you’re a writer. Believe it.
And if anyone gives you shit about it, including yourself, come back over here and read this following graph:
Hey, that person? They’re wrong. If you write, you’re a writer. Done.
Now get back out there and write some more.
I’ll note that as I was writing this I was explaining to Krissy what it was about, and my own experience with Impostor Syndrome (or lack thereof) and her comment about it was interesting: “Go ahead and write it, just don’t be an asshole about it.”
Which made me laugh and was also good advice. As noted in the entry, the fact that I don’t have Impostor Syndrome with regard to being a writer isn’t a brag, or shouldn’t be. It’s, merely, not a thing I have, and I thought it was worth exploring why.
With that said, if it did come across as a brag, apologies. If nothing else, that would show I still have work to do as a writer, to make my execution match my intent.
Also, people are already noting on Twitter that “writer” could be replaced by any profession and the issues of Impostor Syndrome would still be relevant. I expect this is true, although of course my own personal experience, professionally and avocationally, is as a writer.
Also shows up for lots of things other than professions. It’s very common for “adult” for instance; lots of people in their 20s and 30s are convinced that everyone else knows how to do things, and they’re the only one trying to guess and figure it out as they go. Also very common with a lot of disabilities; I know *lots* of people whose parents convinced them that there’s nothing wrong with them except that they’re “just lazy”, when actually they’re depressed or ADHD or whatever else. So then even once they’re diagnosed, they tend to think “oh, I’m not really disabled, I’m just a whiner and the people with real problems probably hate me”.
It seems to be a kind-of-social-anxiety, I think? I don’t know.
Good post, John. While I certainly agree on your last few paragraphs and have been telling writers the same thing for years, I’ve been studying this a long time now in a lot of writers (see my book), and I find that it’s very hard for some people to address it, and indeed it may even fuel their success, which makes it something of a vicious cycle.
For some writers being successful seems to increase the Imposter Syndrome – the more successful you are, the more unlikely it appears, and thus the more likely you are just faking it, or fooling people, or resting on your laurels. And some of this may be helping them in that they work harder and more diligently to justify their success (kind of as you did once you were laid off, or when Stephen King wrote a book under another name to prove he colder published without his name), but it doesn’t mean they don’t still feel the Syndrome, or get over it.
Impostor syndrome is really common for academics. Though I think the issue tends to be less “someone will discover I’m not an academic” because that’s just silly. Rather, it’s that “I’m not actually a *good* academic” that worries me. I care less about what other people think, and more that I simply can’t stack up against my competition. And as with writers, academic employment is often extremely precarious. I think that continuous life instability is a major contributor to the impostor syndrome, too.
Indeed, as I understand it, Impostor Syndrome can get worse the better you do.
For my part, I think I’m too bloody minded to worry much about whether people are reading me only because they’re familiar with my name; I mean, that’s kind of one of the goals of being a professional writer, isn’t it? That you’re an impulse buy?
I’m also untroubled by the amount that luck has played into my career. Have I been lucky? Hell yeah. Is that “fair”? Probably not, but then I’m not qualified to do anything else with my life, so if luck breaks my way, I’m okay with that, and okay with the fact that luck is sometimes (and maybe often) non-contingent on talent, etc.
That said, I think the ability to capitalize on fortunate circumstances — which is ultimately why some things look “lucky” in my opinion — is often based on prior work. “Luck favors the prepared” is a maxim for a reason.
From my own point of view, I hear a lot about impostor syndrome in regards to academia, and specifically with women being more likely to display it than men. As a woman who is no longer in academia, that does seem to fit with my experiences, and indeed might be just one part of the big, messy reason why women are underrepresented.
To add something to the discussion, I recently read this: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201101/the-trouble-bright-girls – it doesn’t mention impostor syndrome but it doesn’t seem a leap to suggest this may be one reason for its prevalence in women.
I can categorically state that, having known about impostor syndrome for some time and having just recently read the article I linked to, this is the main reason I quit my PhD. I don’t know whether there’s a difference between the doubts everyone has and the thing that impacts your life more seriously to the point that you sabotage yourself on such a huge scale as I did/do, but speaking for myself only, it’s not something that can be solved by merely ‘having faith in yourself’ or ‘working hard.’ It’s something pathological that alters everything.
This may be the most helpful blog post on writing I’ve read, in part because I can relate to it so well. I, too, was laid off (from The Bee), and it hit me like a ton of bricks, too. But I took it as an opportunity to start doing what I’d meant to do before I got into journalism for a “steady paycheck”: write books. I’ve never doubted that I’m a writer – that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. At times, I’ve wondered whether anyone else would ever appreciate it, but I’ve always been confident I (mostly) know what I’m doing. After having my first non-fiction submission published, I’m shopping around a novel I just wrote. I’ve had no luck so far, but whether I do or not, I’m still proud as hell of it, and I say to myself quite often, “Look what I just pulled off!” Thanks for the affirming post. I’ll be sharing this one far and wide.
Ironically, last week I talked about my experience with IS as a writer and academic. http://www.dianapfrancis.com/2016/01/20/depression-and-writing-and-imposter-syndrome/
You’re speaking to me, Mr. Scalzi. I have the problem in a “Why in hell would anyone want to read what I write?” sort of way, which means every time I’ve gotten some sort of praise for my work, my little brain demons translate it into “They are just being nice because, really, you are so pathetic and they don’t want to kick you because they are nice.” Which is related. There is also “Oh, they didn’t _really_ read it.” and “I can’t do it again, I just can’t.” Oh, and my own little box of crazy.
But you were very nice to me the one time I met you at a convention, and we hated on George Lucas together, so I hold on to that. And I keep pushing myself to do all the uncomfortable things because, dammit, I’m an old lady now and I should be over this shit.
Great post. I think part of it goes like this: As a young person you see someone doing a profession or skill that you think is impressive, and then later in life you find yourself doing that same profession or skill. If, as a young person your main thought was, “I could do that!” and you clearly envisioned yourself in that position, then when you get there it seems natural and appropriate. If, as a young person, your main thought was, “Wow! I don’t know how ANYONE could do that!” and you don’t envision yourself there, then when you do get there it feels wrong and uncertain. So to my mind, that early attitude of encouragement is crucial. Having parents, teachers, and friends say, “Yes, you could do that!” will make all the difference.
It took me years of slogging in the computer field to realize that I really don’t like programming. I’d been writing all that time and had originally wanted to BE a writer. And yet, one has to have a career, or so I was told….
Now, with two sons, a Long Suffering Husband who makes it possible, I have two pulp novels and a short story out the door. Someday I hope to have more mainstream stuff too, but baby steps are baby steps.
And I still stop, every so often, to stare at myself and realize, “I’m a WRITER!”
For me “Imposter Syndrome” has been most of my life. There are a couple of moments when it DIDN’T happen though. The first was in my late teens. I knew that there were only two things I wanted to do in my life: A) be an astronaut or B) be a soldier.
The price of college was out of my reach so A was a dream, but B was something I could do. After testing it turns out the only thing I couldn’t do for the Army was be a helicopter pilot. After some more delving and such my recruiter, and a helpful sergeant at MEPS/Ft. Jackson convinced me that I needed to be a combat engineer. So on what would’ve been my father’s 64th birthday I signed on the bottom line, swore an oath, and started a new phase of life.
I learned that on my own, I would have picked 12B/Combat Engineer on my own. Sure I was manipulated into the job at the time, but the people doing it could see that it was the job and the focus I needed. There really isn’t anything that compete with doing the job you know you were meant to do from childhood.
The second time IMPOSTER didn’t kick in was about a week ago when a young lady I’ve know since she was in her mid-teens trusted me with a secret even her family doesn’t know about. It’s a burden for both of us I think, yet… I’d tried to tell her that I judge people on their worth, and hers is literally worth a lot to me. If I had children, her and a friend of hers would be my daughters in more than spirit. Some secrets people share are “Why are you telling ME this?”, others are “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me this at the time?”. This was the later, and despite always feeling THE IMPOSTER, at that moment on the phone, I realized that I’d be wrong. I’M NOT AN IMPOSTER!
I’m a civil servant – have been for almost 34 years – and it’s only in the past 5-7 years or so that I have been able to step away from Imposter Syndrome. Partly because I can now recognise the parts played in it by having been born severely deaf, and by being prone to depression. So, for me, being easier on myself, and more accepting of myself, are what has helped to get rid of IS, but it is, I have to say, a persistent bugger …
Side note, having talked to a lot of combat engineers from various points in time, and having read a bio by one from WW2, we all have the same opinion in some regards: The other jobs are necessary, but being a combat engineer is what we were meant to be! Essayons John. YOu did the writing thing well. All I’ve done is a couple of ummmmm… “adult” short stories that well.. got high ratings.. LOL
Thank you for another thoughtful post, John. While you never had the not-really-good-enough syndrome bite you, I assure you many of us have. It is common among adult children of alcoholics, for example. I grew up in a prosperous middle-class family, went to good schools, and had a successful career as an attorney. But I had my doubts.
I mixed with people who were smarter and harder-working than I (and I even married one), which is a good way to remember to be humble. The very nature of work in the law is you begin a case with no clear idea what the real problems are, and it’s a frustrating struggle from chaos to conclusion. In the middle it is easy to wonder whether you are good enough.
The solution is to muddle through. To stop hitting the head against the impossible and try another angle. To break the problem down to smaller pieces. And to regain your self-respect by solving the small pieces as you work your way up to the final solution.
@John T. Sapienza, Jr.
As an old Combat Engineer, I understand. Problems may seem insurmountable, but there is always some point to start pecking away at it. Once you get the first little bit raveled, the rest starts to fall apart bit by bit, knot by knot….
Seems like the encouragement you got from others came at a very important time—by now other people’s opinions of you don’t matter very much, but when you first wanted to be a writer if other people’s impressions of you hadn’t aligned with your own impressions of yourself I imagine that would have had a huge impact.
I wonder if this particularly affects writers (and academics, who are writers) because you have so many opportunities to compare who you are with who other people think you are. There’s bound to be mismatches. Add to that the delay between writing a book and readers reacting to it after it’s published. You have to be very sure of whose opinion(s) to trust and very good at letting unimportant opinions roll off of you.
