The case for imposter syndrome & embracing the work of others
When you encounter amazing work, do you feel inferior or inspired?
For a friend of mine, the answer was, "I feel so inferior I'd rather never create again."
Here's the whole story...
A while back, Alex started exploring the world of art in his free time. He was having a blast, practicing his beloved craft for hours upon hours, creating pieces for his friends and family just for fun and learning new skills as he went along.
Eventually, a few of those friends inquired about buying his art or commissioning a piece or two. And then a few of their friends wanted to know what other pieces were for sale? And, slowly, Alex turned his explorations into a business.
As Alex got his feet wet selling his artwork to different customers, he began receiving invitations to collaborate with other artists. One collaboration in particular changed everything.
When Alex met up with a younger artist to collaborate for a brand, he found him incredibly talented. The theoretical and technical sides of his craft were impeccable. Alex, on the other hand, felt like a total fraud.
"I learned everything I know from YouTube and my own experience," he thought to himself. "But this other guy is a total pro."
Alex had encountered incredible work. Someone that could inspire him and ultimately teach him a thing or two, if he asked. And vice versa, of course—Alex had a different perspective that this professionally-trained artist could appreciate, as well.
But in the face of incredible work, Alex didn't feel inspired or want to learn something new. He definitely didn't feel valuable, either. Instead, he felt inferior.
So inferior, in fact, that he didn't picked up a paintbrush again for years ... until I told him what you're about to read.
Enter the imposter
At some point in our lives we've all, like Alex, come down with a severe case of imposter syndrome.
My friend, Paul Jarvis, describes perfectly what runs through our minds in these dire moments:
"[The Creative Police] will show, in painstaking detail, that I don’t know anything about what I do for work, that I should never give another human being advice and that everything I’ve ever created is utter garbage."
Check, check, and check.
Some of us might not call it "imposter syndrome" but the kind of self-doubt that it requires is present every single day in some shape or form, whether we're aware of it or not.
But it's common knowledge that imposter syndrome is a categorically *bad thing*. It keeps us creatively stifled.
But what if there's a silver lining to imposter syndrome? What if there's something good that comes from grappling with it?
Find it hard to believe?
Okay, I'll go first. I'll put myself into a spell of imposter syndrome right now. Watch this...
It's been more than two years since I wrote my last book. And, now that I think about it, it was two years between that book and my first book, as well. And I'm starting to feel the itch to write my third ... but I'm scared:
- that it's already been written before, and
- that I have nothing new and meaningful to add.
Which ALL boils down to: I've just started reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic and feel like she already wrote the thing I felt needed writing.
By definition, imposter syndrome is the inability to internalize your accomplishments.
When I look at a summary of my life on paper, this seems ridiculous. I won't list everything here, but a couple of books, international speaking engagements, and a few thousand people who are interested in my words should be enough to convince me that I'm no imposter.
If that's not enough, I keep a folder on my computer called "Feel Good Box" that holds screenshots of encouragement and kind words from people who've come into contact with my work before.
But despite all this evidence, I'm still unable to internalize—or believe—my accomplishments because I'm comparing my accomplishments to those of someone I admire. If my piece of paper has 10 convincing arguments, Liz Gilbert has 10,000.
So, why would I want to induce imposter syndrome and start comparing my non-existent book to a national best-seller?
This is where the silver lining of imposter syndrome comes into play...
Embrace the work of others
The only way to not end up like Alex, to not put down the paint brushes, is to keep creating.
But the only way to keep creating is to get past imposter syndrome.
But you can't get past imposter syndrome if you don't practice it.
So, yes, imposter syndrome sucks, but every time I feel imposter syndrome is an opportunity to practice getting acquainted with it and, ultimately, overcoming it.
Because, when I encounter amazing work, I want to feel inspired, not inferior.
I'm the kind of person who loves to read, to learn, to talk to other makers. (My podcast is evidence of that.) The only way to not shrink away from creating every single day is to strengthen that imposter-syndrome-muscle by celebrating the work of others.
So, in the spirit of embracing the work of others, here are 10 articles that I've read over the past few years that have truly marked me. These are the words that have snuck into my brain and made themselves comfortable, becoming a true part of the way I think and feel.
Mostly, though, I'm sharing these 10 articles because of this: after reading every single one of these posts, I felt some form of "Wow, I'll never be able to write something this good." But I kept writing anyway.
And on top of that, I love these articles so much I wish everyone would read them.
1. Justin Jackson's Keep making things
2. Adii Pienaar's Pause
3. David Cain's Accept it whether you can change it or not
4. James Clear's Identity-based habits: How to actually stick to your goals this year
5. Rachel Cole's How to make peace with food
6. Ashley Buzzy's Why you might like being the boss
7. Cal Newport's Does luck matter more than skill?
8. Sarah Bessey's When you feel a bit selfish for pursuing your calling
9. Omid Safi's The disease of being busy
10. Maria Popova's Networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity
To Justin, Adii, David, James, Rachel, Ashley, Cal, Sarah, Omid and Maria—thank you. Without knowing it, you helped me push past important self-imposed limits.
Today, I invite you to answer these two questions:
- Who's inspiring you?
- And, more importantly, how can you celebrate their work instead of shrink away from it?
So, let's learn from those people, from the younger artist, the writers or the Liz Gilbert's of the world. Let's celebrate them. And then let's pick up our paint brushes and our words and keep creating.
Let's make Dante Alighieri's words true:
"Beauty awakens the soul to act."
PS. 4/10 of those authors have been on my podcast. 10 points for Gryffindor!