I once heard one of the most talented people I know say, unironically and in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’m qualified to be on a panel abut imposter syndrome.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
Some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working people I know often express to me (usually in private, so no one knows) how doubtful they are that they are really good at what they do. I’d say this is mind-boggling… except that I totally get it. My mental issues aren’t a secret, but they absolutely include being afraid that everyone who is impressed with me or my work has just been fooled, and at some point the “truth” is going to come out and I’ll never be able to sell game material or my writing ever again.
When I had just a few magazine articles to my credit, maybe that made sense. But now, after 20 years of this being my career? It just doesn’t jive with the facts in evidence. But even knowing that, I struggle with it on a regular basis.
That struggle has forced me to build coping mechanisms, many based on my pop-psych opinions on why imposter syndrome is an issue for me, and maybe why it is for other folks as well. In case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about), this article outlines some of those mechanisms.
Fake It Even After You Make It
A little humility can help you be likable and relatable. Too much humility gets you less work, less money, and less respect.
So, even when you have your own doubts, you may need to move forward on the premise that you actually can do the work, well, and are worth being paid for it. And paid well.
Sadly, no one else is likely to come along and be a great advocate for you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. So when someone asks you your rate, or your qualifications, or your value, you tell them what you think an actual expert with all your achievements and credits would say, rather than equivocate and undercut yourself.
In my case, I often lean on the idea that I owe it to *other* people to have a good career, and to be compensated for the work I do. I can think about the impact of my being underpaid on my family, friends, and even society as a whole more easily than I can think in terms of what I am worth.
Luckily as a roleplayer, I can often think about how someone is confident in their value might act, even when I completely lack that confidence.
Trust the Mentors in Your Life
As I mentioned, I know a lot of amazingly smart, fantastically talented people. Some of them are mentors to me, varying from those who are better and more experienced in everything I do to those who are willing to give me guidance in one specific area where I’m lacking. While those people are often underwhelmed with their own accomplishments, they generally reinforce the public perception of my skills.
Even when I tell them all the reasons that perception is an illusion.
So, if I know these people are smart and wise and great, and they are telling me I’m not an imposter… there’s a logical conclusion there. Now, often my brain tells me the conclusion is “I have them all fooled, and when they figure it out they’ll never talk to me again.” But, since these really ARE people smarter than me, that just doesn’t make sense.
No, if I value their opinions, and I do, that has to include their opinions of me. Intellectually at least, even if I still reject the idea emotionally.
Good mentors can also be a great resource when trying to decide if you are terrified to take on something slightly different because you are your own worst critic, or if it’s a legitimate concern about something that needs skills and/or experience you lack.
Be A Mentor to Others
Obviously mentoring others is a good act for the industry as a whole, and if you have mentors, it’s only fair to pay it forward by providing the same service for other.
And that’s the best reason to become a mentor. But it’s not why this is a good coping mechanism for imposter syndrome.
Nothing proves to your subconscious that you actually have value like helping others find their own value. You may well end up convinced the people you are mentoring are smarter, more talented, and better-liked than you are (that often happens to me), but being part of that process is still helpful to fighti8ng off feelings you are somehow getting by with less skill than people think you have.
Analyze Failure Fairly
This one is particularly tough, and I’m bad at it. But it’s also crucial, so I feel I have to mention it, at least as something to work on.
When you fail, and everyone fails sometimes, you have to analyze that failure in a fair, even, and balanced manner. Otherwise, it just becomes one more reason to not trust or believe in yourself.
For me personally, that means waiting a bit from point of failure to analysis, because until I get some space from the frustration, anger, and embarrassment of failing, I can’t possibly do a balanced analysis. This doesn’t have to mean letting yourself off the hook if you made bad decisions, but it does mean giving yourself some benefit of the doubt on how circumstances played into things going wrong. Since I am bad at giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I try to focus on identifying what I want to do differently in the future to prevent a similar failure, and what signs I should look out for to try to identify potential failures before they happen. By framing my mental efforts in ways that seem useful in the future, I am more likely to be fair to myself.
