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Episode 001: Imposter Syndrome

Every creative person I know feels like they’re faking it at times. It can be crippling. But when you consider that everything we create is something new, in uncharted territory, it makes sense that we feel like we’re making it up as we go. Where we get into trouble is when we compare our process with others. Let’s talk about it.

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Among the well-worn tropes within the creative world is this: fake it till you make it. We’ve all said it. Or thought it. Particularly when we feel like we don’t belong, like we have no idea what we’re doing, when we feel like everyone else has their creative shit together and we’re staring into the void hoping no one discovers we have no real idea what the hell we’re doing. Everyone I know feels like an imposter. 

My name is David duChemin, I’m a photographer, among other things, and this is A Beautiful Anarchy, a podcast about the creative life, that shamelessly steals the title of my book of the same name, a book I wrote a couple years ago to begin a conversation about creativity that is larger than the ones I usually have with other photographers. 

I wanted to have those conversations with writers and painters and even those people that don’t easily identify as creative because I think making things, being creators in every area of our lives is something that’s deep-down and inseparably human.

I wanted, and still want, to talk about the issues facing creators separate from conversations about the tools we use, because those differ from one context to the next. No painter I know wants to listen to me talk about my cameras, and if you’ll forgive the obvious pun potters that talk to me about their kilns will find that my eyes glaze over. But we can all identify with the common struggle of what it means to make, to create, to live with the uncertainties that are part of the daily and inner life of anyone that dares to make something new and authentic, something that might not work out the way we hope, or something for which we have no expectations at all because all we have is a spark of an idea, a what if that can only be answered by putting the paint on the canvas, the hands on the clay, and the words on the page. 

This is episode one of A Beautiful Anarchy, welcome here.

Music / intro

Imposter syndrome is a state in which we believe not only that we’re faking it, that we’re not real photographers or real artists, or whatever discipline you work within, but wannabes and fakes. And it’s the belief that no one else feels this way, especially the ones we look up to. We mistakenly believe that they have their shit together. That they are as confident on the inside as they look on the outside. Well, I’m here to tell you, they are as full of shit as we are. And not just full of it, but it’s not even together, per se. Like you and me, their shit is wildly disorganized and crammed into whatever little mental cranny is available to make it all look tidy. But it’s not. 

Imposter syndrome is a symptom of comparing yourself to others. We only feel like fakes because we’re looking at others (all of whom also feel like fakes) and measuring our insides against their outsides. We look at ourselves through a cracked and grimy mirror, and at others through recently cleaned stained glass. Usually rose-coloured. 

“We are all faking it. But that’s not a bad thing. Not when faking it means making it up as we go. Learning what it means to be us. To be alive in this world and to create whatever it is we make as our art from that place of vulnerability and humility.”

We aren’t faking who we are. We’re not pretending about that, and we’re not trying to be something we aren’t. We’re just making our art with both feet planted firmly in uncertainty. Uncertain of the future, of the thing we’re making—the photographs, bodies of work, writing, whatever—and uncertain of how we feel about it. That’s a short list of the near infinite uncertainties we have. 

Uncertainty keeps us humble. It keeps us asking questions. It keeps us hungry for more, for better, for deeper. Uncertainty is the natural habitat of the artist (which is short-hand for human being). The only thing we really know for sure is the stuff we would discover on the well-worn paths that most artists avoid for fear of repeating themselves.

In other words, the good stuff is in the uncertainty. The Uncertainty is what lies on the other side of the Comfort Zone. It’s where the magic (if there is such a thing) is to be found.

Uncertainty is not, however, the same as a lack of confidence or a lack of courage. It is the reason we need those very things. Confidence in the creative process to get us where we’re going without the map we wish we had. Courage to begin, to do, to make, to move forward, knowing that the way is dark, that we might bump into things, but that bumping into things has never yet truly harmed us. And when we don’t have confidence or courage, to pretend we do and get to work all the same. Courage isn’t that rare state of being in which we have no fear; it’s the will to act regardless and not be paralyzed by that fear. 

I started writing this to encourage you, but I feel myself sliding into a sermon, trying to convince your mind that it’s all a game when what I want most to do is to speak to your heart. 

