Geeks Vs Loneliness: Imposter Syndrome

In which we say celebrate your achievements, and don’t let the self-doubt derail you.

Even our heroes have doubts about their place in the cosmos. Take the two Neils – Gaiman and Armstrong. One of them is a multi-platform, award winning writer with a back catalogue to weep for. The other was the first person to walk on the moon.

They’re standing together at an event celebrating innovation and creativity, and they admit to each other they feel like imposters amongst the brilliant people they are mingling with. And it reminds us that even the most accomplished souls can still have a ‘what the heck?’ moment about their place in life.

Imposter syndrome can strike at odd times and in any field. At work, in a new job, in an old job taking on new responsibilities. As a parent, worried constantly about getting it right, presenting a face to the world – and more importantly your dependent – that says, hey we know what we’re doing.

Inside you might be screaming at yourself, hung up on the slightest error you think you may have made. Putting it on replay in your mind, letting it chip away at your fragile confidence. Feeling like a fraud.

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Gaiman speaks with eloquence about Imposter Syndrome, in his University of the Arts commencement speech in 2012:

‘The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.’

If you feel you are suffering from this yourself it’s an excellent speech to read as a pep talk. Gaiman talks about not having been a graduate himself, about finding his way as a writer without the background of a formal higher education – and how it left him feeling like he’d somehow winged it to his success. While overlooking the hard work, dedication and sheer talent he brings to his vocation.

When looking to overcome Imposter Syndrome the fake it until you make mentality can sometimes be helpful. Prepare for what’s coming – especially if it’s putting you on the front line of your chosen field. Get ready for battle. Dress the part, step inside that role. I wear a suit in certain situations. It’s not quite chainmail armour but it gives me a certain mental confidence, a shell against the world.

Don’t sweat the mistakes you’ve made. Learn from them. Mistakes often show us with painful clarity what we feel like are our limits. Look at it another way – do your mistakes point out the path you could have taken, with much more success? To quote Gaiman again, ’…sometimes the things I did really didn’t work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.’

Then there are situations like the two Neil’s found themselves in. Where everyone else seems like the cool collected kid. Just remember that inside those people may also feel like jelly, but they may have their own mental exoskeleton presenting a confident face to the world. We never know what’s going on under the surface unless we’re invited in.

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Collect memories to counteract any uncertainty. I recently published a small book of short stories. Before I hit the publish button I was plagued with doubt. Who was I to think that people would pay to read my words? What if I got a bad review?

Then a friend sent me a screenshot of my small book sat right next to Stephen King on an Amazon chart. Granted, it was a literary short story chart, and the King book was a novel, and I suspect Amazon’s algorithm may be slightly out of whack – but that picture has now been saved for me to look on in moments of doubt.

Consider adopting Gaiman’s mantra:

‘And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.’

Do your thing. Apply for that job that seems out of your reach. Hit the button on your dreams, no matter how small they may seem. There’s nothing to lose. Be amazed at what you can achieve. We all have a place in this world. Yours is there, waiting for you to claim it.

You can read Neil Gaiman’s speech in full here.

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My small book, The Repository Of Lost Souls by Jane Roberts-Morpeth, is available at Amazon.