Panel Notes: Feeling Fake (Imposter Syndrome)

Sometimes a panel discussion is tightly focused on topic. All the panelists are energetic and engaged. Sometimes there are even vehement arguments as different points of view are represented. This was a more relaxed panel. It was a panel packed with intelligent and articulate people: Ami Chopine of Geek at Play, Chris Weston who has several books (Alas I do not have a link), Stacy Whitman of Tu Books, and me. We all had really useful things to say, but somehow the stories and conversation kept drifting away from a tight focus on Feeling Fake / Imposter Syndrome. I know I was guilty of this. I’d get halfway through the story and realize I was no longer sure how I meant to bring the story around and relate it to the topic at hand. Yet over the next two days I had many people saying that they found the whole discussion very useful, so we must have managed something right. I suppose in a way this actually relates to the panel topic. All during the panel I felt like I wasn’t doing a very good job as a panelist, but the audience perceived things very differently.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that one is unqualified or a fraud. The most important point made in this panel is this: everyone feels this way at some point in their lives. Stacy told us the story of how she started up a small press, ran a kickstarter that funded completely, had her press picked up as an imprint, and has now released the first three books. Yet she still has days when she wonders how she got where she is. She often feels small or unqualified. Chris told us about the moment when he truly took up the label of writer and applied it to himself. That moment was long after he’d already begun writing.

I know that imposter syndrome is rampant in my own life. I constantly feel like I’m throwing up a professional facade while behind stage it is all scrambling and tears. Then I remember what Tracy Hickman once told me. It was on the day when he arrived at our house to hammer out a contract for the XDM project. Tracy wanted us to be the publishers and Howard to illustrate the book. I was going to have to do significant layout and design for a 180 page book with actual text. The only training I had for this task was a copy of InDesign for Dummies. I was terrified. We were also going to have to write a contract for a man who had signed hundreds of publishing contracts in his life. I was sure that he would be able to see right through us. He did. But what he saw was not what I thought was there. Tracy launched into a rambling story filled with laughable anecdotes, the point of it was to tell us that in fact everyone in publishing is making it up as they go. Everyone is scrambling behind the scenes. Everyone feels like they’re unqualified and is afraid they’ll be discovered. Feeling unqualified is normal. You just have to put on the clothes of the job you want and wear them until they’re comfortable.

As the panel discussion progressed, we gleaned some useful information about how to manage imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is primarily driven by fear of exposure. If you can figure out what you’re afraid to expose and to whom you’re afraid it will be exposed, this gives you power. You can take steps to defuse the fear. On the day of that contract with Tracy, Howard and I told him that we’d never written a contract before and asked for his help in getting it right. Instead of despising us for our ignorance, Tracy graciously provided the help we needed.

Perfectionism is also a driving force behind imposter syndrome. Stacy spoke about trying to get every single detail right in the books she edits. Getting everything right is impossible. When she acknowledges this, she can focus on what she does well. As a supporting point to Stacy’s story, I told the story of my son, Patch, and getting things wrong.

To battle imposter syndrome, you need to check the evidence around you. Stacy may feel like she’s an imposter sometimes, but the books which Tu produces are evidence of actual ability. People can sense fakes. If they’re treating you like you have expertise, it is likely that you actually do. It is easy to devalue knowledge we have while valuing what we don’t. Amy pointed out that a light case of imposter syndrome can actually spur a person onward to the acquisition of more knowledge and expertise.

Chris spoke a warm and eloquent reminder that often the answer is to just get back to writing. Write words because that is what writers do. Worry less about whether they’re good and trust yourself to learn as you go. He cautioned against comparing yourself to others. Comparisons lead to insecurity, jealousy, and raging imposter syndrome. Stacy backed up this thought by saying “remember your goals.” Tu Books is not likely to spawn a best seller, but that is not its focus. Instead it is promoting diversity in literature through creating excellent books. When Stacy is focused on her goals she feels happy and accomplished rather than insecure.

My advice was to spectate the imposter feelings. Where do they come from? What situations trigger them? What drives the fear? Keep digging for motivations and answering questions. Those answers are information that you can use to restructure your thinking and possibly your life. I’m in the middle of this process. I am trying to re-shape my life so that I am naturally facing my goals instead of my failures. I’ll never get it figured out completely because life keeps shifting, but even the effort quiets the voices of imposter syndrome.

The thing is, we are all more competent than we believe ourselves to be. I didn’t use this quotation from Mark Twain in the panel, but I wish I had.

We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not posses than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.
–Mark Twain.

Whatever it is that you feel a fraud while doing, you are certainly better at it than you feel yourself to be.