So listen up, you deeper parts in which the doubt and the fears reside: the greatest artists and creative people against which you could possibly compare yourselves were a hot sticky mess. They were truly messy, troubled, long-suffering souls. No artist in the history of time has had their shit together any more than you do.

A short list of brilliant people who most decidedly did not have their shit together: Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh, Tennessee Williams, Kurt Cobain, Beethoven, Georgia O’Keeffe, Goya, Caravaggio, Freddie Mercury, and probably anyone who’s ever appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Messy, troubled, mercurial, even broken? Perhaps. But aren’t we all? Aren’t those, to quote Leonard Cohen (another bright mess of a human being), the cracks where the light gets in?

I’ve long believed that our comfort zones are not where our best art is made, not remotely where our best lives are lived. There are all kinds of reasons we camp out in those comfort zones but if it's the so-called imposter syndrome keeping you there, then it’s time to take a deeper look at those against whom you keep comparing yourself. Not at the brave face they put on for the public, not their Instagram feeds and their Facebook posts, but the soul-level stuff. We are all afraid. We all live looking forward into uncertainty (unless you live looking backward, and that’s arguably worse). 

For however else you and I differ from each other and from the great creative people of history, we share this: we are broken, messy people, dogged by fears and traumas, buoyed now and then by hopes and joys. And when we accomplish any great and beautiful thing—at whatever scale we make it—it is not made because   lack fear, or possess remarkable genes, it is because in all our human weakness, and from the middle of stories fraught with complications, we do the work and pour ourselves into it. 

It is not from raw talent, nor is it from privileged lives that art comes, but from a willingness to splash that humanity, however messy and uncertain, onto the canvas, write it into the story, or put it into the photograph.

We may have a lot of reasons for not making our art or doing the work. But it is not, must never be, that others have it easier, are more talented, or in any other way have their shit together more than we do. It is profoundly human a state of being to lack shit-togetherness. The imposter, if there is one at all, is not the one whose life is a disorganized collection of poorly assembled shit; it’s the one who fails to recognize it, accept it, and get back to work. Flaws and all. You don’t need to fake it. You just need to be you.

You might not be the smartest person in the world. Only one person can hold that title. I sure as hell don’t. Make your art anyway. 

You might not be able to do it all by yourself; few of us can. I can’t. Make your art anyway. 

You might not be as talented as you think others are. Talent is overrated and most often just the result of hard work; you just don’t see the effort, only the results. Results always look easy. Make your art anyway. 

You might think you have had it too easy, or too hard. You haven’t. Make your art. 

Make your art. 

You do that by being you and no one else. The only imposter is the one trying to be someone else. 

We don’t need you to be someone else—someone shiny, unbroken, or, for that matter, to be a dark and tortured genius. We don’t need you to have your shit together. We just need you to be relentlessly and un-apologetically you.

And to make your art. 

And because making that art always happens in the uncertainty of new and unfamiliar territory, every step forward is on ground on which you’ve never stepped. Ground you don’t yet belong on. If you don’t feel you belong it’s because, in a very real sense, you don’t. You’ve just arrived. And any time you feel you do belong, you’re probably due to move on and stop wearing a rut into the carpet. By the time you pay your dues you’ll be on to the next place. And let me tell you one more thing: while I truly believe there’s no one out there checking your credentials to see if you belong, no guardians of any one creative space, if they ARE there, they’ve been there too long and they are not looking in the one direction that matters, and that’s their own work. Ignore them. You can only listen to one voice at a time and theirs is not the one that matters. You are right where you’re meant to be, and you’re not alone.

Thank you so much for being here, and listening. This new project is wildly speculative but I’ve got this crazy idea that if just a few of us knew we weren’t alone as we lived our creative lives, if we understood that the voices that distract us are the same voices that chatter at us all, but aren’t the only voices, we might just start making our art with a little more confidence and living our creative lives with a little more courage.  

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback and would be so grateful if you’d both subscribe, leave a short review, and invite the people in your life to listen. Until next time, go make something beautiful.

Music in this episode: Acid Jazz (Kevin Macleod) / CC BY-SA 3.0