The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)

Someone asked me about “impostor syndrome” today on Twitter, so I linked over to the piece I wrote about it a couple of years back. Not surprisingly, this being Twitter, some folks had criticisms of the piece; one of the most cogent came from Lindsay Ellis, who essayed it in a multitweet thread which begins here, and which I encourage everyone to read. Among other criticisms, Lindsay says the following:

Scalzi talking about why he thinks he’s never suffered from Impostor Syndrome is a separate issue from people overcoming their own. I’m sure he gets the question “how do I overcome impostor syndrome?” a lot – but here is the thing; if he’s never had it, he doesn’t know.

This is, in fact, entirely accurate. I can say that I believe people shouldn’t have it, because (in the case of writers) if you write, you’re a writer, and that’s a thing in itself. Hopefully that’s encouraging to some people. But as Lindsay and others noted, me saying that doesn’t actually essay the issue for lots of folks, or even come close to addressing the root issues of impostor syndrome for many people. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, and the closest I’ve come to experiencing it manifested itself in a different way: not “They’re all going to figure out that I’m fraud” but rather “Look at me I’m totally getting away with this,” and even that in a mostly transitory way.

I don’t feel bad about this. I’m not going to pretend I’ve felt something that I haven’t, and by and large I’m pretty happy not have experienced impostor syndrome. It doesn’t seem like a good time, although Lindsay notes that one can harness it for one’s benefit. But inasmuch as I’ve not experienced it, I’m probably not the right person to give advice on how to avoid it, or how to deal with it when it happens to you. The best I can do is to explain why it’s never happened to me, which mostly boils down to privilege, encouragement and ego (the last of which substantially helped by the first two). These things are what allowed me, when confronted with naysayers, to say “Oh, yeah? Watch this,” rather than to wonder whether they were right.

The conversation on impostor syndrome also dovetails for me into a larger thought I’ve been having, about the overall usefulness of writing/publishing advice I might give people, particularly newer writers. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 30 years; I’ve been a published novelist for almost fifteen. There are certain things I feel comfortable talking about these days with regard to writing composition (I can tell you how to craft reasonably good sentences, paragraphs, chapters and stories), and I can give you a reasonable birds-eye view of the publishing world, because I’m high up enough in it that I see a whole lot of what’s going on, including the things that most people don’t see. And, I’m good about talking about all the fun ancillary things that could happen when a book takes off, like TV/movie deals and other such projects. There are things I know about all of these, and it’s contemporary information.

But — when I started off as a professional writer, newspapers were still a thing, and they were hiring journalists, not laying them off by the score. The Internet existed mostly as a communication system between universities and defense department outposts. When I got my start as a novelist, eBooks were barely a thing at all, and not even covered in contracts; audiobooks were mostly an afterthought. Amazon was still mostly about books. These days, my business is novels — I don’t do a whole lot of other writing for money because, bluntly, Tor pays me a shitload of money to keep my focus on books. Oh, and, also, I’m a millionaire now, which is a pretty good thing for me, but also means that I’m well-insulated from a lot of concerns and issues that affect other writers. And of course there’s the part where I’m straight, white, male and cis, so I get that complement of societal buffs for free.

So while there a lot of things I know about writing, and publishing, and creating and so on, there’s also quite a lot of stuff that I don’t have direct experience with anymore, because where I am in my career is sufficiently removed from those issues that they don’t affect me, and I don’t have to spend any great amount of time thinking about them. If you ask me about these issues, I will tell you what my experience was, and how I understand things work today, but do keep in mind that asking me about a lot of them is like asking your dad (or grandad! I’m technically old enough now to be one!) tips on the hottest upcoming bands. If you’re lucky you’ll get “Uh, I don’t know, that Imagine Dragons group?” before he throws up his hands (note: 40-to-60-year old men reading this, this is not your cue to drop the names of hip young bands in the comments to prove that you’re not out of touch). Likewise, while I do try to keep up with trends and events in my industry and community, there are now gaps in my knowledge. Things today are not like when I was coming up, and I’m not in the same place today that I was when I was coming up.

