Imposters

Today I want to talk a little more about something I touched on a few weeks ago, and I’m seeing it more and more now when I’m talking to people about their creativity. We can call it Imposter Syndrome.

That is an actual clinical term, describing people who are ‘unable to internalize their accomplishments, despite external evidence of their competence.’ They remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. That sounds strange, but it is more common than you think.

The first time I noticed it was when it was a running gag among cartoonists. We joked it was part of the job, and we didn’t really see it as a bad thing. It seemed like something everyone has to go through from time to time, this crippling fear about your work and career (especially if it is also your source of income). The idea was most clearly expressed by Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub in their daily podcast from way back in 2007 when they talked about being scared of the ‘Failure Police‘ – listen to the clip here.

I always took solace in the idea, this shared burden that united us. But it wasn’t so much at the forefront of my thoughts until I heard Alec Baldwin’s interview with David Letterman on WYNC’s Here’s The Thing podcast earlier this year. Listen to the clip here, and tell me what you think that sounds like to you.

Here are two very succesful people, famous, wealthy, loved, with a revered body of work, and they are just as scared of the Failure Police! It was like a lightning bolt to my brain. Clearly everbody creative struggles with this in some way or form. And you don’t have to look far to find more examples. In Indie Game The Movie we saw the creators of some of the best indie games of the recent years profess to feeling horribly insecure about whether or not their game was any good. For the dutch readers, HollandDoc did a great documentary related to this years ago called Alles Wat We Wilden. And last week Donald ‘Childish “Troy” Gambino’ Glover instagrammed a series of notes in which he said the following things:

I’m afraid that this was all an accident.
I’m afraid I’m here for nothing.

I’m afraid my show will fail.
I’m afraid people hate who I really am. I’m afraid I hate who I really am.
I feel like I’m letting everyone down.
I’m scared I’ll never reach my potential.
I’m scared that sounds pretentious.

I got really lost. But I can’t be lonely, cause we’re all here.

Wa are all there.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing per sé. It’s not a great thing, to feel like that as a human being, but I think eventually it helps you get better at what you do.

And if you, right there, are someone who enjoyed the creative work of someone else, think about taking a minute or two to send them an email saying that. It means more than you think.

Week ten, or How to be okay when your creativity takes a vacation

I wasn’t going to write anything this week, since not a lot happened on the work side. I had other things on my mind. But I realized that that’s part of the job too. Especially when working on your own. If something affects you personally it affects your business. If I don’t feel like drawing for a few days (for a good reason and not because I’d want to play GTA), things come to a standstill. It happens. I’m glad I get the time to feel things and sit and think about things whenever I feel like I need to, and not just on bathroom breaks during crunchtime.

It’s a scary thing when you lose your incentive to create art, even for a little while, so it’s important to know that it will come back. And I write this as much for myself as for you, the reader. I, like every other creator I’ve ever talked to about this, have my moments of self-doubt. We’ve come to accept it as part of the trade, and when it happens we give it space. But we cannot give in to it. We have to learn from it.

Stephen Pressfield wrote an excellent book about this called The War of Art. Read it.

Creativity comes from a very personal place. Everything you make, even things you don’t like or want to make, even if it is assets for a Zynga game, it has a little part of you in it. Who you are and what you experience in your life leads you to do what you do, and in turn it will tell you more about who you are. I’m convinced your best work only comes from listening to that urge. And how much you listen to that urge is up to you. I quit my job for it; you don’t have to be that drastic.

When you experience something that stands counter to that urge, some hardship, something with an impact, it can mess you up. Some people find creativity in these things (I’ve never worked so hard as times when I was angry about something), and for other people it puts everything in perspective, and creating new worlds to explore and different lives to experience doesn’t seem as important as living their own. But don’t be scared of it. We all have these moments, and if you become aware of them, they will pass, and leave behind more experience to draw from.

I can feel this one leaving too.

Someone once related to me this quote. It captures quite well how I feel about creativity. I hope it resonates with you too.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique, and if you block it it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, how valuable or how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

– Martha Graham

Or for the visually inclined: