Beating your imposter syndrome

How we can solve our creative block and improve the way we judge our work.

Photo by Jaie Miller on Unsplash
NOTE: This article is inspired by a conversation I had with Mat Scales, a Developer Programs Engineer on the Google Developers Relations Team, for our Google Chrome Developers YouTube series called “Designer Vs. Developer”. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast on iTunes or Google Play Music.

How do we know that we’re good designers or creatives? This is a question we often time ask ourselves. The imposter in us seems to show its ugly head every time we come to a blank canvas to start a new project. Aforementioned in turn causes <insert skill> block — that condition where we can’t focus on the task at hand because we are too busy dealing with our inner demons telling us that we are fake and phony.

We compare ourselves to others in our field and judge their creative achievements against our own. Because we only see their end result we feel that they must just be naturally good at doing this work and we are faking it.

But what is creativity?

To break down these walls, the first thing we must do is define what creativity is, or rather what it isn’t. Creativity is a process that you go through when you are in a playful state of mind. It’s through this play that you discover things that you could apply to your work.

John Cleese, actor & comedian on Monty Python, once said:

“Creativity isn’t a talent, it’s a way of operating…”

He tells the story of a sculptor being asked how they sculpted a marble elephant. The sculptor replies “I just knocked away all of the bits that didn’t look like an elephant…”. We get stuck in a ruck thinking that you have to be born a creative when it’s just about letting ourselves get into a particular mood where we’re free to explore ideas. If we’re stressed or suffering from anxiety, this will block us from actually doing anything. By thinking, “I’m not good at this, I’m an imposter…” we end up in this vicious cycle of never making anything and instead complaining about how we’re not good at what we do because we never make anything.

Whenever I am designing something I don’t like, instead of feeling uncomfortable with that feeling, I treat that as an instinctive sign telling me that the task is not finished. So experiencing that feeling is usually a good thing. If the work you are creating is making you feel sick, then it means you’re exploring something out of your comfort zone and evolving as a creative person.

Being creative is just a process and a state of being.

Beating the imposter

There is a bit of research known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says that individuals can’t access their incompetence in a skill in a particular area if they don’t have a degree of skill in that field. Equally, they wouldn’t be capable of assessing other people’s level of expertise due to their own cognitive bias. Interestingly, the opposite is also true. If you think you’re terrible at say design and creativity, then paradoxically it shows that you probably are good at it, or at the very least, have a degree of skill because you can assess your skill critically.

So if you think you’re a terrible designer, chances are you’re not that bad. So when someone tells you they’re very good at doing X, just smile because the opposite could be true.

Judging ourselves by our peers is just not a healthy thing to do, though it can be a motivation to progress. If you need to judge yourself, then it should be against the past things you created. Look at old work, notice how you have improved with time. Just looking back into your creative history is a great form of therapy because it allows you to acknowledge past achievements and improvements at the same time.

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — William Shakespeare

So to beat the imposter, we need to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and that is fine. The chances that anyone would know every facet of design is simply not realistic. Next, write a list of all of your achievements and improvements. You’ll start to see that actually what you’ve done isn’t as bad as you think. If you feel that some things listed need improvement, then highlight the skills you want to improve.

Now you can start planning a way to develop that skill, simply by letting go of your self-doubt. The creative process is just that, a process and anyone can do this design stuff if they let themselves just do it and forget what everyone else is doing.

You can learn more about design and UX at Web Fundamentals.