This is not a bad thing. It’s fine for creative people to go through stages in their career, where the knowledge useful to an earlier stage falls away and knowledge useful to their current stage takes its place. Time happens, whether we prefer it to or not. Experience likewise happens. My experience is valid, and the information I have can still be useful, but all of it exists in the context of this is who I am and where I am now in my professional life. Additionally, it should be viewed in the context of survivorship bias — which is to say, I have made it to a particular place in my career, and while I can offer you information based on my experience to tell you how I got here, it might be more useful to examine the careers of people who haven’t landed where I have, despite having similar starting points and early career arcs.

I think I’ve generally been pretty good at disclosing and disclaiming who I am and what my place is in the world, and I think I’ve likewise been pretty good at reminding people that one, what worked for me might not work for them, and two, that when I opine about things (including things relating to my profession), I might occasionally be pulling things out of my ass. And to be fair I think a lot of writers and creators near, at, and above my status do the same thing. Many if not most of us are happy to tell you that our experience is our own, and that you should take it with the same grain of salt that you should take any advice, opinion or claims of experience. Successful writers are no less full of shit than anyone else.

But in case you’ve forgotten this (or this is the first time you’re seeing it), well: Here it is. I can tell you what I know. But what I know isn’t always going to be on point for you. You have to make the determination of what value my words have for your experience. If they’re useful, great! I like being useful. But if not, I won’t be offended. I don’t know everything, and what I do know may be something you can’t use. It happens. It’ll happen to you, too, one day. If you’re lucky.

32 Comments on “The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)”

  1. “Things today are not like when I was coming up, and I’m not in the same place today that I was when I was coming up.”

    I feel and endorse this. As a science journalist/nonfiction author, I frequently get asked to talk to undergraduates and immediate post-grads on Finding Your Way As A Science Writer. Which, I am happy to be paid to do, but it always feels a little dishonest, and I always warn hosts that I am talking about history that has limited relevance to today. I started in newspapers, and worked at four of them before leaving for the magazine+book life. I left papers for freelancing 10 years ago, and I started in newspapers more than 10 years before that. With the contraction of the newspaper industry, the path I took literally doesn’t exist any more.

  2. I appreciate your honesty. Personally, I can say that you’ve always given me a lot to think about, and I often find your views on the writing front really encouraging and inspirational. But I try to read widely and see lots of views so I can challenge myself on many fronts. (Among others I enjoy reading about writing Chuck Wendig and Cat Valente spring to mind…) I think, for me, that keeps me from thinking, “Oh, Person X says if I do Y I’ll get result Z!” But that’s just my experience…

  3. Thanks for your candor about what you do and don’t know. Most people aren’t willing to admit they don’t know what they don’t know, but then, reading your posts occasionally over the last couple of years has made quite clear that you’re not most people.

  4. “I can say that I believe people shouldn’t have it, because (in the case of writers) if you write, you’re a writer, and that’s a thing in itself. Hopefully that’s encouraging to some people. But as Lindsay and others noted, me saying that doesn’t actually essay the issue for lots of folks,”
    I think one big concern is having a pro say “you shouldn’t feel this way” to someone feeling this way could very well make the person feel this way even worse.

  5. At a point in my career I did feel like an imposter but I then looked around me and figured out that they were imposters too and then I didn’t feel bad anymore. I said to myself that I can out-imposter them any day of the week and I became proud of my impostering ability. Problem solved.

  6. As someone who specializes in helping people overcoming procrastination, perfectionism, and blocks, I disagree strenuously with Lindsay’s idea that perfectionism “in moderation” can be good.

    Punishment and coercion, the main strategies of perfectionism, sometimes work short-term, and are supported by our harsh society. But they always leave you more disempowered, and thus less able to do your work in the future. And eventually they stop working altogether, because we get habituated. (Think about it: if they really worked, wouldn’t many more of us be super productive by now? Lots of people have been bashing themselves for years or decades.)