Gosh darn it, I’m a writer. Maybe 45 people can testify to that, but I am a writer.
Imposter syndrome, though, can be found in every occupation. I felt it as a teacher and then as a consultant with an education non-profit. And I met really great teachers who confided that they suffered from it, as well. They didn’t tell me in false modesty, they really thought they didn’t deserve the accolades or the recognition. I came to believe that imposter syndrome is a huge deterrent to teachers being appropriately compensated. Most aren’t sure they’re worth the meager salaries they are paid, and the powers that be find that an agreeable mindset.
Imposter Syndrome is rampant in the business world. Some of those big ego biz leaders have grave doubts about what they are doing there. Nor is it restricted to just a few professions etc.
I agree with you that we need to talk about it, as when things crash – like you lose a job – you may tip into a spiral of depression or self-destruction [not a certainty, but a possibility].
As my parents constantly reminded me as a child, life is not fair, and rarely is anything easy.
To anyone with such doubts, hang in there, if you do a cold hard appraisal, if you have got there, you obviously have some skill. Turn the doubts into a healthy determination to learn and do better.
My wife and I grew up in the same small town, once living a street apart, and never knew each other. She first heard of me when a mutual friend shared something I had written, so I’ve always been a writer to her. That goes a long way in explaining why I have her undying support for my writing. That’s all she’s ever known. If we all had her certainty, or yours, no one would have to worry about Imposter Syndrome.
Apparently today I’m feeling so contrarian that I shall post two comments that are mutually contradictory, and note that I believe both:
1. But publishing and writing, including self-publishing, traditional, and every other kind now in existence or yet to be claimed by Disney’s lawyers, are absolutely crawling with impostors, phonies, frauds, mountebanks, and delusional wankers. Of course, many of the phonies in publishing are not phony writers — they really do write — they’re just phony artists, phony talents, phony old hands, phony educated people, phony business people, or phony human beings, but real enough as writers. Is it a “syndrome” if the person experiencing it is a real phony?
2. Nonetheless, enormous numbers of writers who write somehow feel that they are not real writers, which does not seem to be a problem for plumbers who plumb. Though I did once meet a plumber who was troubled by not feeling like a real writer. Is this, maybe, just a product of the fact that almost all writers were, at some point in their lives, people who read too much, and people who read too much think too highly of writers, just as people who drink too much think too much of bartenders? (Are there ex-drunks out there who dreamed about tending bar for years, finally sobered up enough to hold a job, and just feel like they will never be the booze-slingers that the people who used to sling their booze were?)
Honestly, Mr. Scalzi, I expect better from you.
Why do you think you can get away with saying something as simple as “Now get back out there and write some more”? Even after you go on for paragraph after paragraph about you have no idea what it’s like to live with something like impostor syndrome? Take “impostor syndrome” and replace it with “anxiety disorder”, or with “depression”. It really doesn’t seem like you’re doing anything other than saying “Snap out of it”, does it?
From over here, as someone who has fought impostor syndrome most of his life, it really does make you sound like an asshole. This is really terrible, because I know via friends that you really aren’t.
Please think again about the privileged position you’re writing from, and reconsider what you’ve said. You’re trying to be kind and encouraging, but again, from the point of view of someone who has dealt and is dealing with it, and has been told essentially “just get out there and do the thing” (writing isn’t my issue) over and over, it’s just not that simple, which you would understand if you’d ever had to deal with it.
Thanks for this. I’m not a writer, but I’m very curious about what writers do and think (and yes I know it varies). One day when I retire from teaching, I have a few ideas rattling around that I just might see what I can do. I often find what you say here interesting and it gives me one person’s opinion in generally a pretty thorough manner. I find that useful to both me and my students.
Molly Ivens was so much fun to read. Loved her stuff!
No matter what your career is, people can suffer from self-doubt and some make others suffer from their lack of any self doubt.
“I expect better from you.”
You do understand that I don’t actually care what you or anyone else expects from me, yes? That’s pretty much directly stated in the piece.
That said: I certainly understand that the piece doesn’t work for you, which is fine, and that I come across as an asshole to you, which again is fine. Please do be aware that your reaction to the piece is your own, and that other people can (and do, apparently, from the comments here) have a different reaction to it, and to the ending exhortation. Speaking from personal experience talking to people with whom I have directly discussed Impostor Syndrome, that exhortation often seems to work just fine.
Which is to say your reaction is valid, but it is just one reaction. This particular response can work for others; I’ve seen it do so. Which is one reason I wrote it down. As they say, your mileage may vary.
Thanks, John. I was a journalist for 10 years in a small town just larger enough to have a daily newspaper. I was pretty good at what I did. Lazy on the reporting, pretty good at the words. I left in 2005 because, newspapers. Now I sell booze. I still write for myself (and very occasionally others). I have felt like an impostor many times since leaving the full-time, says-“writer”-on-the-business-card gig. I needed that late paragraph today. 43 is a bit late to be a prodigy, but…
We were actually talking about imposter syndrome at my book club recently – everyone there is accomplished in their fields and has generally been successful – and realized that all the women had felt it and none of the men had. Obviously this was anecdotal but it still surprised me. I was one of the women and always assumed that’s how all successful people felt; I was pretty surprised that it wasn’t true. “Is this really that gendered?” I asked; “oh, I think it’s all oppressed minorities, so men of color too” replied one of my male friends. Disturbing thought.
Je ne suis pas un auteur.
OK. I’ve written a few technical articles, but. by and large, it’s not what I do. I certainly don’t do character and dialogue.
If there is a point to this, it escapes me. Time to STFU I think.
This starts wading into several tricky things about psychology: the first being that on some level, the psychology we have is what we were born with, and what happened to us during our developmental years, which we have zero control over. America especially loves to entertain the idea that success and failure in anything is purely a choice. They want to believe that people are poor because they are lazy, not because they were unlucky. They want to believe homosexuality is a choice, not that we were born that way. They want to believe everything is totally in our control, so anything we do is entirely our conscious fault.
I have watched the personality of a few month old baby manifest itself over and over as the child grows through the years. And then a sibling with a completely different personality as a baby, manifest their innate personality over the years.
And then, the impact of parents and other outside forces through the first 20 years has a huge impact on how kids turn out. By the time we are adult, who we are is fixed by things mostly out of our control.
I have felt something akin to imposters syndrome on occasion. It more often showed up when something had gone wrong, and served as evidence I wasnt good enough. Having trouble getting through college was proof I wasnt smart enough even though the actual cause of acedemic issues was entirely personal and had nothing to do with whether i could pass the classes. I graduated, but then finding a job in my field was had at first and was evidence I wasnt cut out for the field, even though the issue was I was restricting my job search to a small geographic area for personal reasons. Failing at any of my non-work pursuits through the years could trigger the feeling.
I think I have finally gotten to a point where “imposter” isnt the issue for me anymore. Sometimes there is a fear of failure, but it isnt a fear that it will reveal that I am an imposter or something.
And like having it in the first place, the fact that it has left seems to be totally beyond my control. To people who are fighting this feeling, I wish I could tell you the steps I took that banished it. But I dont know what they were. There is a part of me that remembers the feeling of imposter syndrom vividly, and would react with total rejection to any advice to make it go away, because that part of me is fairly certain that any idea to “fix” the problem is false hope. Keep working at your goals, get successes under your belt, and the feeling will go away??? No, I am pretty sure that didnt happen for me. I hit that point where I was “successful” in my career by any objective measure, but that feeling would still show up once in a while. So I am not going to give you how-to instructions to a machine I myself dont understand.
What I would say is this: you are not alone.
The social pressure that reinforces the false notion that america gives you exactly what you worked for, what you deserved, what you consciously chose, is crushing. Maybe it is good in that it encourages entrepenuers to gamble and risk everything, but we always only here the wuccess stories, the kid who founded facebook and made billions. We dont hear the stories of all the talented folks who tried similar things and failed through no fault of their own. So we take failure personally. We take depression personally. We take addiction personally. We take abusive parents personaly. We take all those things that are completely and totally out of our control and we make it mean something is wrong with us on a cellular level, that we are inherently flawed, that we deserved the crappy things that happened. We swallow the fantasy of meritocracy and assume eveyone else is successful by choice and we fail becauze something is wrong with us, that we are a failure at the human level.
And all I can say is “you are not alone”. I dont know how to fix it. I dont know how to make the impost syndrome, or depression, or whatever it is go away. But I can promise you, it isnt personal. You are not alone.
I suffered a giant case of Imposter Syndrome when I looked at the bottom line of the bank loan to buy the house. The bank was trusting ME with that much money?! But I’m not actually an adult! (I was in my late 30’s at the time) However, it seems to have worked out for all of us so far.
I do think it disproportionately strikes women, just b/c of socialization and such.
@digitalatheist, I’m glad your young friend has you to confide in. That’s a rare and privileged situation for both of you.
Scalzi: Copy-editing comment here. Your very first comment (at 1:20 PM), first paragraph, contains not one but two duplicated words. The “about about” occurrence is regrettable, but the “don’t don’t” has the (possible) double effect of reversing the meaning and misquoting Krissy.
The voice in which I heard the final sentence, “Now get back out there and write some more,” was warmly, not blithely, encouraging, in the context of all that had preceded it. Which cuts against the duplicated “don’t,” as I read it. Perhaps the first “don’t” ought to have been written “just” ?
This is a good read John. I’m fully competent in some areas, but an “impostor” in others (meaning I haven’t met my goal for skill level).
But there is something unique about a profession like writing (or performing, etc) where there can be an adoring public. Namely that the praise or reward can seem out of proportion to the relative skill level so it would be easy to feel that you are an impostor. Especially if success came easily (yes, I understand you worked for it) as it does to some people.