That DOES mean that when I am done analyzing a failure if the answer I come up with is “I was stupid, this was entirely my fault,” it stings. But that pain can also help me prevent being stupid in the same way ever again, and that knowledge—that I have learned from the experience—can help fight feelings of total incompetence.
Don’t Compare Your Secret Apples to Other People’s Public Oranges
I am personally convinced one major cause of imposter syndrome is the tendency to take all the things you know about yourself—your struggles, your doubts, your dissatisfaction with what you produce—and compare it to only the public, successful face of other people. After all, if you know you could have done better on a project, and no one else ever talks about how they could have done better on any of their efforts, that means you’re worse than them, right?
But it doesn’t.
Especially as social media has become ubiquitous and especially in creative endeavors where having a reputation as a smart, well-liked, talented, successful creator can mean better opportunity and more pay, most people you are comparing yourself to have no incentive to air their doubts, problems, or failings. So if you take the sum whole of all the problems you know you have, and compare that only to the public face of other people, you’re not making a fair comparison.
Everyone has problems now and then. Most people have doubts, and the ones who don’t are honestly often assholes and/or people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. But since such things are often taken as weakness, not a lot of people discuss their problems in depth. And even those who do often frame their doubts and struggles in a positive way, or hold back the truly painful or embarrassing things they’d rather not be well-known.
That means that when you look around at your peers, you are certain to see their achievements much more clearly than their letdowns. If you try to compare that to everything you know about yourself, including all the things that aren’t obvious from the outside, you’re grading on a negative curve. Of course all of your reality doesn’t compare to the curated public appearance of other people. Especially since you are most likely to [ick people with the highest visibility to compare yourself to, and those are the people who do the best job making themselves look good.
This is another place where having a mentor, or even just a trusted peer, can be extremely helpful in maintaining perspective.
Celebrate Every Achievement
Ultimately, I think imposter syndrome is more about fear and gut feelings than rationality and logic, and as a result all the well-reasoned efforts to talk yourself out of it in the world can only go so far. For the emotional component, you also have to make sure you celebrate your own achievements.
Every publication. Every interview. Every review—even bad reviews mean you impacted someone enough for them to take time to write about it. Abso-damn-lutely every award or honor, even the ones you think are dumb or should have gone to someone more deserving. You celebrate all of it.
I recommend celebrating it publicly, because private celebrations often seem less impactful, but you do you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but you DESERVE to be proud of everything you make. The very voice telling you right now that no one wants to hear about your new book, or the blog post you wrote, or your review of an obscure fantasy movie from 1973, is the same one that tells you that you aren’t a “real” creative, and that you don’t measure up to other people.
The fight to take the credit you have earned IS the fight against imposter syndrome.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Yes, or course, that’s the entire point of rejecting imposter syndrome. But here I literally mean don’t assume you aren’t monetarily worth the best rate you can get. I have seen people actually undercut the price agreed upon for a project before anyone else mentions money.
Don’t do that.
On very, very rare occasions offering to do a job for less might be appropriate. If it doesn’t meet some aspect of a contract and it’s entirely your fault is the main one… and even then it’s rarely something you should bring up without the other party at least suggesting things need to be adjusted.
Instead, as for raises. See if your per-word rate can be increased. Suggest you deserve perks, like more free copies, bigger credit, more advertising for the project, or opportunities to cherry-pick assignments.
I can’t tell you if you need to fight imposter syndrome. There are people who are legitimately trying to punch above their weight, and for those people this advice could do more harm than good.
But if a lot of your fans, or a few of your peers, or even one of your mentors keeps telling you that you’re more awesome than you can possibly accept?
Then you probably are.
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One of my soft spots is when something I loved as a child is presented as being important.
This is, of course, mostly the case with fictionally important.
The new Godzilla trailer takes something I loved (and am still quiet fond of), and presents it in a way that tells my subconscious “This matters. This is important. Your faith in this is about to be rewarded.”
It’s nostalgia as a form of wish-fulfillment validation. I’m not just reacting to the idea that I get new stories about thing I like, I am enjoying the sense of being *right* to have enjoyed those things before. My personal preferences are (fictionally) affirmed as worthwhile and (within the fictional context) world-changing.
