Impostor syndrome

Some creatives suffer from Impostor Syndrome. It’s a very real problem, and it’s always fascinated me, because I have no trouble with it at all.

Neil Gaiman, in the commencement speech which I reference frequently, said:

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 Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.

In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.

It’s different for me. I prefer to act the impostor. If I had taken the “proper” route to becoming an author, I probably wouldn’t be set to publish a book right now, because there are a thousand hoops I would have had to jump through. Instead, I ignored them all.

Act as if is something I learned from my older brother, and there’s comfort in it. When you act the impostor, it doesn’t matter who you are—all that matters is what you do. It’s all an act, it’s all a scam, and the trick is not in deserving it, but in keeping it going for as long as possible. You don’t need to get the credentials to do what you want to love. You just do it.

A world of black and white is scary to me. I’d rather dance in the grays. I’d rather have the flexibility to do what I want to do, rather than jump through hoops to “deserve it”. We’re all getting away with something, no matter what kind of success we have. Shaming ourselves for not deserving it is madness.

If the man with the clipboard ever comes to my door, I’ll flip him the bird, run away, and try again. Because the impostor is never totally beat—there’s only the next game.

Temporally unfocused

Most people live their lives temporally unfocused. We spend our lives focused on the future or the past, worrying about what’s to come and brooding over what has transpired, even though we have only so much control over what will happen, and absolutely none over what has already come to pass.

Rarely are the self and the mind focused in the same place, now. And while our minds are elsewhere, the present slips away in a daze, becoming a past we regret and a future we didn’t wish for.

This is all an elaborate way to explain why I haven’t been posting lately. I’ve been temporally unfocused, alternating between annoyance about recent events and worry about the future, all of which has paralyzed me in the present.

This post is to remind me to live in the present. The present makes the future, and creates the regrets (or not) the past will hold.

Focus on now, and the future and past will take care of themselves.

I don’t want you to succeed

And I hate myself for that.

We humans have a destructive tendency to view everything as a zero-sum game. We are so focused on the idea of winners and losers that it’s hard for us to imagine that everyone can win. It feels like, if you get yours, I won’t be able to get mine. It feels like there’s only so much of the pie to go around.

This is wrong! This is terribly, destructively, unequivocally wrong in many aspects of life. Take immigration, which is a hotbed issue in many countries. (Don’t get political on me, I’m just talking about the economics of it.) It feels like, if I, a natural born citizen, lose a job to an immigrant, then I have been harmed, right?

Wrong! Dangerously, ignorantly, misguidedly wrong. What happens in an economy is that, when more people play the game (work, spend money), they require more goods and services, which means businesses expand and are created to fulfill those needs, which means the entire economy grows. It might feel like I was wronged in losing out on that job, but it’s growing the entire pie so that both the immigrant and I can win. How can that be bad?

But it doesn’t feel right. Even as I explain it, I understand how that feels when you get that rejection letter. It feels like there was only spot and they took it, which means I’m out of luck jack.

I feel this all the time. When I hear from a reader who is writing as well, I want to encourage them, to cheer them on. I know intellectually that we can all win together, and there’s enough room for all of us to have a slice of the pie.

I know this, and yet a little traitorous voice in the back of my head disagrees. “If they succeed, you can’t!” it shouts. “You should get yours first. Then you can safely cheer them on once they can’t hurt you.”

No. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong! This is totally wrong, and I hate that part of myself. That’s the lizard brain talking, the ancient part of our minds from back when it was eat or be eaten, and the part that still views others getting ahead as a sign we’re about to fall behind the herd and die.

I fight against this voice every chance I get. I fight against it so that I can wholeheartedly encourage, cheer for, and help anyone trying to do great things, because there’s enough room for all of us, and because it’s the right thing to do.

And yet the voice is still there, and it always will be. Maybe you have that voice as well. I think we all do, or else we humans wouldn’t have survived long enough to create the languages, computers, or blog software you’re using to read this post.

To be honest, I’ve been scared to write this post for nearly a year. It’s an ugly part of me, and I wish it would disappear, but I don’t think it ever will. I think this is something many of us struggle with, and I hope by putting this out there it might help some of you come to terms with your own struggle. At the very least, its made me feel better about my own.