You spend a lot of effort denying that the opinion of others does not matter to you either way. Of course, you would still be a writer if your books didn’t sell and you had to have a “day job.” The real question is, “would you still consider yourself a GOOD writer?” Maybe, maybe not. One would have to at least assess whether writing was a viable profession. My point is that reader feedback is useful, if not necessary. One wants to write books that people like to read. Maybe that is part of what makes one a good writer. But your essay sounds like you are saying you really don’t care and that it has no affect on your self opinion. So are you being defensive?
I am another person (woman) who dropped out of a PhD in large part due to Imposter Syndrome (I had some other health issues too which also contributed). I had no name for it at the time, and I think it might have helped a lot if I had. One of the most insidious things about IS is that the ‘I don’t feel like a real X’ comes with a big side order of ‘OMG these awesome people will despise me when they find out I am faking it’, which makes it really difficult to get help or affirmation. It’s a form of depression really, and as they say: ‘Depression lies’.
Stormgren’s objection to “get out there and write some more” would be more fitting if the topic were writer’s block. The problem Scalzi is addressing is not being unable to do a thing but thinking the thing one is doing is not as good as it should be. To which his advice is, do it anyway.
I understand the nature of the objection, and have had my share of “snap out of it” useless advice, but it doesn’t really apply to this piece.
@ David Hajicek: I really don’t read Scalzi as being defensive here. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever really read him being defensive.
With regard to novels and other professional writing, there are indeed people whose opinion I care about: The editors who commissioned the work, and (in the case of novels) my wife, who reads them before anyone else does. They see the work before it goes out. If the work is out, it’s passed their quality standard and also mine, which means that I’m happy with the result.
That being the case, generally speaking it doesn’t bother me if people don’t like what I’ve written. That happens; you can’t please everyone, and it’s rare to find a person for whom all my writing works equally well.
Note also me not caring doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t register criticism, either about the books or about blog posts. People have told me I’m wrong about things, and sometimes they’re right. But that doesn’t trigger anxiety about my ability to write, or whether I can call myself a writer. It just means sometimes I’m wrong about things, and people point that out.
So, no, it’s not me being defensive. But, as in all things, you’re free to disagree.
I think this is very helpful; I have never come anywhere remotely close to imposter syndrome, but I can see that it’s a bear trap for many people. Anything which helps people to stay out of that trap is surely welcome…
A companion piece to “Impostor Syndrome” is Aidan Doyle’s The Science Fiction Writer’s Hierarchy of Doubt which is supposed to be funny (and it is), but is also insightful.
I almost feel the need to drop the old saw – “long time listener, first time caller.”
This one, of all the many of your posts I’ve read and either agreed or disagreed with, hit closest to my current home.
Our careers have some odd parallels. Professionally, I’m a video game designer. In a nutshell, that’s writing. A lot of writing. Writing that has to be clear and concise in order to make sure that there is no confusion among the various and varied engineers that will read it. The rules are likely similar to those of journalism. Who/What/Where/When/Why/How. The fewer assumptions allowed by the reader, the better.
I too was at AOL, and I too was laid off – though I volunteered for mine. I was hired as a designer for a game matchmaking system and, after 3 months and one of the org shakeups with which I’m sure you’re familiar, found myself the Product Manager of the Game Channel. Don’t ask me how – I still don’t know.
I stuck that out for a couple of years, but I’m the quiet, introverted type. Fine for a game designer/writer, not so great for the person tasked with shepherding the vision of the $75 million (at the time) second most popular channel on AOL/Time Warner’s flagship product. One too many presentations where I had to speak to the collected Northern Virginia work force was the final straw (I nearly failed out of high school because I didn’t want to speak in front of a class of 20 people).
I went back to the small startups, two different spells at EA, etc.
Then the market tanked and startup funds dried up. The music stopped playing and I didn’t have a chair.
As I’ve always done, I did a lot of reading. I got a kindle. I started reading all of the little self published, cheap or free, books I could get a hold of. Wool and Terms of Enlistment back when they were freebie, almost timid, little entries into the market. I read a lot of these. Some of them were very good. A lot weren’t.
Finally, after thinking “I can write better than this” for the umpteenth time, Jiminy Cricket said “then get off your ass and put your money where your mouth did.”
So I did. I’ve published (so far) 3 books. I’ve sold about 5,000 copies since last summer, and had about as many people read it under kindle unlimited. Not great, but better than my greatest hopes – I had initially hoped to sell enough to buy a new, high-end VR capable computer. I’m writing this on that machine.
But I still didn’t think of myself as “a writer”. I mean, there was no gate-keeper. Nobody who anointed my work as worthy before allowing it to be published. I just put it out there and hoped that people would like it.
Then, ironically enough just yesterday, I finally thought of myself as a writer. I realized that I hadn’t really looked for a job in a while, but I didn’t feel as though my time was being wasted – I was writing. Every day. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about what I was going to write.
I guess that makes me a writer.
So, I went onto Amazon and raised my prices. ;-)
I await your thoughts on why you don’t have pancreatic cancer, arthritis, and/or schizophrenia.
Actually, I do have arthritis, in one of my hips. Unless I really tweak that particular hip, it’s really not noticeable.
@John Scalzi. Don’t let it go too long though. Keep on top of it with the docs. If surgery is needed, don’t be afraid. My brother had both of his hips replaced about 2 years ago. With some good docs and rehab it doesn’t take long. And yeah, a couple of years shy of Social Security he’s fuckin’ awesome with the new bio mods. LOL.
@LurkerType The convo in question started with her asking me if it would be okay to tell me and would I hate her. I cried. I cried more after she told me.. but only because I couldn’t hug her, be with her at the time. But being the unmanly man I am, crying is my default mode for situations where I can’t be the fuckin’ savior… in other words, feeling like IMPOSTOR!
“You do understand that I don’t actually care what you or anyone else expects from me, yes? That’s pretty much directly stated in the piece.”
The feeling I was attempting to convey with that incredibly poorly constructed sentence seems to be much more complex than I had words for then, or words for now.
It was incorrect of me to state anything in terms of expectations, and for that I do truly apologize. I was out of line. Mea culpa. I’ll be more careful in the future.
I can see where you were aiming for in the piece, and no, it doesn’t work for me. I honestly hope that it does work for someone though (and it seems to be, as you point out). It’s intensely frustrating for some of us to essentially hear “Just do it” from someone that has never had to deal with a very difficult issue, because that’s all we’ve ever heard when looking for solutions and workaround to the problem that we’re facing. Taking that frustration out on you isn’t warranted, and I shouldn’t have done it.
Hopefully there IS a wider community-wide conversation that keeps going, because I know some very talented writers out there that could use all the encouragement they can get.
Indeed, I’m on top of it.
No worries, and thanks for the followup.
To feel like an imposter, I’d have to believe that other people are stupid and easily deluded — which I don’t. I think people, particularly in one-on-one situations, are pretty discerning and critical and can see me for what I am (even if I am trying to mislead them — perhaps especially when I am trying to mislead them). So — is Imposter Syndrome depressing because it means you believe those around you are clueless chumps and idiots? That would, indeed, be seriously upsetting.
I’ve always felt like an imposter because I didn’t get the encouragement as a kid and teenager and young adult. Not just for the writing (although that’s a biggie), but for a lot of things. It’s just part of who I am now.
I think it’s just the opposite – imposter syndrome comes from feeling that other people are pretty discerning and critical and that they’re going to find you out.
It’s the feeling that everything you’ve accomplished is going to fall apart because those discerning and critical people are going to discern that you’re “full of shit” and don’t deserve anything but their criticism.
I went through this just recently, regarding the Hugos. I have an eligible short story (not linking to it, because that’s not the point) and I put both an eligibility post on my site and added the story and a link to it to the Wiki and Google doc that are floating around. I’m an indie author with a few books out there but no professional sales, mostly because I’ve refrained from submitting anything. And literally just adding a link to a webpage caused a minor crisis of confidence. The story’s *good,* dangit, and I can bloody well put a link to it on a webpage with 50 other similar links and see if other people think so too. But the brain kept going NOT REAL NOT REAL NOT REAL NOT REAL until the fingers overruled it.
I am seriously considering focusing on making some short story sales to magazines and paying websites this year simply to shake this “just an indie” feeling out of my head.
There’s a lot of things which can and do potentially feed into Impostor Syndrome. (I speak as someone who has a raging case of it). A generally pessimistic outlook on life, chronic depressive tendencies and a strong helping of perfectionism are at the core of mine, along with a lot of rather toxic attitudes such as “I need to get things perfect the first time, every time”, and “if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t any good” (would you believe I’m only just starting to de-tangle those from my mindset at the age of nearly forty-five?). Now, the pessimism and the depression I can’t do too much about – by this point they’re pretty much baked-in, and the best I can do is set up mitigating systems around them (“plan for the worst, hope for the best” is pretty much my motto these days). I’m slowly working on teasing loose the massive yarn-tangle that comprises my attitudes to success, failure, effort, and personal worthiness, but it is slow going, and it does tend to come with some rather startling epiphanies (for me) which, when I mention them to other people, get a “yes, and?” response (for example: I’ve realised, when it comes to cooking, that practice and experience with the particular recipe/oven/kitchen do make for a better product in the long run; or to put it simply, I’m not going to get the perfect result the first time I try a recipe).
I don’t have a particular point here – I suppose I just want to say “it’s complicated”. Which it is.
Well, I was searching your name and found this
John Scalzi Is Not A Very Popular Author And I Myself Am Quite Popular, by Theophilus Pratt
so, forgive me, since you are obviously Not A Very Popular Author, how can one not think you are an impostor? Why else would would Theophilus Pratt, someone who is, obviously Quite Popular, even consider writing such a book?
Aside, of course, from the (exceedingly small) possibility Mr Pratt is an ass. What? Hmm .. Never Mind.
I wrote my first program at age 8 or so – Basic on a GE mainframe (my father was on the project). I wrote about 100,000 lines of 8080 assembly code by the time I was 20.
So, I knew fairly early on I wanted to be a programmer – my mind just worked in the right way. Flash forward (mumble) decades, and I am a full-fledged old-fart embedded systems engineer. Given that, I never had the feeling I was an impostor. But – I have worked with people whom I am in utter awe of. I’m pretty damn good at what I do (got a track record), but those folks have skills I know I do not have the time or brain-space to learn what they know. A bit humbling, actually.
Impostor Syndrome is a HUGE thing for game developers, to the point where our studio has regular presentations about it, even among folks with 10, 15, 20 years of experience as devs! From designers to programmers to artists it’s prolific and it hurts to see people suffering from it so badly.
I think a big reason why this is so common is that we were told, growing up, that playing video games was a waste of time and we’d never amount to anything. I know that the first few years I was working, back on PS2 and Gamecube games, anytime I had to cross the border for work (which was a lot) the customs folks would say “THAT’S NOT A REAL JOB”.
That video games are big money and now (mostly) considered a legit business has changed this, the responses I get tend to be overwhelmingly positive instead of sneeringly negative or just baffled, but it hasn’t changed those voices that are still telling us “That’s not a real job”. It’s like we’re all tensely waiting for people to burst into the studio and take our Adulting Licenses away.
When I’m working on kids games this is especially strong, because I really like both making and playing games for kids, so I spend a lot of time in the company of 8-to-12-year-olds discussing feedback and ideas and being caught up on the latest things that are cool that I’m too old to properly understand.
“I spent the day fingerpainting and discussing Pokemon, then meowing at a microphone for two hours!” is not exactly what you’d expect from a thirtysomething when you ask what they did that day.
I’ve not been immune to this syndrome. I self-published a little space opera book that I fully expected to languish while I worked on my craft and built a backlist. I hoped within a few years to build enough steam to start a real career. Imagine my surprise when it became a best seller.
I was then expected to write a sequel, but I was paralyzed with the fear that it was a fluke and I couldn’t get it done. It took some serious motivation (personal issues I won’t go into) to light a fire under me and get me to finish that draft. It’s currently in revision, working with a pro editor, and early beta readers really like it.
I’m now bludgeoned with the thought that perhaps I’m not a one hit wonder and I should keep at it. I do hope to learn and grow with each manuscript, but even if I stayed at this level, this is a level that tens of thousands of readers enjoyed. I’m a writer and I’m pretty good at it, I guess. I’m not going to doubt myself or sell myself short again. I’m going to push myself harder. I don’t know where imposter syndrome comes from, but it sucks and I’m not going to let it hold me back anymore.
A lot of people in this thread have talked about the role of family criticism in predisposing them to imposter syndrome. Research indicates that supportive relationships outside of the family can protect a child from the impact of parental abuse — which constant criticism certainly constitutes. Support from respected adults outside my family (teachers, neighbors) was a huge factor for me in building self-confidence and avoiding imposter syndrome. I had one adult take me aside and tell me directly that the family member making denigrating comments about me was “wrong” and “crazy” and that made a significant difference in enabling me to move ahead. Now when I see kids getting put down by parents or older siblings (“she’ll never amount to much”) or laughed at (“oh, she just THINKS she wants to be a dancer”) I make sure to take the child aside and tell them what I admire about them and that they should pursue their dreams. Sadly, much of the time the parent knows the child is talented or competent, but doesn’t want the child to “get above their raising” or do something other than what that parent has always done. I hate seeing this.
Loved this, and it was definitely what I needed to read right now, so thanks. It does solidify something really important that I often gloss over mentally. But reading this, I realized that there isn’t really anyone my whole life who has really believed in me, or encouraged me in what I hope to do (art/comics). I have just recently (not too long ago) met the apple of my eye, who these last couple years has been incredibly supportive and really likes whatever I make (very ego boosting!). That alone has been a huge force in regards to not giving up, which is usually how I feel.
Anyway for anyone who has ADHD/depression as well, it’s interesting to compare and contrast this piece with ADHD is Different For Women . A lot of women seem to struggle a bit differently with these issues, for reasons I am still trying to understand. Social factors and socialization definitely matter.
I’m an engineer – I do a little writing but basically I’m an engineer who writes, rather than a writer. Even though engineering is absolutely core to my identity, I still suffer from impostor syndrome. I wrote about it here: http://engrprof.tumblr.com/post/134742390724/imposter-syndrome-what-it-looks-like-in-my-life
As I read your piece, the thing that really struck me was how as a teen and young adult, no one tried to talk you out of it or assumed that you couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. In my case, most people I knew tried to talk me out of engineering.
This actually gives me hope, because it makes me think that we can really help our kids and other teens and young adults that we come in contact with. Sounds like simply helping them with the “how” of their dreams can make quite a difference.
“With that said, if it did come across as a brag, apologies.”
So, shall I take your name out of the “Isaac Asimov Prize for Humility and Modesty” awards? ;)
I have impostor syndrome, and I always have. I suppose I’m neurotic, but I haven’t met many people who don’t qualify in some way.
I was told I was talented and gifted from an early age, and this meant that if I failed to excel at something, it meant I hadn’t tried hard enough. But there were a few things, at least, I struggled with and didn’t do so well, even when I felt that I had given my best effort. I was told I couldn’t have tried my hardest (and was being stubborn or lazy), because I was too intelligent to fail if I worked hard.
This made me terrified that my secret would out someday, and people would learn I wasn’t really smart after all.
There’s also that thing with not seeing nearly as many people who are like me (women) receiving praise and fame for their abilities, or being talked about in history books or being mentioned as important contributors to culture or science. For instance, there was not a single novel by a woman taught in my entire four-year honor’s English series in high school.
Hard not to internalize some anxiety about your own abilities when people like you really don’t seem to be as good at things overall than the people who aren’t like you.
I also remember reading a paper recently that demonstrated that the “big fish in little pond syndrome” has validity, which means that kids of above average ability who grow up surrounded by less gifted classmates (often because they live in very small towns) have a higher academic self concept than kids of similar ability who attend schools with other highly talented and gifted classmates. Standing head and shoulders above one’s peers in something when young can give kids a huge boost in self confidence that carries over into their adult life and is actually helpful to achievement.
So I’m thinking several factors can contribute to impostor syndrome in adults.
All I can say is that Impostor Syndrome is a queer duck. It strikes when you are working hard at something you are really good at, then disappears if you are actually heading towards a cliff. The hominid operating system is not ready for prime time yet. Maybe we’ll get there some day.
I can vividly remember the two times I believed I’d been exposed as a fraud and everyone would know that I just wasn’t able to measure up (when I didn’t finish a class project despite working as hard as I could around the clock, and when I realized I’d have to leave grad school without a PhD). Those required a lot of self-adjustment and having to throw myself into the logistics of moving across the country and getting an apartment by myself and starting a new job didn’t really help, except in that it allowed me to postpone the emotional fallout until I was in what turned out to be a better place …
All of which is to say that, yes, it’s very real, and probably much more common than we’d believe.
I backed into a career I loved. But the whole time I was doing it, I kept doubting myself, wondering if someone would point out that I was just not that good at what I was doing, and that I should try something else. I doubled down on examining my data, and went outside the general parameters of the area in focus for what I was doing, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Even though I got good feedback on how well I did, it didn’t seem real – it still felt like I was just going through the motions and someone would pull back the curtain and point out this obvious (to me) fact. I enjoyed doing what I did, but with that load of doubt in my head, it was a bit of relief when I left. Looking back, I would love to give it another go, but alas too much time has passed. I know that what I did was good, and I wonder if the way I backed into that field was part of the reason I felt like a fraud at the time.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a great many writers, muscians and other artists I admire, and if you scratch a little, the best of them are all doubting themselves in fundamental ways. It’s the artist’s lot. Just watch Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in “Pollock” desperately attacking himself and others whose judgment he anticipates: I am not a phony, you’re the phony… From the very moment you choose the peculiar profession of seperating yourself from society in order to adress and refine what you wish to communicate (an extremely painful paradox: flee people because you think you have to reach people), you feel countless eyes on you, appraising you work, judging you as a person, even if, in truth, nobody’s watching – you’re afraid that you will be punished for not doing what everyone “should” do (i.e. be born, go to School, pick a profession which materially contributes to the production and reproduction of goods that have some sort of self-evident use value) and instead doing “what you want”. The deepest irony in that is the fact that most people who get into this thing are faced with a lifelong struggle that only superficially concerns questions by (sometimes well-meaning) others like “can you make a living off of that? Is that even a career?”- which, while sometimes being signs of honest concern, can feel like threats and warnings. The deeper problem that underlies the vulnerability and self-doubt which make such questions hard on creative people is the fact that Society at large (whatever that is, whoever their names are) has a misconception (one could even call it a superstition) about artists that may be understandable from their Point of view, but very tough on artists: Because the creative person does not do what she is “supposed to”, others assume she’s doing “what she wants”. In truth, it’s much harder than that: The most dedicated of those who don’t do what they’re “supposed to”, i.e., those that REALLY seem to be doing “what they want” and to be sacrificing everything else to that (frequently even their personal happiness and well-being) are in fact not doing what want, but what they HAVE TO – as poor, tortured Heinrich von Kleist once confessed: “I write only because I cannot stop”.
When I read the “impostor Syndrome” entry, I immediately thought of some published memories of people who were close to David Bowie (R.I.P.) in the early years of his career and how they say he was always doubting himself, always working up to euphoria about a new idea and then, as soon as that idea had become some actual product, crashing into the deep abyss of depression. Fearing to be perceived as a “pseud”, as they said in England in those days, he found a solution to the two-fronts-war against self-doubt to one side and society’s suspicion (real or imagined by the paranoid artist) on the other: He actively constructed persona after persona as “mere acts”, as pretensions, as “lies that told the truth on a deeper Level” – he pretended to pretend, he turned the stigma of “you’re just an actor playing a role” into the brillant retort: “yes, and I am one of the best actors playing some of the best roles ever, and the fact that I can play so many different ones should tell you something about me . Could someone without any substance morph into so many different symbols for so many different things that touch so many different people?” – like it says on his “Rock’n’Roll suicide”: “I’ll help you with the pain – you’re not alone”.
