The Imposter Syndrome

by Tobias van Schneider
first appeared ✍🏼
on my personal blog

People ask me all the time: Do you ever feel like a fraud? Like you’ve fooled everyone into thinking you know what you’re doing, but you’re actually completely unqualified? Do you ever feel guilty you’re getting paid for the shit you’re putting out into the world?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Strangely enough, the more praise I receive and the bigger projects I get, the more I have this feeling. It’s more pressure, higher expectations I might not be able to meet. I could receive 100 compliments but hear 1 person say, “You don’t deserve this,” and that’s the person I choose to believe. I’m like, “Right?! I was just thinking the same thing. Thanks for confirming it.”

And you know, a lot of people have written about this, but I feel like it can’t be said often enough. Imposter Syndrome is something that affects most of us. It affects us on different levels and it’s an issue we all deal with. Even those you might look up to.

The thing with the imposter syndrome is that it scales depending on where you are in your career. In the beginning your self confidence might be very low, so feeling like a fraud is fairly easy because you have very little experience to back up your feelings. I felt like a fraud the moment I started out as a designer, but I thought it might disappear once I got more experience.

But the problem is, the more “successful” you become, the more it makes you feel like a fraud. The stakes become higher, more people are looking at you and you will be surrounded by people who simply don’t like seeing you being successful

That’s why I always say that when you’re young and just starting out in an industry it’s the best thing that can happen, it’s so much easier to fail and do stupid things. There are no or few eyes on you which makes it easier for you to experiment. The more “successful” you get, the harder it will be because all eyes are now on you, and people are just waiting for you to fall and call you a fraud.

So basically, if you’re suffering from the Imposter Syndrome, you’re generally fucked.

On the up side, the fact that so many people talk about feeling like a fraud makes me feel it less. If some of the best designers and artists I know think this way, then maybe I’m actually better than I think. Or maybe we’re all just really good at faking it. Either way, we’re in it together. And this article is simply about recognizing this fact.

I’ve given this subject a lot of thought (judging by the amount of self-help books on it, we all have) and I’ve found a few ways to ease this debilitating feeling. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you too.

First of all, own it.

I’ve read a lot about the imposter syndrome and how it might hold you back. The problem is, most people (including myself) see themselves as a victim of the Imposter Syndrome and render themselves useless. Some even try to get rid of it, treating it like a sickness that can be cured. Maybe the one thing I learned myself is that the imposter syndrome is here to stay and if I make it part of myself, it can’t stop me anymore.

I even dislike talking about it now because I feel like it’s such a cliché thing to do. I don’t want any special snowflake treatment from other people just because I suffer from something like the Imposter Syndrome. This isn’t the solution. But the solution is to just fucking own it, accept the fact that you’re feeling like a fraud, but so does pretty much everyone else around you.

Keep a “Feel Good Folder”

Let me give you this small gift: You’re allowed to be proud of your work. I know, I know. We’re supposed to deflect compliments. We’re not supposed to actually LIKE what we make. That would be self-centered and delusional, right? Fuck that. You’re a human being who put a little life into something new. You created something, and other people might even appreciate it.

Take these tiny wins, the compliments or moments that give you a secret surge of pride, and save them. Write them down and put them in a place just for you. This is your Feel Good Folder. You’re allowed to look at it and get energy from it any time you like. It reminds you that you do have talent. Maybe. Just a little.

Talk to people you trust

Like I said, it seems that every creative person feels like they’re faking it. Ask your friends. Ask an older, wiser person you respect. Ask your designer hero. Chances are, they feel the same way you do but just don’t always talk about it. We are all more alike than we’d like to admit. And if we are all frauds, then none of us are.

Admit you don’t know

There is nothing more liberating than calling yourself out or admitting you don’t know how to do something. Then your dirty secret isn’t a secret anymore. You’ve been found out, and that makes you free. Admit you don’t know and promise you’ll figure it out. Then figure it out. Most people won’t lose respect for you, because they can relate (the others are just assholes). Say “I don’t know,” and you might encourage others to open up and offer advice — or maybe they’ll admit they don’t know either. Either way, they now know you’re not as smart as they thought you were, and you’re still alive. Who’d have thought?

I remember one of my previous NTMY podcast episodes with Simone. I asked her how she deals with insults, people making fun of her and Internet trolls in general. She simply said: “I always make sure to be the first one who laughs at myself” — That kinda stuck with me because it’s such perfect advice. Don’t take yourself too serious.

Put your head down and work

I’d say “stop comparing yourself to other people” but that’s easier said than done. So instead, just get to fucking work. Put your Instagram away for a few hours, take a break from Dribbble and focus hard on your own shit. The more you work, the more you improve your skill. When you’re wondering if your work is as good as someone else’s, you are wasting time you could spend on getting even better. This is a lesson I learned from Katie Rodgers on The NTMY Show. Listen to her episode about feeling like a fraud, and how she makes amazing art despite it.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
- Stephen King

Share praise generously

For some reason, it’s easier to drag others down than to lift them up. For some reason we think by dragging someone down we come out at the top. Rarely does it work like that.

Work harder to be kind. Never hesitate to encourage others by telling them you admire their work or a specific skill they have. Every time a sincere compliment enters your mind, say it out loud. That person may offer to teach you that specific skill you admire. They may praise you in return. Or maybe they’ll file your compliment in their Feel Good Folder, and you’ll never know much those simple words meant to them. This world of insecure people could use more positivity in it, so be the first person to share it something nice if you really mean it.

I know this from myself, I sometimes hold back on compliments because I’m thinking that the person on the other end is crazy successful and probably doesn’t really care or gets compliments all the time.

But to be honest, that’s not always the case. The moment you are “successful” people rarely just reach out to you just to tell you that you’re doing a good job. They usually only reach out to either drag you down, or because they want something from you. But real genuine compliments without any strings attached are actually pretty rare.

But going back to feeling like a fraud. I feel like one, multiple times a month. I’m drowning in self doubt and if you do too, I just want to let you know that most of us are. It’s part of the deal.

But what I learned is that I won’t let the imposter syndrome dictate my life. And it also shouldn’t dictate yours. Never. And the best way to counter it is to work, put in the work and feel good about what you accomplished, regardless of what other people say.

Besides that, I think a certain amount of self doubt is healthy. If I stop feeling like a fraud one day I probably also feel like I just stopped growing.

Have a fantastic week & Stay awesome,
Tobias


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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.