Impostor syndrome and the creative industry

Impostor syndrome and the creative industry
Matt Burton
Matt BurtonRusty Monkey Ltd

Posted: Wed 26th Jan 2022

Impostor syndrome is an irrational, nagging anxiety that likes to tell you that you aren’t good enough. That you are a fraud and you don’t deserve to be where you are.

Have you ever thought ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now? I’ve run a game on everybody and now they’re going to find me out?’ Even though you’ve been praised repeatedly, and you have all the evidence to back yourself up, you still feel inadequate. Yep, that’s imposter syndrome.

What we mean by impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It happens to all of us, from CEOs to entrepreneurs to creatives, and mainly in the working environment. However, you can also experience it at home – with a hobby that requires skill, for example.

The irony is that the more you achieve and the more success you have in demonstrating your skill and professionalism, the more you doubt yourself. Did you sell that piece because you earned it, or because you got lucky? Did you land your dream job because you’re qualified or because you tricked everyone into thinking you’re good enough?

Impostor syndrome and creative work

What truly fascinates me is the way the subjective nature of creative work affects those feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that come with impostor syndrome.

Because it’s a lot easier for an accountant to feel like they know what they’re doing when their work is fairly objective. We know that 2+2=4 and there’s no doubt. That’s the objective truth; you can’t be wrong about it.

But what happens with self-confidence once your work is exposed to full subjectivity? When one person can look at it and think it’s absolutely atrocious, and another might think it’s ground-breaking?

The very nature of creative work means that you’ll inevitably be ‘wrong’ in someone’s eyes. Which, in turn, makes you feel more vulnerable to those feelings of inadequacy. Making art professionally means you have to be comfortable with the thought that you’re getting paid for work people might inevitably dislike.

Are creative people more susceptible to impostor syndrome?

The short answer is yes.

Think about it. For one, your work is highly public. Not only that, but often art almost ends up defining you to a certain degree because of how much of yourself you put into it. There’s a lot of decision-making and critical thinking involved in finalising a piece of art, whether it’s music, a painting, a novel and so on.

So when you’re inevitably criticised for it, it can hurt a lot more because it can feel like you’re being criticised for who you are. That’s not the case, but it can definitely feel like it, and it can feed into insecurity and the impostor syndrome. Learning to detach from your work and view it objectively is a very important skill to have.

It’s also a challenge to be expected to maintain consistency with your work, especially when it can feel like you’re only as good as your last painting, your last movie, your last book. Success requires you to prove yourself over and over again.

And that adds pressure, especially if you’ve reached a certain level of fame. People expect consistent greatness. No wonder thoughts like ‘They’ll find out I’m a fraud’ start running through your mind.

Putting yourself through that cycle over and over every time you start something new can be terrifying. It takes a blind leap of faith, every time.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

I just found out about this recently and I find it incredibly interesting. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a theory stating that the amount of confidence you have in something is related to the amount of experience you have in it.

At the start, you have a high level of confidence because you’re a beginner and you aren’t aware of how much you don’t know. Ignorance can feel just like expertise, which leaves you thinking you’re better than you actually are.

As you gain more experience though, the opposite happens. You start losing confidence in your abilities because you become aware of how much you don’t know. And you might even enter this state where your knowledge and taste exceeds your skill.

So you might know what looks good, what works, where you want to be, but your skill has to catch up with your mind. This creates a gap that can leave you feeling inadequate. The only way to narrow that gap is to push yourself to keep creating, despite the discomfort that comes with disliking your creations.

Finally, as you keep building up your skill, your confidence slowly grows with it. The closer you come to expertise, the higher your confidence. The interesting thing is that despite getting better at your craft, your confidence will never be at the same level as it was when you were a ‘beginner’.

The key is to push through the middle section of your journey where your confidence is at its lowest and the impostor syndrome can be the loudest.

So what’s a creative with impostor syndrome to do?

The best thing to do is to acknowledge that so many of us feel this way. In truth, nobody knows what they’re doing. Take a well-deserved sigh of relief, knowing that you share the same human insecurity as some of the most talented and successful people of all time.

Impostor syndrome isn’t based on reality. It’s just your mind running wild with fear, feeding off negative thoughts and self-doubt. The best thing to do is to acknowledge those thoughts, and then reframe them the way a non-impostor would. Just because you feel inadequate doesn’t mean you are inadequate. You’ll be amazed at how differently you feel simply by changing your response from, ‘I’m so stupid!’ to ‘Boy, did I feel stupid.’

The most important thing, though, is to keep going, regardless of how you feel. Remember that you’re the expert of your art! No-one knows your work, motives and passion better than you do.

Relevant resources

Matt Burton
Matt BurtonRusty Monkey Ltd
Hey there. I am Rusty Monkey’s Creative Director and visual communications expert. I believe that you shouldn’t be on your own trying to solve your marketing problems. We’ve helped hundreds of different clients over 20 years and we know what really works. I'm proud to be part of such a fantastic and talented team here at Rusty Monkey and I'm particularly inspired by the professional (yet relaxed), can-do, nurturing culture that has organically flourished. We're always looking to work with like-minded companies and individuals so get in touch and we can have a chat over a nice cup of coffee, or a glass of wine if it's Friday afternoon!

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