That’s exactly where the artist’s problem we’re talking about here becomes a universal human concern: Everyone is afraid to be alone, to Count for nothing, to be without substance. Artists just have means to express them, which, unfortunately, make them work hrough the Problem in ways that, at the same time, chain them to it much tighter than the average Person. Some of them crack under the pressure (cf. Pollock), but every person who’s not writing or painting or performing or painting for a living (or trying to) should remember that the artist’s dilemma is just the human Dilemma in a tighter Focus – highlighted, concentrated, amplified, made tangible as a way of life – and a way of looking for truths which very probably cannot be found any other way.
I believe I have it, but it’s not exactly the same as described. Instead, it’s that I’m not as good as others think I am. I’m a SysAdmin and I’m used to being the guy you go to to solve the thorny problems. And every time there’s a tiny part of me that says “This is it. This is the time the tech will be too complicated, I won’t be able to figure it out, and they’ll realize I’ve just been making it up as I go along.”. Every time. It never happens, but that fear does. It’s irrational, and the problem with irrational fears is that understanding them doesn’t make them go away.
I think it’s the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect mentioned in the original article. With Dunning-Kruger, you don’t know enough to know you aren’t any good. With Imposter Syndrome you DO know enough to know how much you do not know. And that weight of all the things you know you don’t know is what causes the hesitation, the fear. If you were less cognizant of how much you didn’t know, you wouldn’t feel that.
From my own experience, really smart people, and really creative people suffer from it. I wonder, now, reading all these comments from writers, if creative types have a different version of it than technical types? I don’t worry that I’m not “good”, I worry that I’m not “good enough”.
Just to confuse things, I’m also a cartoonist, so I’m a creative type too. Write and draw comic strips and (when I was younger and had more time) full comic books. I have enough skill and knowledge to see the gap between myself and the professionals so, again, “not good enough”, even though I’ve never worried that someone would say I wasn’t an artist. But I’ve also never tried to submit my artwork for publication (except to fanzines), so maybe it’s the same after all.
I’ve never had Impostor Syndrome in my professional life, possibly because my profession (computer programming) was never an ambition. I sort of stumbled into it, and it was like Harry Potter discovering Quidditch: “This was easy. This was fun.” Where I’ve run into the syndrome is in my social life. “I can’t believe these people really want to spend time with me. They’re obviously too cool for me.” I think this ties in directly to the speech impediment I had as a child. I was socially isolated because I couldn’t speak clearly. I came to take being a social outcast for granted. The fact that the speech problem cleared up after puberty and that I’m now a bit on the hyperarticulate side hasn’t changed the underlying sense of not belonging in the company of normal people.
Based on my work helping writers and students, i also think this is probably gendered, with far more women experiencing this than men. (And in academia, especially, a lot of women are told they can’t succeed – the opposite of the encouragement John describes receiving throughout his career.) BUT this could also be an artifact of the reality that far fewer men than women seem willing to admit problems or ask for help. (at least 80% of my clients, students, etc., are women.)
However, I remember noticing, back when I was doing computer consulting, that if I felt I knew 80% of what was needed to solve a problem, I would typically say I couldn’t fix it. Whereas many guys who knew 80% (or much less!) would say “Sure I can fix it!” Not exactly the same thing, b/c I don’t think I was impostering, but perhaps related.
The phenomenon of reacting strongly to perceived failure after a lot of early success I call “situational perfectionism.” I wrote about it here:
It’s the cause of second-novel problem, among other things. J.K. Rowling was basically discussing it during her excellent Harvard Commencement address on The Fringe Benefits of Failure.
The first step.
The young poet Evmenis
complained one day to Theocritos:
“I have been writing for two years now
and I have composed just one idyll.
It’s my only completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder of Poetry
is tall, extremely tall;
and from this first step I now stand on
I will never climb any higher.”
Theocritos replied: “Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done is a glorious thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it is a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done already is a glorious thing.”
C P Cavafy
This isn’t the first time your blog has been very helpful to me, and I appreciate it. The first was when I was just getting into self-publishing, and working toward the idea that I could transition from pseudo-journalism (internet poker reporting, and I promise, it was very pseudo-journalistic, no matter how much of the AP style book we followed) into writing novels. You wrote somewhere that you were in your mid-thirties before you became an “overnight success” as a novelist, and as someone who published his first novel at the ripe young age of 36, this helped me realize that I wasn’t as far behind as I thought I was.
So thanks for that post, and for this one. You didn’t sound like an asshole, just sincere. I suffer from Imposter Syndrome often, and it’s reading stuff from others in the field who do and don’t deal with it, but understand it, that helps me push past it. I appreciate you, buddy.
Your honesty continues to impress me. Thank you for that. That you can write about these things to the public most likely proves you don’t have Imposter Syndrome.
I wasn’t blessed with knowing early in life what my calling would be but one thing I’ve learned through it all is to believe in myself yet know my limits. And when all else fails–YOLO.
I’ve been thinking, since I read this post, about the assumptions embedded in Impostor Syndrome, particularly the assumption that there is some internal, largely invisible, largely unchanging quality (whether you want to call it “talent,” “ability,” “intelligence,” “being a [good] writer,” etc.) that third parties judge via performance, but which is not performance. The fear often seems to take the form of “I’ve done X and therefore appear to have the essentialized quality of Y, but deep down, I’m really not Y at all and sooner or later, that is going to become apparent.”
There’s been some really interesting research in psychology in the past decade looking at the tendency to essentialize ability and the effects that has (for instance) in how children learn. In psychology, we use the term “essentialism” to refer to a tendency to view a quality as innate, unchanging, internal, and essential. The classic experiment on essentialism looked at whether kids essentialized category membership in the natural world. Basically, you show preschoolers a picture of a raccoon, and then you tell them a story wherein someone shaves the animal and paints it and gives it a surgery to make it all smelly, and then at the end of the story, you present the kids with a picture of a skunk and say “and here it is.” Then you ask the kids if the animal in the picture is a skunk or a raccoon–and even young kids will insist that it is still a raccoon, because no matter what you do to it, you can’t make it NOT a raccoon, even if it is now visually and functionally identical to a skunk. There is some internal, innate, unchanging *raccoon-ness* to a raccoon that makes it a raccoon.
Since this study was published in the eighties, other studies have revealed that this tendency toward essentialism plays a huge role in how we view other people and ourselves. We know, for example, that certain types of word choices trigger essentialist thinking. Specifically, Carol Dweck and colleagues have some great work looking at the way that the use of generics can make us view certain qualities in an essentialized way. “So-and-so is X” is a generic statement; “So-and-so was X at the party” is a specific one. The former suggests that So-and-so has an internal and stable quality of X; the latter does not. And it turns out that, at least when you’re talking to kids, this distinction really, really matters. In one experiment, for example, kids who were told “wow, you’re a good drawer!” formed very different beliefs about drawing ability than kids who were complimented with the non-generic “wow, you did a good drawing!” Kids in both groups feel great about drawing… until they experience a “failure” down the line. Post-failure, kids who were told in earlier trials that they did a good drawing were pretty resilient; kids who were told that they were a good drawer were not.
Because through word-choice alone, the kids in that second group had been taught that being a good drawer was something that a person either was or was not. And if “being a good drawer/writer/etc.” is an essentialized quality–if it’s innate and unchanging, if you can’t make a bad drawer into a good drawer any more than you can make a raccoon into a skunk–then failure has revealed a deep, internal property about yourself that you cannot change.
One result of this research is that there’s a big push in education now to focus on helping kids develop a growth mindset (where you view traits as evolving and capable of being developed through hard work), rather than a fixed mindset (where the focus is on DOCUMENTING whether or not you have a trait like intelligence and figuring out HOW MUCH of it you have): http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/
I’m a writer and an academic, and Impostor Syndrome is so common in both fields that I sometimes feel weird for not experiencing it. But I think that the reason I don’t has less to do with viewing myself as FOR SURE HAVING that internal quality and more to do with either not believing in the existence of that kind of fixed “what-I-really-am-deep-down” trait at all or just generally believing that if there happened to be such a trait, and it was indeed unchanging and innate, then it wouldn’t be something I should feel either good or bad about, because that trait would just be some genetic/environmental fluke that really wouldn’t have much to do with *me* as a person at all.
I was talking the other day to some friends about how I feel much more comfortable accepting compliments about something I did than something I am. If someone says “that thing you said was really smart” or “that book you wrote was great,” I feel good! I say thank you! If someone says, “YOU are really smart,” I still say thank you… but I feel a lot more uncomfortable accepting the compliment (see also: “you look great today” versus “you are pretty.”) It just feels weird to me to be complimented for having or not having a certain trait, because, framed with that language, it feels like I might as well be accepting a compliment for having brown hair or being tall.
When I first started writing, I didn’t spend much time thinking about whether or not I was a good writer, because I figured that I would get better with time. I wanted to know—and I still want to know—that every book I write is written to the best of my ability at that time. I can look back at the decade since my first book came out and see how much I’ve improved. My ability has changed and will continue to change; despite my best efforts, it may be reflected more in some books than others. Believing this means that if I stumble along the way, I generally feel like that stumble reflects what I did, not what/who I am. (And, conversely, if I succeed, that success ALSO reflects what I did, not what/who I am, which is, in a strange way, even more comforting).
I have no idea what factors led me to viewing performance in this way. I do know that it seems somewhat domain-specific. I have felt something very much like Impostor Syndrome in the social arena (“I’m not actually likable, and someday, the people who think they like me will realize how annoying I am deep down!”), so I get that a person can’t just flip a switch and de-essentialize a trait that life has trained them to view as essentialized. But sometimes, when I do find myself thinking things like that, I can take a step back and really question the underlying premise (not the question of whether or not I am secretly-deep-down-unlikable, but whether or not such a trait could even exist—full stop—at all).
I think the thing that jumped out at me in your essay, sir, was the fact that you knew at age 14 what you wanted to do with your life. I find that nothing short of mind-blowing.
When I was 14, I had hazy ideas of finding a job that would allow me to read books all day (but only books I chose, not books I was assigned), or perhaps writing, or maybe jewelry-making, or possibly being a dental hygienist. I surely did not have accounting, which is where I wound up, on my radar screen as a possible adult career. I didn’t actually get my degree until I was in my 40s, and I still encounter situations on a near-daily basis in which I experience panic attacks about how little I know and how incompetent I am and how I don’t deserve the job I have.
