How I Transformed Imposter Syndrome into a Strength
Let’s start out with a great little chunk of writing.
“Still there is the page. Still I am up late or up early, typing away, trying to capture an idea or an image in black words on a white background in twenty-six characters and ten punctuation marks, as Kurt Vonnegut used to remark. Still there is the silence of a sleeping house, rent only by the padded feet and shining eyes of a cat or two. Still we learn to chop wood by doing it badly, only succeeding when we aim for the chopping block rather than the wood.”
Surprise, I didn’t write that. This is an excerpt from one of my sister’s recent pieces. Her name is Hilary and she’s a phenomenal writer. Reading through this article, she answered a ton of my questions, as she usually does. But I had one remaining:
Are you kidding me?
Do you know how good you have to be to write a paragraph like that? It’s like watching a professional soccer player juggle a ball. To the untrained eye, you’re like “well, yeah, he’s just not letting it hit the ground.” But if you actually think it’s easy, go try it.
Hilary is a professional. She has stuff published. I mean, like, published published. Her work has been selected as a Million Writers Award Notable Story and she has had two stories nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She graduated from college with an MFA in fiction.
She’s always been brilliant if we’re being honest here. She also could always read like it was nobody’s business. And that’s because it wasn’t. I remember her reading Great Expectations as like a third-grader. As in, before she was forced to, like the rest of us did.
Hilary is in the process of writing an ebook, and she has written several things she is still trying to get published. I don’t even know if she prays for it as bad as I do, because that’s just who she is. She will always write, and she is one of those rare people that genuinely does what she does because it’s the right thing to do — not for the result. But I’m hoping that she will soon catch the big break that she truly deserves.
Meet Me, the Imposter
Hello. It’s me, the imposter. As indicated by pretty much everything you’ve read so far.
I also am a “writer.”
I, however, did not study writing. I didn’t get an MFA. I’m not published. I don’t have awards unless you count the one in 6th grade that I won for a short story that basically copied the Lord of the Rings. My mom still remembers that like I won an NBA title, and maybe that’s why she thinks I shouldn’t have been benched on varsity basketball, but that’s another rant altogether.
One rant at a time.
I didn’t even consider myself a writer. It was always a stronger suit for me than it was for others, because of my family, but it wasn’t my calling. I’m still not even sure that it is.
Somehow, after several years of selling VOIP phone service (yes, the least creative position on the planet), copywriting piqued my interest. I spent around a half-year, unemployed, practicing my writing and applying to jobs that I had no business applying to. I luckily landed some freelance work with some compelling emails—I combined what I learned in sales with my semi-decent writing ability.
I also spent a long time developing a project called #50BurgersATL, where I tried 70–80 of the best burgers in my city of Atlanta, wrote about them, and ranked the top 50. I was doing this just to show my love for writing, and well, burgers. But also to get some more practice at the keyboard. It was not successful; I spent a lot of money, ended up on page 2 of search results, and significantly raised my cholesterol.
By another stroke of luck, I got hired as a content writer for a wonderful digital advertising agency, where I remain to this day. I had a lot to learn quickly and have worked my little fanny off to keep up. Things seem to be going well, honestly. I’ve since become a senior copywriter and we have tons of awesome clients and fun projects we’re working on constantly.
But the truth is, I still feel like an imposter. Here I am, making a career out of writing, and then there are people like my sister who aren’t getting near the credit they deserve. How on earth could I possibly belong in this field if someone like her is getting frustrated?
Imposter Syndrome Defined
This feels like the appropriate time to spotlight imposter syndrome. But hey, what do I know?
Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition and pattern where a person doubts their skills and talents and has an incessant fear of being “discovered” as a fake.
See? I could’t even come up with that definition on my own. That’s basically exactly what it says on Wikipedia. But why reinvent the wheel, am I right?
Imposter syndrome is fairly common in people across a variety of industries. But apparently, imposter syndrome is extremely prevalent amongst creatives. This actually makes sense if you think about it, though. Creativity is so ethereal. You can’t hold creativity, other than metaphorically; you can’t touch creativity; and you can’t produce creativity on demand. So right when a writer, designer, artist, or actor needs to deliver, it’s easy to become paralyzed with anxiety.
“What if I don’t deserve to be here?”
“What if I’m not good enough?”
“Do I even know what I’m doing?”
“They’re totally going to notice my mistakes.”
“I don’t even want to waste their time.”
“I’m in over my head.”
Transform Imposter Syndrome Into A Weapon
If you’re a writer, you’ve said all of the above, almost guaranteed. It’s nearly impossible to not have these thoughts.
This is because, when you’re a writer, writing comes pretty easily to you. You can’t fathom that other people can’t just sit down and scribble down their thoughts. But it’s true; some people literally struggle to journal. They lack the executive functions that enable them to simply produce the words they want to say. Maybe it’s easy for them to talk, sing, juggle a soccer ball, or whatever else.
But the fact is, people pay for writing because not everyone can do it. Nobody will pay you to come to their office and show them how you walk or how you breathe. But people will pay you to write.
I know this to be true, so no matter how I feel about myself, I keep this thought in my mind whenever I’m struggling.
That’s step one.
Now, step two.
Whenever I’m feeling like an imposter, I have conditioned myself to revert to what I know best: myself. I say, “Okay, maybe you’re not that great of a writer, fine. But you can genuinely be yourself, can’t you? Then do that.”
And as a result, I’ve slowly developed my own voice. I recently realized that I finally have my own style. I’ve written enough things to find a default. And it’s actually pretty cool—I write exactly how I talk. I’m basically just dictating for myself. I write like me.
I would define my style as casual, transparent, and easy to read, but also thought-provoking and endlessly introspective, and it’s easy because I’m not pretending. People seem to connect with it because they see parts of themselves in me. It’s like stand-up comedy, but not always that funny. Sometimes it’s really not funny at all, despite my efforts to the contrary.
I take imposter syndrome and say, “Yeah, maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, but neither does anyone else, and I’m going to soak in it until someone kicks me out of the Jacuzzi that is my own ignorance.” If someone knows something I could have done better, tell me! I love feedback. When you don’t think you belong there in the first place, it doesn’t hurt my feelings to learn better ways to stick around.
It’d be like sneaking into a Michelin 3-star restaurant kitchen and having the chef show you how to perfect a Beurre Blanc. Like cool, also, thanks for not kicking me out.
Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. And each day I’m in the kitchen, I learn more and more. And you know what… I deserve to be here.
You can’t be an imposter when you’re trying to be yourself.
Now, I use my voice in every personal piece I write. I’m slowly building up a following. I made $500 last year from writing Medium articles. That’s amazing to me — I’m getting paid to write about my thoughts. This year I plan to make 10x that. I even have made a couple thousand from freelance work.
These days, my sister and I exchange writing advice every week.
The point is, when you’re questioning your value or if you deserve to be where you are, just remember that, hey, you made it. You’re there. If you don’t know something, admit it politely, ask someone for help, thank them, and apply what you learned.
The beautiful part about imposter syndrome is that, sure, a vast majority of people feel it. But also, no one is ever going to be better at being you than you are. You can’t be an imposter when you’re trying to be yourself. Next time you’re questioning yourself, stop suppressing who you are for fear of being discovered and unleash yourself instead.