    It horrifies me to see people promoting perfectionism as a good thing, because the reality is that most people who are seriously afflicted with it don’t achieve a fraction of what they could achieve, AND what they do achieve tends to come with lots of pain and little joy. Also, perfectionism can literally wreck your life – see the recent reports of epidemics of anxiety and depression and even suicide among teens, perfectionism being identified a main cause:

    I think you’re right, John, that it’s healthier for people to focus more expansively on process (aka, “if you write, you’re a writer”) and intrinsic rewards, and less on product and outcomes. But I also see where it might be harder to hear that from someone as successful as yourself. However, I also think that focusing on the intrinsic rewards offers the best odds of achieving “worldly” success. (The other way is to intentionally write something formulaic, a strategy most self-defined “creative writers” I’ve taught have balked strenuously at.)

    To be clear, I support whatever strategy truly works for someone, so I’m glad Lindsay has found her groove. And I also think her point that legitimacy is both necessary and can be hard to come by, esp. for creative people and women in particular, is completely valid. There are real reasons for that. (For instance: see the average parent’s reaction if their kid says they want an MFA vs. MBA.) But perfectionism isn’t the answer to that or anything else.

  7. kevinboyce says:
    FEBRUARY 28, 2019 AT 10:31 PM
    Wait, you’re a millionaire??? Californ-i-a’s th’ place y’oughta be!

    No, rural Ohio is the place to be if he wants to stay a millionaire!

  8. This brings to mind a quote from Dick Cheney.

    Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

  9. The value of your wisdom to newer writers (I’m sending a copy of this essay to my partner, a new writer who is just getting her first novel published this year) cannot be understated. Very few writers write about the creative process, the underpinnings of the act of writing, the vast strangeness and wonder of the business, etc, like you do. We are all better for it, and thank you very much for your candor and assistance — it’s more helpful to new writers than you are probably aware of. Besides the strength of your novels, your work on creativity and the business of writing and marketing books, well, if somebody ever collected your essays on writing and published them (hint, hint) you would do well. It’s like, you and Steven King and Neil write about writing, and then there are everyone else. Thanks again!

  10. Great essay. One thing I really enjoy about your writing about your career is that you are utterly without either boastful pride or false humility, and that’s refreshing. You’re a really good writer, you know you’re good, you’ve been extremely successful at it, and you present all these as the facts that they are instead of making it your identity one way or the other. Which means you can talk honestly about the practicalities of your success without any bullshit, whether it’s “Look at me!” or “Aw shucks”.

  11. I think Chuck Wendig pointed this out, and I think he got it from someone else in turn: advice is never really meant for you, it’s what the advice-giver wants to tell their past selves.

    So while advice may or may not be useful to you, either immediately or in the long run, the only person it’s guaranteed to work for is someone else.

    (I suffer from periodically catastrophic imposter syndrome, myself, so take it with that additional grain of salt.)

  12. Hillary: “I disagree strenuously with Lindsay’s idea that perfectionism “in moderation” can be good.”

    The first half of that particular tweet is talking about a person accepting their faults. Brene Brown has several good videos about dealing with shame. Basically everyone struggling with shame thinks they should be perfect, and the people who arent struggling with shame have found someone to reveal their imperfections to, that soneone accepts them for who they are, and the first person isnt paralyzed by shame as a result.

    So i didnt read that particular tweet as focusing on “in moderation” but rather on accepting that you’re imperfect and humans are perfect, which then can lead to getting beyond the shame that can paralyze so many people.

    Lindsay mentioned that telling people “you shouldnt feel this way” could actually make the feeling worse because it doesnt give room for accepting someones imperfection. And the “in moderation” tweet was pointing in the direction of accepting that you are human and accepting your flaws so as to get out from under the crushing drive to be perfect and not hunan. A perfectionist “in moderation” would suggest that sometines you’re not a perfectionist, not perfect, and that could create an opening for a person struggling with imposter syndrome to accept their humanity, to give themselves room to accept their imperfections.