My sister took an even longer and more varied path to her ultimate career (university professor). She started out getting a degree in music, then went to pre-law school, then went back for a second Bachelor’s in chemistry, then got her PhD. She spent about a decade in private industry before she landed in her current spot, which is where she feels she was destined all along. Even so, though, she, too, still questions herself and her competence, despite the fact that she demonstrably and measurably achieves better outcomes than any other professors in her department.
So my takeaway from that is that you are unusually blessed with clear insight into yourself and your goals, and equally unusually blessed with far more self-confidence than many of us possess. If you ever figure out how to bottle that and sell it, I’ll be first in line.
Thanks for this. It’s something I struggle with sometimes. I think part of it is because of how I landed my publishing deal. I got in with Harper Voyager through their open submission window, not via an agent. So it’s easy to think I won a contest via luck rather than skill. But I remind myself there were 4600 other people in that window and I was one of twelve that were offered deals. My tepid sales don’t help this feeling, but every day I’m doing better with it. Landing a Big Idea spot helped a lot as well. I think you’ve got a great attitude about this, and at the risk of diminishing your laser like focus on your chosen career, it sounds like your wife does a remarkable job keeping you even keeled and sane.
Thanks for writing this, I really need to share it with some other authors I know.
I never knew the IS term, but I experience it on a regular basis, with anything, with regard to my professional work other than writing, and with whatever I attempt to write in spare time. But I just tell that voice to shut the hell up, it’s unproductive. Good post! Something to think about!
The only time I experience Impostor Syndrome is when I’m deep in revisions (and sometimes in CEs/Pass Pages.) It’s when I have to look at every single word in a book, repeatedly, trying to fix things but not knowing if I’m achieving that or making it worse, that I wonder what the hell the editor bought at all. It’s when I have to grapple directly with the output in an intensive, intimate way that I doubt.
But the rest of the time, I don’t have it. And like you, I grew up poor. Unlike you, I didn’t get a single break. I was surrounded by people whose greatest expectation for me was that I would survive to graduate high school. I wrote lots of things for school, and got As in English, and got published in the school literary magazines, but I didn’t have anyone telling me I was a writer, or a good writer, or any of that. I didn’t get a scholarship; I didn’t go to college.
However, I did have one family friend who would always give me books for my birthday, and she always wrote in the front of them, “One day, when you publish a book… (insert rest of relevant message here.)”
It simply never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be published. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t eventually get an agent. It was slow, and hard, and there were lots of setbacks, but it felt like a foregone conclusion. So I didn’t quit, and I did eventually get an agent, I did sell a book, and now that’s my job. Part of my job now is doing school visits where I talk to poor kids (whom people assume have few prospects) about the fact that they can do the thing they love. The title of this presentation is “There’s No Reason Why I Should Be Here Today.”
Because there’s not. I didn’t have community support, I didn’t have social support, I didn’t have monetary support; I never went to college, I went to sad, impoverished public schools, I got pregnant and got married young. I had one woman who told me once a year, “When you publish a book…” and that’s it. But some ineffable part of my brain never doubted that I would publish that book, and to this day, it doesn’t doubt that.
Even in the darkest parts of my career when things were going poorly, I’ve never doubted that I would be able to sell another book eventually. If something I write does poorly, sure sometimes, I wonder what the hell I’m doing wrong. But at the same time, I’m wondering why nobody wants to read this thing because I think it’s pretty terrific.
So perhaps, it’s simply a brain thing. You and I have a brain thing, and we just don’t feel it. Other people have a different brain thing, and they do.
If you’re writing, you’re a writer. I thought long and hard about this when I first started writing, and, yes, “impostor syndrome” is a real thing. But the more I read about and considered the situation, I realized how self-limiting that is. In fact, I refer to myself not only as a writer but as an author. Even though my fiction is yet unpublished, I am the author of many business and marketing articles which have been published in national magazines and elsewhere. Look out, world. My fiction is on the way.
Some random comments:
I wrote a story about Impostor Syndrome once — the title, with stunning lack of imagination, is “Impostor Syndrome” — for a horror anthology, Phobias 2. The angle I specifically addressed was people who refuse to let anyone see their work for fear they’ll be recognized as impostors. I worry about this — that there’s brilliant work out there that we’ll never get to see because its creators think they’re faking, that they aren’t really any good at what they do.
On it being partially a gendered phenomenon: When I edited the anthology Newer York, I got far more submissions from men than from women, but the average quality of the stories by women was much, much higher. (The finished book was about one-third by women, as I recall, but something like 90% of submissions were from men. That’s from memory, I’m too lazy to dig out the actual numbers.) I’d attributed this to men being more prone to Dunning-Krueger, and not realizing they were sending me crap, but maybe it’s just as much women being more prone to Impostor Syndrome.
I used to teach writing classes, and the major reason I quit was that my best students all seemed to suffer from Impostor Syndrome, while the worst thought they were unrecognized geniuses. The extreme case was a woman who had written a story I not only thought was publishable, but which was perfect for a then-open anthology. I told her about the anthology, told the anthology’s editor about my student and her story, and even gave the student an addressed manila envelope (this was back when all submissions were by streetmail). All she had to do was stick the story in the envelope and mail it. Which, the editor informed me, she did not do. I never saw her after the class ended so I couldn’t ask her why, but one of her friends told me later that that was her normal behavior; she joined writing workshops and took classes so she could bask in the praise of her instructors and classmates, but never, ever submitted anything to actual markets because they would see that she wasn’t a real writer.
I spent several years on the masthead of a college daily (as an editor) and found it a wonderfully supportive environment that, in my case at least, suppressed the “impostor syndrome” before it had a chance to begin.
(As for the discussion of the role of luck: This is one sort of luck that has nothing to do with good preparation. In the absence of a healthy pre-Internet newspaper journalism industry, it’s possible that our host wouldn’t have had many years of paid professional writing experience and growth as a writer before trying fiction. It’s like imagining if Chopin had been born a few decades earlier; without the advent of the “modern” piano with cast-iron frame – circa 1820 to 1830 – the Chopin oeuvre couldn’t have been written. Timing is everything.)
I think that we all or most of us have this happen in our lives ,be you writer Dr, machinist , or trash man.just sayin
I have the opposite of “Imposter Syndrome”, where I think I should be far more successful than I am. I’m tempted to call this “Mad Scientist” syndrome, because at the heart of it there’s always at least a little bit of “I’ll show THEM!”
Luckily I’m writing comic books and not building, you know, a death ray or whatever.
[I’m writing this quickly while a sick toddler naps, apologies in advance if it ends abruptly because ze wakes. Also, other people have written elsewhere about this more eloquently and in much greater detail; I haven’t seen anyone else bring this issue up here yet.]
Context: I’m an artist. It’s hard to say that, when I look at the work others do, but my stuff does sell/is licensed occasionally and I keep doing it, so hey, it’s art, even if I can barely bring myself to call it anything but doodles and sketches.
One thing to consider in discussion of Imposter Syndrome, particularly as regards your experience of it, is the American cultural phenomenon of classifying everyone by their income-generating occupation – plumber, lawyer, technical support, and that rare creature the full-time writer – and shutting out the roles/occupations/volunteerism that’s unpaid/not-enough-to-pay-the-bills – stay-at-home-parent, volunteer at the nursing home, student, writer, on disability, PTA member, artist, etc.
(side note: why yes, that list is often dominated by caregiver roles and is often gendered, because yep, that’s a thing.)
So, a lurking factor in our inability to say “I am a writer, damnit”, is because so very few of us, even if we publish and have sales, can say that we make a *living* from it. Ditto artists, like me.
If we as a culture could quit asking people “so what do you do [by which I mean how do you derive your income]?”, that could help a bit here.
I’ve had impostor syndrome my whole life, and even quite objective external evidence (e.g. passing a national licensing exam on the first try) doesn’t help much (contrary to Dunning & Krueger’s findings).
I also have clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and (for the past few years) PTSD. This may or may not be relevant. That I am female and the youngest of 4 kids, and nothing much was expected of me, is almost certainly relevant.
Maybe if we started asking, “What do you do that delights you?” we could have better conversations.
Oh hell yes, imposter syndrome.
I had it as a pharmacist. (Never mind the degree and the professional certification.) I had it as a programmer (never mind the degree and the track record). I had it as an SF writer.
You know what made it go away? The frickin’ Hugo award. *Not* selling oodles of novels; anyone could write books and sell them! That doesn’t mean you’re not faking it. But winning a Hugo made the sense of being a fake go away. It began to come back after 3-4 years, but then I won another. And I’m pretty sure I left it dead at the crossroads with the third Hugo.
… But my point isn’t that I win awards; it’s that imposter syndrome is so insidious and hard to shift that getting rid of it sometimes takes hundreds of people telling you you’re not an imposter over the course of a decade or more. And if someone you know has this problem? Please take it seriously — it’s not some kind of false modesty, it’s stressful and it really sucks.
Just a note on Kruger-Running: they found that people who are really bad tend to think they are excellent AND that people who are really good tend to think they are cheap because they know what they don’t know. We tend to focus on the lower end, but both are part of their study. The study is well worth a read.
Dunning went on to write a really helpful book.
Maybe you covered this somewhere and I missed it, but how did you pay the bills after being laid off at AOL and before you were making money writing novels?
But what if you discover you really *are* an impostor? As a kid, I won district-wide and state-wide writing contests with regularity, and my teachers would pat my head and tell me I could be a writer when I grew up. I published stories and essays in high school, in actual literary publications. To my parents’ dismay, I went to college early, on a (partial) writing scholarship…though I was urged to major in something “more practical” in case the “writing thing” didn’t work out. I continued to win writing awards, some quite prestigious.
Then I got married to another aspiring writer who got jealous every time I had a success. He continually pressured me to take on more “real jobs” for pay because my writing income wasn’t contributing enough to the household. I had to fight for every hour of writing time, because he would guilt-trip me about taking time away from him, away from paying work, away from the household. It finally dawned on me that he was sabotaging me and undermining my confidence. We split, and though I’ve gotten much more writing done since then, I’ve been trying to break back into professional status ever since.