I truly, honestly, wholeheartedly wish for everyone’s success. I truly believe there’s enough room for us all. That little voice in the back of my head isn’t me. I’ll keep the lizard brain on a short leash, so we can all succeed together.

Goals & expectations

One of the challenges of my new private accountability system is that it gives me concrete goals. When I’m on track or ahead of the game, it’s great – I’m more productive when there’s some pressure, but not too much pressure. But when I get behind…

My muse I don’t do creative work well under pressure. The key, then, is to give myself plenty of time and get ahead of the game, because then I’ll fly along. But with a full-time job, side work, writing for RandomC, a social life, and everything else I do, this doesn’t always work. And when I get behind, I begin to flounder.

Here’s what I do when this happens: I remember that goals are me trying to impose my expectations of the future on the world. That’s great for getting things done, but reality is under no obligation to hew to my wishes.

When my expectations are helpful, I hold onto them tightly and let them propel me along, but when they’re not helpful, I let them go. I remind myself that my expectations were likely unreasonable, and it’s unreasonable to expect things to always go my way. I remind myself that getting mad and frustrated doesn’t help anything. I let go of my disappointment, my condemnation, my self-loathing. I let it all go, and then settle down to focus on what’s important.

I had a goal. If that goal was worthy, I’ll still work towards it, even if I have no chance of reaching it anymore. I let go, sit down, and do the work…and what do you know, my work invariably improves. I fail by less, if nothing else.

If your expectations are getting in the way doing what you want to do, let them go. You’ll be happier for it, whether you reach your goal or not.

The root of procrastination

Most people have a procrastination problem. I know I do. How do we move past our tendency to procrastinate? Do we push through, expending willpower to force ourselves to get started?

No. Willpower is finite, and the more we expend to just get started, the less we’ll have for the task in question. It’s better to search out the root cause and attend to that rather than the symptoms. So what’s the root cause of procrastination?

It’s fear. Fear of failure, fear of doing something hard, fear of the unknown, and uncertainty of whether we should be doing this thing at all. It all stems from fear, both overt and subconscious. (Credit goes to Zen Habits for teaching me this lesson.)

In my writing, it’s often the discomfort of doing something hard (and turning away from that discomfort is a form of fear) that stays my hand. I like to write, so I should be gung-ho about it at all times…but it’s also hard, and sometimes I’d rather not endure the discomfort. So I procrastinate.

The first step is to figure out what you’re afraid of. Is it the discomfort of hard work? Are you afraid of failing? Are you unsure of how to go about the task? Are you unsure whether you should be doing it at all?

Once you define your fear, you can manage it. Don’t deny it! Most of these fears are legitimate. Yes, writing is hard. I don’t beat myself up for turning away from the discomfort, because that’s a very human thing to do. That doesn’t mean I’m going to let it continue, though.

Once you’ve defined and accepted your fear, work through it. If you don’t know how to do something, take small steps to find out. If you’re afraid of failure, perform a small test – for a writer, write a short story and see how it’s received. In my case, I remind myself that I like to write, that the challenge is fun, and that I always feel better after I’ve sat down and done my best. I assuage my fears, reminding myself of why my writing is worth doing…and suddenly, it’s easier to begin.

The root of procrastination is fear. Manage the fear, and procrastination will lose its power over you.

Thinking about Looney Tunes

“Why, when I walk down the street, am I not being constantly bombarded by people remembering Looney Tunes?” –Patrick, Mind Reader

I find that much of my day is spent thinking about shit that doesn’t matter. Idle worries, unimportant concerns, egocentric fantasizing that stays in my mind because it would be interesting to no one but me.

I feel like my time would be better spent thinking about enjoyable things, like remembering Loony Tunes.

If a mind reader walked past you today, what would they hear? Would it be interesting, or would it be the same petty drivel they’ve heard a thousand times on that very street?

It matters more than you think. Your thoughts reveal who you really are, and the only one reading your mind is you.

P.S. The webcomic I linked, Strong Female Protagonist, is very good. I just found it today, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The safest risk

Coraline [was] a huge risk. But these days in animation, the safest bet is to take a risk.” –Henry Selick

Many people are risk averse. It’s one of humanity’s natural proclivities. It’s an offshoot of our loss aversion, where we put much greater weight on preserving what we have rather than acquiring more. $20 is not $20 – we value it differently depending on whether we already have it or not.