  13. This post is a bit inception-y!

    You got called out on being an impostor re: impostor syndrome. So you wrote an essay letting us know that you’re an impostor.

    I’m gonna be over here, laughing at the irony.

  14. “disclaiming”?
    It’s a word, and you’re the worder, but I think that’s a typo.

  15. Almost ten years after my first short story sale, I’ve not yet garnered enough attention to achieve impostor syndrome. My stories have dropped pebble-like into the literary pond and vanished with nary a ripple. Someday I’ll earn enough notice to be worth feeling like I don’t deserve it.

    Now, I do suffer from a common element of the syndrome: moving my mental goalposts. With my first sale, I felt like a “real writer” for about a week, ’til I started thinking how it might just be a fluke. Successive sales gave me that “real writer” feeling for diminishing periods of time; now it’s down to maybe three hours, even after selling about 28 stories and a couple of scripts. Why? ‘Cause a “real writer” produces novels, right?

    I’m working on one, and when I get over that hump and finish it, I fully expect one good day, and then a voice in my head telling me, “Anyone can write *one* novel, you dilettante ….”

  16. …I’m a millionaire now…

    I’ve always wondered what it is exactly that makes one a millionaire. Is in net worth? Income? A combination of both? I have more than a million dollars in my investment portfolio, but less than two, plus a nice house that’s paid for and is worth probably another quarter million as well as some lucky art purchases that are presently valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, but I’m retired and have an annual income that is a bit less than a tenth of a million dollars (pension and SS only – I have never touched the investment income, which is how it ever came to exceed a million dollars in the first place).

    So I suppose I could say I’m a millionaire since I do have at least a million dollars in investments and physical assets, although there’s always a risk that my investments could go south leaving me with less than a million (unlikely as I’m pretty conservative about how I invest, and I have enough money beyond the million dollar mark to provide a good buffer). But in the end, I do not consider myself a millionaire. If I had ten million dollars, probably yes, for sure, but I’m not in a position to do millionaire things like own a yacht, summer in the Hamptons, or fly around in private jets (although I have had the pleasure to do so a few times but at no cost to me), and I’d like for most of that portfolio to be there for my kids whenever I pass along.

    As for you, dear Scalzi, knowing Tor paid you in excess of three million dollars (a nice signing bonus for a decent utility infielder – you should be proud), plus I imagine sales and royalties of your popular books provide a decent living wage coupled with whatever Krissy earns, and like myself, you seem to live a relatively modest lifestyle in a part of the country with a very low COL, so I would definitely agree with you that you are a millionaire. And I hope that you always will be.

  17. This is something I try to keep in mind for myself. I’m in a totally different field, but I work as a teacher and supervisor as well as a practitioner. I believe in learning and developmental stages, and I try to remember what it was like to be in my students’ shoes, but there’s always going to be a limit to how useful my experience will be for them.

  18. As one who is closing in on the outer edge of that 40-60 group (I hit 60 later this year and all my leaves fall off permanently, or so I hear) am I permitted to note that I wasn’t “in touch” musically even when I was supposed to be? I was listening to jazz and classical instead of pop/rock for the most part 50 years ago. Come stand on my lawn and you can listen to Coltrane while I yell at you to get off my lawn!

    I’ll go back to the corner now.

  19. @Matthew Wright, our host has published at least two compilations of writing advice, in You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop and Don’t Live For Your Obituary

  20. To @robertreynolds66 point: I think I’m about 6 months older than John but my parents were born in the mid-30s. So when my peers were listening to Billy Joel and Duran Duran and so forth, I was still listening to Sinatra, Holliday, Mathis, Cline, Big Band, and Broadway show tunes (of the Rogers and Hammerstein era). I don’t think I ever actually recovered from being roughly 30 years behind the musical curve. ;)

  21. @KaraHudson – so how about that Grunge thing? I think it’s might have some legs.

