Six Steps to Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
In the spring of 2016, I was the writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. I lived there by myself for three months, so I could work on any writing projects that I felt like.
Each year, the house selects four writers to occupy that space for the year, and I was chosen to spend a season in the hallowed house. This is the house where Jack Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums, and where he was living when On The Road was published, turning him into an overnight sensation.
Each writer's application goes through a stringent review process with several readers weighing in on each application. When the dust finally settled, I was given the Spring 2016 slot.
I sometimes think they made a mistake.
I remember when I got the notification email, I was pleasantly surprised.
"Oh good, four people applied," I said to myself. Then I checked out the writers' page and saw that we also had four alternates, people who could fill in if a writer had to back out.
"Cool, I won the coin toss," I said, thinking that eight people had applied.
"Oh, no," said Geoff Benge, VP of Residence of the Kerouac Project. "We had 300 applicants from over 60 countries."
"Oh shit," I thought. "They think I can do this. They think I'm actually good at it."
Of course, I didn't want to tell them that, but I spent those three months constantly worried they were going to knock on the door and say, "I'm sorry, we made a mistake. You were supposed to be cut right away."
So I worked hard and wrote half of my novel during my residency. I figured if they did find out, I could at least plead my case.
When I told Geoff all that later, he said, "No, no, you were supposed to be there. Remember, you made it through our review process. You were there because we thought you were good enough."
That helped, but it didn't make the feeling go away. I still feel like I had tricked them somehow, that I wasn't good enough to rank up there with all the people who have MFAs and PhDs in Creative Writing. That the guy who makes fart jokes on the Internet was not Kerouac House material.
It's been nearly three years since I first got word about my residency, and I even sit on that same board now, but that feeling has never gone away.
I've got Impostor Syndrome, and I've got it bad.
But I also recognize that I've got it, which makes it easier to deal with. I can shout down the little voice that says I'm not good enough, and not let it drag me down. It's hard, and it's a daily struggle, but I manage to do it.
Here's how I overcome Impostor Syndrome every day, and how you can do it too.
1. Remind myself that I am good enough.
I've been writing for over 30 years. It's my day job as well as my sideline and my hobby. If you believe the 10,000 hour rule, I put in my 10,000 hours a long time ago. So I know that means I've got the requisite skills to be a writer.
If you've been doing a thing for a long, long time, your longevity and success comes from your abilities, not dumb luck. Remember, people who are bad or even mediocre at something don't last. If you've been doing your craft for several years, that alone is evidence enough that you're good at it. If you're still new at it, look at your progress from when you started and the successes you've had so far.
Intellectually, I understand this, even if I don't always believe it emotionally. When my fears rise up, I remind myself that I've got the skills and experience, and that I wouldn't be doing it for my job if I wasn't any good.
2. Remember that other people have told me me I'm good enough.
People pay me for my work, they give me positive feedback, and I've even won awards. Even if I don't believe item #1, other people have confirmed my abilities.
Since our brains lie to us all the time, we can generally rely on what other people have told us. If you have a plethora of people telling you they like your work, believe them. If you need to, write a list of people who have confirmed your abilities and stare at it. Read the testimonials on your LinkedIn page. And if you don't have any, ask for some. (Be sure to give them testimonials, too.)
3. Work harder.
Every new situation I've gone into, whether it was graduate school, a new job, started writing a book, or even giving a conference talk, I was petrified. I worried that this was the Big One. This was going to be the time I was exposed as a fraud. I've been fighting this in one form another for over 30 years, and I still get it. Every. Single. Time.
So I work hard. In grad school, I studied hard, and wrote and rewrote my papers. At new jobs, I worked more hours, trying to get more work done. Even now, I make sure my talks all have the latest research and techniques. I read the latest theories and best practices in my different fields, and I share that information. I try to outwork and outhustle everyone else, so I don't get caught at the back of the pack. I'm less concerned with "winning" and am more concerned about "not losing."
In bicycle track racing, there's a type of race called "Devil Take the Hindmost." As the pack races around the track, the last person to cross the finish line with each lap is pulled off. They do this until there are two left, and they fight it out for the victory.
My way of fighting Impostor Syndrome is to just make sure I'm not the one at the back of the pack. I end up being near the front, but in my nightmares, I'm way, way in the back. So my waking hours are spent fighting to stay as far to the front as I can. I don't have to win, I just don't want to be last.
So, submit that book to a publisher. Apply to speak at that conference. Apply for that job. Approach that "big name" about working on a project, or even just meeting you for coffee. The worst that can happen to you is they'll say "No." No one will stop you from trying again. So figure out how to get better and then try again.
4. Recognize that it's the people who are actually good at something who get Impostor Syndrome.
Think of your favorite actor, musician, or artist. Believe it or not, they've got Impostor Syndrome and still struggle with it, even after their successes. Do a Google search for their name and "Impostor Syndrome," and see if they've ever mentioned it in an interview. I'm willing to bet that many of them have said they still deal with it, even at the top levels of their craft.
In fact, it's the people who aren't very good who don't get Impostor Syndrome. They have the opposite; they're experiencing the Dunning-Krueger Effect, also called The Lake Woebegone Effect — where "all the children are above average."
People in this group not only don't realize they're not good at their thing, they think they're great at it. They don't know that they don't know, and they're supremely confident in their small abilities.
The ones who are cocky about what they can do either have an unhealthy ego, or they're not as good as they think they are, and they're going to be in for a big surprise one day. (Keep in mind, too, that some cocky people are terribly insecure, and they act egotistical to hide the same Impostor Syndrome the rest of us have.)
Frankly, you should be worried if you <em>didn't</em> have any doubts about your abilities Paradoxically, the fact that you're worried about them means you're better than you give yourself credit for.
5. Fake it.
I hate the saying, "Fake it til you make it," but it really does apply. When your Impostor Syndrome flares up, just act like you're supposed to be there. Project the outward attitude that you're doing what you should be doing. Inside, you may be fretting, but don't show it.
Believe me when I tell you, there's no little man with a clipboard who's going to knock on your door and tell you there's been a terrible mistake, that you're supposed to be a claims adjuster at a large faceless corporation.
So just put your head down and get the work done. Act like you're supposed to be doing it, and do it to the best of your ability. This won't make the feeling go away — I'm sorry, I'm afraid it never completely goes away — but you can at least quiet the voice by focusing on your work.
And if there's a knock at the door while you're working, don't answer it.
6. Just quit.
That's right, just give up. Stop doing it. Maybe you really are a fraud, and you should just save yourself the embarrassment of being publicly outed as a phony.
What's that? You hate that advice? You think it's dumb?
Then I think you have your answer.
If you don't want to quit, then that means there's still something in there. You recognize that you are good enough (point #1). You have that spark of desire and ability. Fan that until it grows into a flame. Embrace the other steps and keep working until you're satisfied with the results.
The Impostor Syndrome won't go away (see #5), but it will be easier to do #s 1 and 2, which makes #3 easier.
Look, if you're worried about whether you're good enough to do something, recognize that it's a healthy, normal feeling. Everyone feels that way. Even the people you look up to and wish you could be more like them.
Because they feel the same way: There's someone they look up to, someone they wish they could be like. Just like there's someone who looks up to you and wants to be more like you.
So, if nothing else, consider this your confirmation and your blessing.:
You're good at what you do. People admire you, and they can't wait to see what you're going to do next. So, go out and give them what they're clamoring for. You got this.
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