The problem is that sometimes the safest bet is to take a huge risk. Uncertain victory is better than certain, gradual defeat.

You see this in high-budget Hollywood movies and AAA video games all the time. In an effort to reduce risk, the producers try to please everybody, so they slowly sand off all the edges to make the movie or game more palatable to the general public…only to end up with a mediocre product that nobody really likes. You also see it in careers, where many people will choose a certain, crappy job over the uncertain possibilities of a much better job every single time.

The shows I’ve been blogging over at RandomC this season are instructive in this matter. Mahouka is a divisive story, one that some people love and others hate. That’s good! Better to have diehard fans even if it means haters as well, rather than a bunch of people who don’t really care. As for No Game No Life, it’s the characters themselves who know this lesson the best.

Don’t be afraid of risk. It’s better to risk big, even if you fail, rather than guarantee your defeat by accepting mediocrity. That’s a risk too, it’s just not a very good one.

Useful lies

The human mind is a powerful thing. It’s so powerful it can make some things true simply by believing in them.

The Placebo Effect is the most stark example. When given a treatment with absolutely no medical benefit whatsoever – a sugar pill, for instance – sometimes patients will either think they have or actually experience an improvement in their condition, simply because they believed the treatment might help. Taking action helps, even when the action itself has no clinical benefit.

Placebos are an example of what I call a useful lie. I’ll give you another example – optimism. Many a cynic believe some dire things about the world and humanity. And perhaps they’re right, but is their doom-saying useful? Optimism may be a lie, but it’s a useful lie, and one I’ve chosen to tell myself because all progress depends on the unreasonable man, and that’s who I’d rather be.

Another example is me becoming an author, and being able to make a living by my art. Probably I’ll fail. The odds are certainly against me. But because I tell myself it’s possible – because I tell myself that lie – I’m actively working towards that future, opening up a chance for victory.

Maybe I’ll make it, and maybe I won’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve decided upon a reality that’s beneficial to me, and made progress for doing so.

What truths do you believe in that would better be replaced with useful lies?

Realism, cynicism, & the unreasonable man

For a long time I considered myself a realist. My parents were pragmatic people, and I inherited the trait from them. Not only that, I took pride in it. While others were illogical, I aimed to be realistic. I focused on what mattered.

Until one day, after a long journey, when I realized the problem with realism.

Do you want to know what a realist is? Really?

A realist is a cynic who doesn’t want to admit it.

There’s a famous quote, of which I’m sure you’ve heard. It says:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

The realist–that is, the cynic is the reasonable man, the one who sees the world as it is and adapts himself to it. I’ll grant you that the cynic may be right – people may truly be motivated primarily by self-interest. But is that truth helpful? Is that truth useful?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve made the rare trip towards optimism. Not because it’s right, but because it’s useful, and because if I were to choose between the reasonable man and the unreasonable man, I want to be the unreasonable man. I want to shape the world to my purposes, rather than be shaped by it.

I retain some of my parent’s “realism”, and I put it to good use, for the unreasonable man who can’t see practicalities is surely doomed. Yet when the cynic inside me says I can’t do something, I tell him to shut the hell up.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe I can’t do it. Maybe it’s impossible.

But I won’t know until I try.

Give me that unreasonable man any day of the week. Or better yet, watch as I become him. Then I’ll show you the world I want to live in.

I can quit anytime, so I don’t have to

“He’d fooled them all, even her. But the good bit was that he could go on doing it, he didn’t have to stop. All he had to do was remind himself, every few months, that he could quit anytime. Provided he knew he could, he’d never have to.” – Moist Von Lipwig, Going Postal

I could quit writing right now if I wanted to. I could stop everything I’m doing, I could leave it all unfinished, and I could disappear. I could abandon everything and never write another word in my entire life.

And because I can, I never will.

No one is telling me to do this, no boss is yelling at me that it must be done. I choose to write, each and every day. To some people this may seem daunting, but I find it immensely liberating. It’s not easy, but I chose it. This is mine! This is the path I have chosen!

Pardon the self indulgence, but I thought I’d give you some insight into my mind. I will do unpleasant, difficult, even back-breaking things if I choose to, but if you tell me I have to, I will fight you. Fortunately, no one is telling me to do this. It’s my choice, and nothing can take that away from me.

My combo counter: Editing chain, 19 days. Writing chain, 2 day.