  22. When you wrote, “If you’re lucky you’ll get “Uh, I don’t know, that Imagine Dragons group?” before he throws up his hands (note: 40-to-60-year old men reading this, this is not your cue to -“, I honestly thought you were about to tell us not to throw up our hands at all, what with the threat of pulled muscles or strained ligaments for such reckless vigorous activity. Which, you know, accurate.

  23. Imposter syndrome (as every other mind-thing) is both in-a-spectrum (opposed to yes/no) and multi-factored — i.e. : anyone has it, to a degree, and it can compound its factors in so many ways to manifest as many different conditions or events.

    Factor-wise, “who I am” and “what I can do” are maybe the most relevant and most prone to engender confusion if differently balanced by different people in the same discussion.

    Another point is how differently introverts and extroverts relate to the issue. Fiction writers being often on the fence between, for they must be somehow extroverted to be able to well read social interactions and somehow introverted to be able to build realistic fake ones in their own minds and then seat hours and hours translating them into compelling writing. Introverts being inclined to see it as “can I do this?”, while extroverts are more inclined to mix self-image and social-standing/achievements.

    Disclaimer: here I am totally in imposter territory (and not in the syndrome way of it), not having any psychology knowledgeability beyond raw common sense, not really knowing a lot about fiction writers, and, lastly, being these few lines a good chunk of all the English writing I ever done. So, take it as a “my 2-cents” uttering and to be taken “with a few grains of salt”.

  24. Imposter Syndrome is shame.
    And Brene is a sociologist who studied shame for years:
    “When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough.”
    “Shame drives two big tapes — “never good enough” — and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?” ”
    “Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” ”
    “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here’s what you even need to know more. Guilt, inversely correlated with those things.”
    “Shame feels the same for men and women, but it’s organized by gender.”
    “For women, shame is, do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. … For men… shame is one, do not be perceived as … weak”
    “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
    This is a sociologist who studied shame for years. And this video reads point for point like what Lindsay Ellis said about imposter syndrome: its different for men and women. It can be crippling. It gives you thoughts of depression. Telling soneone ‘you shouldnt feel that way” is an expression of UN-empathy and could make the person feel worse. And she lets everyone know she suffers with imposter syndrome, invoking a huge “me too” for anyone looking for advice on how to get over their own imposter syndrone.
    Research shows that hearing from soneone else who struggles with the same issue as you can help you deal with your issue better. And thats exactly what Lindsay did. People coming to her with the question “how do i get rid of imposter syndrome?” dont get a solution, but Lindsay telling them “i have it to” can give them support.

  25. Writing as an activity, period–something one does.

    Writing as a professional activity–something one is paid to do.

    Writing as a career–something one is paid to do for an extended period and continues to do so because (at least in part) one is paid. (See also “pizza corollary” below.)

    Of course, one can subsitute any number of activities for “writing” in the above. Myself, I’m a “musician” in that I play guitar, and while I have received compensation on some occasions, I would not call myself a professional. Nor does my persistence (I’ve played for more than sixty years) add up to anything like a career. I remain an amateur at heart. (There’s a pun involving “amateur” and “heart” available, but I’ll leave that for someone else to work out.)

    I’ve “been writing” since high school–one couldn’t get through college in the Sixties without doing so–it was an instrumental skill. I started getting paid for it toward the end of grad school, but I didn’t become what I would call a pro until I took up magazine journalism in my forties. And the amount of money I made would make claims of career status laughable. (A career, like a large pizza, should feed a family of four.) I have done pro-level writing for a long time, though, so when someone asks me what I’m retired from, it’s easiest to say “I was a writer.” Though to be really accurate, I’m not so much retired as seriously underemployed.

    BTW, “impostor syndrome” is, as far as I can tell, a psychological condition that applies to any number of life situations. Writers just seem to talk about it more openly. When I was teaching, I often felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants. Then I realized that teaching is a performing art, so of course it’s going to feel like that, and I prepared as well as I could, hit my marks, said my lines, and dealt with the audience response as it came at me. Turns out it’s a lot like making music on stage.

    re: Millionaire-hood. 1) A million ain’t what it used to be. And 2) enough is as good as a feast.

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