I seem to have some kind of “loser stink” on me now–in ten years I’ve been unable to get a single thing accepted for publication. My novels are damned with faint praise by agents. I’ve won writing contests with them, but am told that they’re unpublishable because they’re not marketable. Even small presses will sit on my manuscripts for 300 – 400 days(!), and then politely reject them, with mild encouragement. As for my shorter pieces, I keep setting my bar lower and lower in an attempt to get something–anything!–accepted for publication. At this point I’m submitting to magazines that don’t pay anything and that I don’t even respect. So, maybe along the way I lost whatever talent I had. Maybe I never really had much at all, and people were just humoring me because I was “good for” a girl, or “good for” my age. I don’t know. It all came so easy early on that I was totally unprepared for how difficult it would become later.
I was a consultant for tech and financial firms, wrote non-fiction books and had gigs writing music and film reviews, among other things. I did the freelance thing.
As mentioned, the creative arts seems to be subject to this more than something like, say, accounting. I wonder if one of the factors is that success in writing, or the other arts seems capricious sometimes. Someone can spend years toiling on a brilliant piece of art, and then something like Fifty Shades of Grey comes roaring in. It would be sort of like a mathematician spending years on an esoteric proof, and then someone gets a few million dollars for a couple of pages of arithmetic.
Wow. A lot to unpack in this comment. Thanks! I loved reading about the child psych experiments.
I know some people who were roughly on the same life track with me, with one difference: they were extremely self-promoting. I grew to realize that regardless if I think that person deserves to be in those spotlights, unfortunately, in this social media crazed world, we all must get better at that. Shove that imposter syndrome to the drawer and get to work. Confidence is an extremely valuable asset for that. Although for me this is the goal yet to be achieved.
I know the feeling of that lady. It’s like a sound proof wall between you and the ‘real deserving’ world. It’s like a mountain that’s impossible to cross. All this logistics is a nightmare for an outsider, although in place of that lady, I’d mail the bloody paper. Probably.
For future reference, please aggregate your posts. Multiple sequential comments from the same about author mess with my sense of neatness.
All of it is relevant. Sigh. Just wait for a crack of light in your clouds, and go for it. Because you can. And you know it. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to just get to it (that I personally understand because of my own anxieties).
What a shmuck you ex is! I think you need a little break and a little self-loving treatment! Sign up for that boat with Scalzi, or go to spa. Do gardening. Talk to people in diners, anything to take your mind off the pressure to publish. This is not a joke. This is a powerful magical comment that will bring you luck. I cast a lucky spell on you. Go get happy and self-loving, see some (only nice) people. Don’t take bs from anyone. By the power of WordPress, I proclaim that your bad luck is officially over. You are welcome.
…None of my comments ended up being addressed to people I wanted to. Weird… Sorry for littering here then. Not sure why they all showed up at the end of the thread….
Sir Scalzi, please delete all their last comments, I don’t mind, actually, I’d like that. The way they showed up makes no sense. Sorry. Lesson learned.
They showed up at the end because there is no comment threading. Which is why, in the future, you should aggregate your posts and note to whom you are responding.
I don’t get Imposter Syndrome when I’m writing, submitting, or even when I’ve made a sale. Even rejections have been par for the course. My Imposter Syndrome comes with the things that come now that I’ve made some short story sales: participating on panels, teaching classes, writing up a bio for myself for my alma mater’s English department webpage, etc. I was invited to do those things, so it seems like I’d be more at ease, but those are the places where I feel as though, surely, I have less to offer or to show off, that THIS is when people wonder why I’m sitting there.
So in terms of ‘get out there and write!’ this blog post is spot on. For the other incarnations of Imposter Syndrome… I’m not so sure.
“Because through word-choice alone, the kids in that second group had been taught that being a good drawer was something that a person either was or was not. And if “being a good drawer/writer/etc.” is an essentialized quality–if it’s innate and unchanging, if you can’t make a bad drawer into a good drawer any more than you can make a raccoon into a skunk–then failure has revealed a deep, internal property about yourself that you cannot change. ”
really encapsulates my own experience as a kid. They made such a big deal out of whether you were gifted, talented, or intelligent back then. It was never, “That was a really smart thing you just did, good work,” it was, “You did this thing well because you are smart and smart people do well at things unless they are being lazy or stubborn.”
While I hadn’t heard of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ before, I’ve experienced its symptoms personally which has resulted in an internal struggle with whether or not others will accept that I am a writer and ultimately if I accept that I am a writer. Why I allow others to have such control or influence over me is another topic altogether, but the points you made, especially the aspect that if one writes they are a writer, are absolute. I suspect that this is true of all the arts – drawing or painting, writing or playing music, acting or dancing, and so on. An artist (which I believe a writer is) has the tendency to be insecure, or to question their abilities, comparing themselves with others – which by the way I suspect you refrain from doing, contributing to your confidence and success. When I examine myself I find that while I write at least 500 words a day, four or five days a week, I can’t help but compare my writing with others whose work I admire and frankly I find this discouraging and counterproductive. Yet, if I don’t read I tend to lack the fuel that ignites my imagination. So, for me anyway, there’s this weird cycle that I struggle with, wanting to write and loving it as I’m writing, but lacking the confidence to really put it out there. Of course the fact that I’m in my 50’s plays a part as well , feeling that I wasted so many years before sitting down and writing.
BTW – Thank you for your comments and no, I didn’t feel you were bragging. I admire your confidence and, based on what you described, I feel like I better understand where it comes from. I know you’ll keep at it and that alone serves as inspiration for me to continue.
Impostor Syndrome may be particularly common in writing for two reasons:
1) it’s much more difficult to judge the quality of your own work objectively. I bet you don’t get many welders thinking “oh, god, maybe I’m just a really bad welder? What happens if all the other welders realise?” If you’re a competent welder, you know it. But the world is full of incompetent writers who don’t know. Which brings me on to
2) The world is full of incompetent writers. There are very few people who write well enough to do it for a living and not many who even do it well enough to be published. It’s natural to worry about the odds of your being one of the others.
Scribbler McGee: what I’m hearing through your question is two threads. Firstly, I think you’re in your early to mid thirties? (Guesstimating from “went to college early … married another writer … split after 10 years”). If so, you’re still young in writer-years — the sad truth is that before you can write fiction effectively, you need a degree in the university of life, and surprisingly few writers can actually write a compelling novel-length story with human engagement before the age of 30. (I know I didn’t.) Short stories are another matter, though, so it’s common to see early precocious success with short fiction followed by years and years of failure to launch in long-form media.
Secondly, the feedback you’re describing is not criticism of your writing ability, it’s criticism of your commercial orientation. Like it or not, you’re trying to break into the business of publishing. Publishers love literature, but if they don’t focus on the bottom line — will this book make a profit — then they’ll go broke. So, sensibly enough, they do exactly that. Sometimes this means they’re short-sighted and reject the Next Big Thing because it’s unlike anything that has a commercial track record. But sometimes it means you’ve written a perfectly good novel that for some reason has no commercial prospects. (Case in point: from late 2014, at least one major publisher I know of had a block on buying Urban Fantasy. If you were Patricia Briggs or Laurel K. Hamilton of course you had a meal ticket because you had a fan base … and if you were doing something innovative enough to sell under a different label and/or cover they’d chance it: but tough female protagonists with the tramp stamp and the vampire or werewolf? boyfriend dilemma? “That’s so 2013, we’re over-stocked, drop it”.)
This doesn’t mean your books are no good; simply that they’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to sell.
failing something for the first time (e.g. my driving test) or being made redundant (i’m in IT – this happens regularly in my career path, sad to say) is a massive clash between what you’re feeling inside and what everyone else seems to think. i’ve had the same realisation as you that how good i am (or believe i am) is ultimately irrelevant if the company i work for no longer exists.
i do sometimes step outside of where i am and wonder whether i’m going to screw something up, or whether someone will realise i’m just figuring things out and making it up as i go along. but i also think that’s natural (and does you psychological good) to have that from time to time. perhaps where it turns into a syndrome is when you never snap out of that mindset?
if you have self-confidence and your self-worth (or even financial worth) doesn’t depend on external validation, then it’s arguably less likely to occur regularly. but in something like academia or writing, for example, those external forces do guide your worth – they decide whether you get published, the feedback is usually about what you’ve done *wrong* rather than what was *right*. you’re not in control of that, so unless you have a rock-solid core of self worth, or a great support network, or something else to fall back on, you’re perhaps more likely to compare yourself to peers who you regard as being vastly more skilled or talented than yourself.
“…it frustrates me that so many talented people who have earned their places in the field with their work battle with it.”
This comment, while no doubt unintended, doesn’t help me. When have I earned my place? What’s the measure of talent? Do I stack up to those things? I’m honestly thinking not. I know I’ve a long way to go as a writer. But I’ve also come a long way.
I get the post in general, but that comment got my hackles up. And made the feeling of being a fraud even stronger.
I don’t think you sound like an asshole here. I think you sound like someone who is analyzing his success, and openly admits that a lot of it was luck, and also admits that you were well prepared to take advantage of that luck. I mean, clearly you had talent. But you also happened to be interested in doing something you had the talent to do, and that talent was encouraged by those around you (another form of luck), and you had the opportunities that your ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and your timing (when you happened to catch the internet bubble) in your favor. And you seem pretty honest about that here. Admitting that there are a lot of things besides yourself contributing to your success isn’t assholeness, its honest.
You are doing the best you can, from the perspective of someone who hasn’t “been there”, to be encouraging to those with Imposter Syndrome. For some, they really need to hear from someone who has been inside this problem and gotten out, so you can’t help there. But you can be honest and say “hey, all this success? a lot of it doesn’t have to do with me per se, and even with the success, I don’t identify myself as a success because of it”. And that’s a good thing for everyone to remember.