I’m not claiming this is a good thing. Indeed, i suspect it is strongly related to the feelings that can become toxic fandom, which is one reason why in entertainment, I try to focus on things I like, rather than things I don’t.
But to me, it’s an interesting reaction worth analyzing and considering. ESPECIALLY if it is related to the kinds of feelings that can lead to toxic reactions.
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So, we took a capiekie to the 4th of July gathering we went to.
That’s a cake, stuffed with a pie, stuffed with cookies.
It seems complicated, but making one isn’t that difficult.
The first step is always to pick complementary flavors. In this case, it’s a rum-glazed yellow cake, stuffed with a cherry pie, that is itself stuffed with chocolate cookies. Cream pies don’t work well for this. Sometimes, to see if it’s a good three-way match, I ask myself if there’s one flavor of ice cream or sauce that would go with all three dessert elements.
So, construction is in steps.
First, bake your cookies. It’s okay if they are only lightly done. Then bake the pie crust by itself, without filling, in a pie pan. Then make the cake batter, and pour about 1/3 of it into a springform pan. Then lift the crust out of its pie pan, and settle it into the batter. Then a layer of pie filling goes into the pie crust, then a layer of the cookies (just one layer—you can set the rest aside for a second capiekie if you want), then the rest of the pie filling. Then the top crust of the pie (just set it on, no need to crimp it or anything), and then the rest of the cake batter, which should cover the pie crust.
Then, cook as directed for a square cake, though realistically you’ll need to check doneness with a toothpick at the edge (since the center is gooey pie when the cake is solid).
In this case we went with a rum glaze, but you could frost it. Just… only frost the top. A capiekie’s sides don’t have a lot of structural support.
Then cool in the fridge overnight, and remove from springform pan after a good 12 hours of cooling.
Make sure you are taking this thing to a party. It’s not a leave-it-on-the-house-to-snack-on kind of dessert.
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I have often described my freelancing career as being a “Content Provider.” Because for some of the things I have written for 1 to 29 cents/word, “writer” sounds too pretentious. My job is to give the people paying the bill the content they want/need, not to create my vision of high art and argue with the client that they should appreciate it.
Now, that doesn’t mean I keep my opinion on what is good a secret. When someone is paying me a contract rate to give my best effort, that includes letting them know when I think they are wrong on something. And I do–once per wrongness. After that, I give them their money’s worth with my best efforts applied to the way they want it done.
Writing exclusively the way I think it should be done is reserved for when I am in charge of the project, and even then I keep an eagle eye on whether I’m the one out of step with the target audience. Generally speaking I am working with smart, experienced people. I don’t want to dismiss their opinions even if the ultimate call is mine. And, to be clear, that is very much the exception in this business.
Obviously there’s an exception if I feel the content I am being asked for violates my ethics or is damaging for me to work on. That’s happened maybe once over 20 years, but I certainly have decline jobs for fear one of those two things would be true. And in that case, it’s time to refund any monies paid, apologize, and move on.
And as I noted this is for freelance contract work. If I am a staff writer or the publisher, my relationship, and responsibilities to my employer, changes.
So I don’t think anyone should be burning bridges or tearing their hair out over disagreeing with what the best game mechanic or writing style is with freelance writing. I DO think a polite note on when you think your idea is better (along with acknowledgement you are happy to do it there way if they don’t agree) is worthwhile.
But at least in my case after that? You provide the desired content.
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Gridiron football grew out of older games, and became a hobby sport. At that point, the money in the game was in producing the materials (equipment) for it, and to a lesser extent selling books with the rules.
Now, far more people watch football than play it, and the money is made by forming professional-level exhibitions and controlling the viewing of such, and related licensing. Making generic football equipment and rulebooks for it is a far, far less lucrative business.
This may just be the natural progression for all games.
In which case, adventure game companies are looking at the hobby they largely created giving someone else most of the money generated by the game.
(And hey, speaking of making money elsewise, please sign up to my Patreon so I can afford to keep making posts like this!)
A lot of creatives are very engaged with the public nowadays, myself included (to the degree I can manage it). That can have lots of rewarding interactions, but it can also lead to people giving you very public feedback. That feedback may be valuable to your work, or it may miss the point entirely, or it may actually cause you problems in being seen as open, or competent, or paying attention. If you want to be a public professional creative, in my opinion you need to respond to your viewer’s feedback professionally.
And here, I am specifically talking about responding to true feedback. If someone is trying to threaten you, or your right to exist, or your livelihood in a comment disguised as feedback, you are in a much more serious situation that’s flatly outside the scope of this essay—take steps appropriate to their intent, not steps designed to respond to a normal comment that’s well within the reasonable back-and-forth of the public creative.
My most recent public feedback? So, my mother (Empress of the Geeks) called me out on twitter about my Laser Dress design. “If laser dresses are weapons. aren’t they forbidden at all important (diplomatic etc) parties? What use is that?”
First, let me say how much I love that I live a life where I can do a fairly silly, opening-of-an-80’s-animated-series-inspired, a co-worker threw the idea over a cubical wall and I ran with it, off-the-cuff design for a piece of armed formalwear for a roleplaying game… and my mother can (and will) critique it online. Most of my fellow game designers have to mourn that their families don’t really get RPGs, or what they do for a living. My mother’s connected enough to tell me if she thinks I’ve missed a bet. ❤
Regardless, that’s feedback in a public venue. Now, how to respond?
First, personally, I believe in staying polite. Don’t ever be the one to escalate, it doesn’t help anything. If you think someone isn’t worth responding to, just don’t respond to them. You can try ignoring them – most people lack the time to hunt down and pester every creative they question, so this often works. However, it’s not universally effective. If you feel you need to be clear you are disengaging, I recommend not beating around the bush but not being rude. “I appreciate the question, but that’s not something I am going to go into.” or “That’s outside the scope I of what I want to get into.” Have both worked pretty well for me. The point is to be clear to someone who doesn’t want to let something go that you don’t want to get into—just tell them you don’t want to get into it. They don’t get to decide what conversations you have unless they are paying you directly under some kind of contract. (And no, buying your stuff doesn’t count for this purpose—they are a customer, not an employer.)
In this case, I’m happy to engage and respond with my mother, so I wrote a response.
“First, that assumes that they aren’t designed for diplomatic parties among races where going unarmed would be an insult. Judge not aliens by our own cultural norms, Mom. :)”
So let’s be clear, my mother has a point. The main reason I didn’t address her point in the original write-up is that it’s as much a joke as it is a serious piece of equipment… and my mother isn’t the right audience for that joke. But I did go to all the trouble of writing it up as useable equipment so… why? Why did I bother?
My unofficial material for Starfinder is very much third-party publisher material, and in general I trust GMs to figure out what they want to use that material for. Maybe laser dresses are rare, and no one normally knows what they are. Of course if that’s the idea, the rules should have covered how to identify them, so listing that invites a further debate, which isn’t what I am looking to do here. I want to respond, in an engaging and friendly way, without leaving a huge opening for other people to jump into.
Now, in this case I have an advantage of knowing my audience. She raised me, after all, and introduced me to science fiction (and fandom, and cons, and her brother introduced me to RPGs, and she was my DM for many years when I was a kid – we’re a pretty geeky family). So I know she’s read a ton of classic science fiction, which often asks questions like, “what would it be like if an alien culture was radically different than our own?”
So, I can use that to craft a response that notes she has a point (“Yeah, laser dresses aren’t going to be legal in most high-end parties based on our culture”), while pointing out that doesn’t mean it’s not a reasonable item (“Starfinder is set in a whole galaxy of adventure—there are tons of cultures not based on ours!”).
But, I made a mistake.
It being my mother, I ripped off a response on-the-quick, and didn’t think about it again until this morning. When I re-read it, it felt… a tad patronizing. I didn’t INTEND to be patronizing, but the tone and wording are more dismissive than I meant them to be. And that’s one of the risks of communications online. All you have is the words, cold and hard on the screen, and missed tone is all too easy. I included a smiley face, which has become the punctuation of emotion in e-missives, but I don’t think that’s good enough. I should have carefully reread my repost, as I often do when talking to new folks, and made sure the tone was friendly and polite.
Sorry, mom. I’ll try to do better. 🙂
Speaking of Being a Professional: Patreon!
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I have spoken to many creatives about how they interact with the media they create for, and gotten a lot of different responses. Many novelists have told me they can’t help but dissect the story elements of all fiction they absorb, and the word structure of everything they read. They can’t help themselves, and it makes the process of enjoying fiction different. Not necessarily worse, but different. On the other hand, some have a specific type of fiction or writing they carefully keep separate from their professional analysis, such as romance novels, or pulp adventure, or biographies, so they have something they can enjoy without feeling like it’s work.
But even then, they confess, it’s always a little bit work.
I’ve had the privilege to talk to more than one movie and television screenwriter. Most of them seem to have a different process—they try to be in the moment the first time they watch anything, with just a running checklist of the moments that get a big reaction from them. It’s later that they break things down for analysis. The second viewing. The fourth. The twentieth.
I found myself thinking about that a lot when I was going frame-by-frame through Star Wars space battle scenes, looking to see if there was any starship that had never received game stats before, in any video game, board game, RPG, card game, or miniatures game. I was not, at that moment, enjoying Star Wars. I was far from my hobby, while staring elements of it in the face.
Some game designers I know can’t play the games they work on. It’s always workfor them, even if they are surrounded by friends and laughing and bouncing dice. The rules and layout and themes have come to be associated with their career and employment to a degree they can’t let go, relax, and enjoy themselves. Other game designers (myself included) have a hard time imagining working on a game they don’t play. I certainly have written for games I didn’t particularly enjoy, but even then having a real-world feel for how the elements all came together was crucial to my understanding of how to expand, adjust, or develop the game.
Ideally, I DO like the games I’m working on. And thankfully, that’s usually the case. And yes, I have a constant background awareness that the things I am learning have a relevance beyond me having a good time. They are a form of professional development, and that changes how I respond to them, and sometimes even how I interact with the players around me. Especially just after a game, I sometimes want to know why people did what they did, because I want to understand how THEY are interacting with the game.
But for me, it’s when I am playing a game I’m NOT working on I find myself the most in my job-headspace rather than my hobby-headspace. That lessens significantly once I am familiar with a game, but whenever it has a new twist or interaction, I’m right back to analyzing it for it’s engine, rather than enjoying the ride.
That fine, honestly. I was analyzing game mechanics long before it was my job. Indeed, it largely became my job because it was such an all-consuming hobby for me. While my friends and class mates were learning life skills, I was learning when a die pool could accidentally make massive failure more likely for highly skilled characters that got more dice.
In the end they had saleable talents and experiences, and I had Dragon magazine articles.
I DO think it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t make your whole life your job. And over twenty years of having a professional game design career, I have tried to distinguish between leisure writing and creative writing. On the other hand since I support myself and my family with the work of creating games, I am well aware it’s never just a game when it’s your career.
Since I am generally creating entire fictional universes for people to play in, my job touches on all the geek media I can get my hands on. Popular tropes, characters and ideas people may want to model, and things I might accidentally duplicate in parallel development are all things I need to be aware of, and that touches on everything I consume in all aspects of my leisure time.
Sometimes it’s a hobby. But it’s always a job.
And Patreon is part of My Job
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Generally speaking as a writer, if you get a cold, or get the flu, you write as you are able while sick, and depend on being able to catch up in a crunch when you;re better to still hit deadlines.
If you’re going to be sick for longer than a few days or a week, things change.
I have a medical issue causing severe fatigue. We know at least part of what is going on, but don’t know yet if we have identified the root cause, or just found a symptom of something more serious. And, it may be months before the testing finds a conclusive answer to that question.
And that means, I have to consider how I am going to manage if my energy levels crashed for weeks, or months to come.
I have, for the past month or so, been more exhausted every day than the day before. Since the issue causing my fatigue is at least potentially progressive, I began to despair that I was on a downward arc that might actually incapacitate me sometime before it gets addressed up to 3-4 months from now.
Of course I *also* had two conventions nearly back-to-back in the past month, and am under pressure from a number of major deadlines. That can be exhausting under the best of circumstances.