Interestingly, thinking of myself as a writer as an essential trait has helped me in my life. I also think of myself who improves with time, and who occasionally fails miserably at a project, has strengths and weaknesses–so I think, that was a good piece of writing I wrote, and I am a good writer. It’s sort of a double protection. I have been published by a very, very small press, but never really gone anywhere with my sales. My attempts at agents and larger publishers end with the “you won’t sell the way you write” syndrome. When I wrote memoir in my MFA program one of our assignments was to come up with other writers to compare ourselves to. Not even my advisor could come up with anyone similar to me. Now I write speculative fiction. I write intrusion even though it is so 2013 because I like writing it, though I plan on returning to memoir after this next two books in a series I have pretty far underway.
I have a writing partner who is more focused of publishing and making a living in a published writer. He talks about fitting writing to a formula that isn’t necessarily good, but will get it sold. I tried. First of all, it makes me unhappy to try. Secondly, my writing tends to go sideways on me and get eccentric even when I try for what will sell. I’m not much interested anymore. I know I have written well executed, character strong novels. That makes me happy. You have a better chance at being a pro athlete than a writer who makes their living entirely at writing. So if I have to have other jobs anyway, I might as well write what makes me happy. My only regret is this means I don’t have much of a readership, and I believe fully my books are fun, good reads that people would like even if they are unconventional. I wish I could share more.
Getting to the point, however, I’m bipolar with anxiety problems and PTSD. Writing has saved my life over and over again. The process of writing, the joy in creating, the exploration of my characters and myself. I have extreme imposter syndrome in almost all other areas of my life. I believe people will eventually figure out I am pathetic socially. I see myself as a failure at any “normal” life path at 39, despite the fact I have two masters degrees. I see myself as inept at every practical matter. When I am depressed I have had periods of time when I thoroughly believed someone would figure out I was just an imposture human. But even as an imposture human, I am a good writer.
This is lovely advice, and some that I’m still incorporating. I might not sell anything ever, but writing is a fundamental component of my identity and I’m finally at peace with that. I’m not a *professional* writer, but I write, and therefore I *am* a writer. Thanks for the validation.
I think I see where you’re at. And I’m surprised, to say the least, that I think we have this in common. But you, man, you’ve got proven accomplishments to hold up to your id and say “I don’t suck. See here? These are things people say about me.” Nevertheless you suffer. Shit.
I’ve been ping-ponging between Dunning-Krugerism and Imposter Syndromism since I started writing. Is it hopeless?
Charlie Stross – alas, I’m rather older than that (I’ve been divorced for ten years…was regrettably married for quite a bit longer than a decade), but I’m sure your points stand all the same. Could be a case of wrong books, wrong time…also the clinging remnants of an education that stressed micro over macro (“lovely writing” over “gripping storytelling”), which I’m working very hard to undo. Thank you for your straight talk.
Coming around late as always, hello Jen Barnes, yes, I think you’re very right about essentialism; it resonates very highly with my experience tutoring kids at math and teaching in a gifted and talented program for a while, and in working with Adult Disadvantaged Learners.
Stray thought about one reason some successful athletes succeed in wildly divergent fields after the athletic career is over: they internalized the working process that you keep track of whether you get a hit or strike out, get a basket or don’t, throw the other guy or get thrown, but only as an indicator of where you are on the optimum curve right now. The most amazing athletes of all time still have large numbers of “failures” (and in some cases the high failure rate is a direct consequence of the high ambition, e.g. the great home run hitters tend to lead in striking out as well, and the three-point artists miss more baskets than the guys working under the board). They just treat the failures as part of the ongoing data stream; hunh, I missed that one. Next up, try same basic idea again. Enough misses, adjust basic idea, but there’s an expected level of misses. It’s the growth mindset down at the micro level. You can see it, for example, in the Williams sisters in tennis; they play every point like it’s the most important thing ever, and then treat the win or loss as a statistic, and that’s why other players have to beat them point by point (hard to do) whereas they often have won a match by the first few games.
And of course there are other athletes who rely on the overall feeling of superiority; it’s just as effective as long as you are winning , and if you win all the time,that’s fine. But if the world indicates that you’re not so good at things anymore — even though a more point-by-point type would just regard it as a little negative run in the data … well, the slope is already greased down into the pit of Impostor Syndrome.
The analogy to that in writing might be that much-worshipped ill-defined thing editors currently call Voice. (Which they say they know when they see, which always makes me think of Chico Marx’s “Hark! I hear footprints!”) If you try to put an interesting person in an interesting situation, have them do something interesting about it, and then get them out of it in a reasonably satisfying way, you may or may not always succeed, but when you do, people will generally read your story, plain or leaden or tin-eared though you may sound to them. If you try to make each sentence a shiny gem, your English teacher or the people in your writing group, who have tried to focus their own attention on shiny gems, will say happy things, but your voice will be curiously similar to everyone else with literary ambition, and whenever, as it inevitably must, it falters, you will say to yourself “A real writer wouldn’t have faltered.” Whereas if you just get the story itself right (which includes trying to be fairly precise about what you imagine), some good things can happen in the words, and you’ll hear nice things about your Voice from people who don’t necessarily notice that your Voice is what happened while you were trying to express your Kiss, your Pursuit, or perhaps your Knife Fight on a High Ledge in a Thunderstorm.
And that’s more than enough ramble in our Esteemed Host’s living room for a while. Sorry to go on like that.
These are very good points. If you read various say, celebrity biographies (or this), you read that all of these people were encouraging them and supporting them. And comparatively speaking, I can probably count on one hand the number of people encouraging me in any sort of artistic career. Which of course leads you to think that maybe you’re just not that good if nobody is sold on you doing so (except one friend of mine who’s from a foreign country, not super great at English or reading, and I can’t even recall if he’s ever read anything of mine other than e-mail, so he’s not a super awesome judge on that). I’ve got “get a real job” ingrained in me, and these days nobody likes me on the job or in the job market, so I feel like complete crap.
You have to have people pushing you up to get to the top, I suspect, and I just haven’t had that. The people I know are struggling like I am and nobody’s really getting anywhere. I’m certainly not so sold on my own genius that I’ll keep pushing and pushing–I see the flaws and think, “Hell, it’s not worth it to pay a professional to see if it’s worth anything,” and quit. (Then again, I have the fortitude of a dead flower.)
I don’t have impostor syndrome because nobody thinks I’m better than I actually am, really.
Picking up where Charlie left off…
This imposter syndrome business has to be something in the air because, so help me, I listened to Janis Ian talking about exactly the same thing two days ago. I’ll get back to this.
Let’s hit the age thing. It’s both a red herring and a two-edged sword. There’s a pernicious and completely false myth that people do their best and most important work when they’re young and, correspondingly, if they haven’t done anything important when they’re young, they never will.
It’s not true. It never has been true. Statistics of the important work people have done plotted against age do show a modest peak in the late 20’s to early 30’s. Emphasis on the word modest. The plot might show, on average, 20% of important work done in people’s 20’s, 25% in the 30’s, 20% in the 40’s and 50’s and 15% in their 60’s. So, yeah, there’s a peak, but it’s so shallow it doesn’t tell you a damn thing, and if you pick any single decade to bet that’s where your particular fame-making work will come from, you’ll be betting against the odds.
This holds up in a large variety of fields, scholarly and artistic. The myth persists because of sample bias and ageism. When someone does something amazing without having “paid their dues” (a stupid and perniciously evil concept, in my ever humble opinion) or spent years climbing the talent tree, we notice it. It gets remembered, because it feels wildly anomalous. It’s not, it’s just less likely.
That other sword edge? People who make it big right out of the gate, for whatever reason, are prone to feeling like imposters. It took Janis years to decide she was a Real Musician, worthy of associating with her idols. That’s what happens when you write your first big hit at 13 and it goes viral when you’re 16, and your second big hit when you’re 23. It’s just gotta be a fluke, right? You’re not really deserving. She got over it. It took time.
But the risk doesn’t go away with age. Any time you change milieus. It bit her when she discovered fandom (she was always a fan), which didn’t happen until she was 50. There she is getting introduced to her Literary Gods and she’s “just” Janis Ian. She got over that, too. But it took some more years.
OK, back to you. Trying to read waaaay too much into your post, and if I get it wrong I apologize. Best intentions, all of that. Doesn’t mean I’m right.
Emotionally-abusive relationships are great for making the survivors feel like imposters. More importantly, that doesn’t go away just ’cause one escapes the relationship. There’s longer-lasting damage. Sometimes there’s a permanent twinge. People trivialize emotional abuse, too often. No, it’s one of those gifts that keeps on giving. Part of dealing with it is to realize that it’s the ghost of the abuser.
pax / Ctein
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As a rule of thumb you should regard everyone as an imposter, then by default everything is normal and you have nothing to worry about. This is most useful when it comes to political figures as the media lense makes their imposter status all the more obvious.
I like Garrison Keillor’s reminder that we have a backstage view of ourselves and a third-row view of everyone else. (Paraphrasing, hopefully reasonably accurately.)
Self publish. Put it out on Amazon. You don’t have to wait for a gatekeeper to determine whether or not your work is marketable – let the audience decide.
If it turns out that the gatekeepers were wrong about the audience for your books, they’ll come seeking *you* out for a deal.
That is definitely worthy of consideration, but Scribbler will have to decide whether or not she will be happy with a very modest following (a few dozen or hundred readers), or whether it will make her feel like even more of an imposter.
The Internet provides an alternative route but it is one with very low odds of success. Far lower, actually, than going to a conventional publisher. Those are still better odds than zero, which is what happens if a conventional publisher won’t take you on… But that’s all.
Self-publishing also requires you to do your own professional-level copyediting and proofreading (very difficult to do on one’s own work, even if one normally does this professionally for others). Worse, you have to do all your own marketing and publicity. You may build it, but they will not come. They need to be lured in. Hell, they need to even know you exist. The Internet is like a shopping mall with 1,000,000,000 customers where you get free rental space… But it has 500,000,000 storefronts! They will never find yours unless you have some way of attracting attention to yourself.
I don’t wish to discourage anyone from going this route, they should just understand what they are getting into.
pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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Had way too much to say about this to fit it into a comment, so I put it on my own blog:
Read or don’t, agree or don’t.