So I have maintain the best self-care I could, and attempted to employ new coping techniques suggested by some research.
Today, for the first time in 4 or 5 weeks, I’m not immediately more fatigued than I was yesterday. Indeed, I haven’t been this functional for a week or more.
Any medical condition is likely to have ups and downs so I don’t plan to read too much into this, but it’s nice that I might not exclusively be looking at a downward spiral for personal energy.
That said, as I know out short- and mid-term projects, I’m not replacing them with anything. Hopefully that’ll leave me with time and energy to tackle my long-term things (especially those that are months behind schedule) even if my energy level doesn’t recover any more than this in the foreseeable future.
That’s the only way I can see to keep my career on-track, and not let down anyone who is depending on me.
And I’ll monitor my progress, both medical and wordcount-wise, and see if the steps I’m taking are good enough. If not, I may begin to consider backing out of some long-term commitments, as much as I hate doing that.
No convention owes me anything unless I pay them cash for it.
I am not owed any specific person be selected to be a speaker until they are announced as such. I am not owed any specific theme or topic or program track, unless they’ve already been announced (AND I’ve bought a membership on that basis).
I am not owed a guest spot. Not the platform, not the increased awareness, and absolutely not a free membership, or room, or transport.
Many conventions *have* offered me such things, but the only one to ever do so *twice* was SoonerCon, and even they have never offered to fly me out or put my up in a hotel.
And if some convention that has limited slots selects someone I consider less qualified than me to speak on their theme or topic (or less qualified than my close circle of friends, colleagues, and pro-crushes)… then they still don’t owe me anything.
A convention is never going to be an absolute arbiter of who is “best” at anything. Their main goal is to have interesting guests who will encourage people to come and listen, and talk about their choice (to reach others who will come and listen, even if the original commentator won’t).
And if they only picked the “most qualified” every year… then we’d hear the same voices over and over and over.
That’s boring. Screw that.
Further, if a convention makes a selection I think is under-qualified… I would consider it the height of unprofessionalism to bitch about it. I am, by definition, biased if I think anyone I like better is a better choice; and likely not qualified to have an opinion if there *isn’t* anyone I like I think is more qualified.
That’s just shitty gatekeeping, and it helps nothing.
If you feel someone is dangerous, including the kinds of dangerous that being racist or bigoted or someone who makes threats qualifies as, that’s a totally unrelated issue to this.
Beyond that, celebrate those who have gotten one of the tiny motes of recognition this industry offers. Tearing them down (and suggesting they don’t *deserve* their guest spot is both tearing them down and insulting them) is shitty.
Besides, they are obviously more qualified than you in at least one way.
They lead their career in such a way as to get the invitation.
“So, Owen, what DO you do if you seriously need rest to fulfill your professional obligations, such as an early morning at PaizoCon, but your insomnia kicks in?”
I’m so glad you asked!
I have numerous mechanisms designed to help me cope. One is to get up and do something uninteresting for 30 minutes. this increases the chance I’ll go back to sleep (rather than watching anime, or writing on a project that excites me, which is likely to make me even more awake).
Drink some water or a bout a cup of cold milk. Spend 5-10 minutes being restful and aware of my surroundings.
Then I change the conditions I am trying to sleep in. If I am using white noise, I alter what it is. If I have a nightlight, I turn it off, or use a different one. Anything to trick my brain into thinking it’s a different night and a different bed. (If a different bed is actually an option, I sometimes take that.)
Then, it’s time to try to sleep again.
If about two cycles of that still doesn’t do it, (or three or four if I have more time) I “give up.” If I can manage it, I stay in bed and rest, because quiet rest can leave me in better shape than being twitchy all night, even if I get no sleep. If that’s psychologically off the table, I get up, shower, dress, and begin my day.
“So, do you find writing about not sleeping boring? Because, it’s almost midnight, and you need to be up early…”
Nope, this definitely qualifies as too interesting for my above coping mechanisms. But sometimes I need to do some therapeutic writing to quiet my mind enough to try the other stuff.
And this has been that writing.
Now, to pull up a waterfall video on my cell phone…