How do you personally handle Impostor Syndrome? | Accidental Scientist

How do you personally handle Impostor Syndrome?

It’s strange. So, here’s the “humble-brag” part – over the course of my life, since I was 16, I’ve been a freelance journalist with a large readership, published in multiple countries (and even translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian audience). I’ve won some very minor awards (not even on the same league as the Razzies). I work on the frickin’ Xbox for gawd’s sake (which carries a certain built-in nerd-cred with it). I’m one of the most famous programmers for a specific computer. I’ve made a couple of short films. I’ve made games. I’ve made all kinds of stuff. I’m not a household name, but I’m a “known quantity”.

I tell you this not because I want applause and accolades, but because I need to set up my credentials so that I can contrast them with what comes next.

I’m hit with Impostor Syndrome all the freakin’ time. All the time. Every single day.

For what it’s worth, I also have trouble with being complimented – compliments bounce off me… I fundamentally have trouble believing them at all, and I can’t take them to heart – no matter how sincere they are. (I’m told, and I suspect, that in many ways this is a very British trait – others may feel the same way, but we owned it and made it ours. Like irony). If you really want to make me feel good? Tell me something I did is cool – I can relate to that.

So far as I can tell, my own personal internal ego dial is always set somewhere in the direction of “mildly unworthy”.

I’m pretty sure that all of this ties into everything else in a little messy ball. Kind of like Dunning-Krueger syndrome, but in reverse. Although I’ll go into that more later (the relationship isn’t clear-cut)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve started getting into making music. I’ve been slowly messing around for the past 20 years or so trying to get somewhere with it, but in the last couple of years I actually started to make some nice progress. The current socio-political climate and the last election helped – after watching several of my friend groups polarize and start splitting off in all kinds of strange directions in cliques, I needed to get away from the internet and its constant debilitating bullshit. Work stress didn’t help either. I needed an outlet, or I’d go nuts and turn into a very grumpy old man without any friends, because I’d be turning arguing against stupidity and injustice into a full time occupation, jumping at any sleight no matter how slim.

I have to thank my wife Darci Morales and George Broussard (yes, that one) for this, actually. Darci was encouraging me to get involved in an online creative commune thing set up by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a better outlet for my energy. George was reminding me to pick my battles, and his own sage words were ringing in my ears – “Ignore politics. Make things.”

You may have recognized this happening in your own friend groups (and I’m just as guilty as anyone – I’m not blaming anyone here) – but they all seem to have been fracturing into a hundred pieces, each with their own battle-lines drawn. It’s been happening since 2012 with increasing force. I don’t know the root cause, not that it matters, but for the most part I blame social media such as facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

So I threw myself into music. Music is great – it’s something I didn’t do very often. For me, it’s wonderfully all-consuming – in a hugely flow-generating kind of way. It uses different parts of my brain. And it’s enjoyably new enough with enough payoff that it overrides the urge to consume the internet or couch-potato myself in front of Netflix and Hulu.

I got good enough to actually feel comfortable enough to add “musician” to my tag on Twitter, even if it was more aspirational than real at first. (I feel differently now that I’ve released 4 singles – if you want to listen to them, you can find them on most music services under the name “Fleeting Shadow”).

And lo, now that I have expectations, the impostor syndrome likes to come stomping in in full force, with its size 12 boots.

For example, when I’m making music stuff, I get huge crippling hours to days of impostor syndrome – because I listen to other people’s stuff and go “oh my god, I can never do anything half as good as that”. … which is actually a trap, because they never did anything half as good as that when they first started, and they’ve had a lot more practice than me. But rational thought doesn’t enter into this equation.

But over the years, I’ve developed coping strategies.

So first, I step away for a while, and reset. (I might need to sleep on it to wipe it out if it’s bad enough). Then, I might work on something else, because starting is always fun, although I’ll usually pick a different arena I’m more comfortable in (which is why I did Slightly Jarreing – I’d spent five hours calling myself an idiot who would never amount to anything, and I soothed myself by just fucking around in a style that I love).

I also have some rules.

The Rules

I must finish the tracks that I start, if they’re good enough. (That’s a new one. Good enough means “can listen to in the car 20 times without getting bored”).

I can worry about the flashy/polish parts later as part of finishing the project. This way I can always move forwards – it doesn’t have to be *great* yet, just *interesting enough*.

(This is the whole idea behind the screenplay writer’s “vomit draft” – you need to finish it before you can critically analyze and edit it… or, if you prefer, in order to sculpt you must first have clay).

There’s no point in doing it unless there’s an audience – anything else is masturbation. (I learned this from being a freelance journalist). That means past a certain point, you kick it out the door, into the world, where it can find its audience. With billions of people on the world and the internet, there has to be at least one person who likes it, even if it’s my family. (Ends up that a few people in West Africa appear to like some of my stuff, which is weird, and cool)

Similarly, it also means that you have no shame when you kick it out the door. If you can’t pay rent or eat unless you publish, you quickly learn the connection between publishing regardless of your own internal critic’s value judgement and eating.

(Or, if you prefer, don’t harshly judge your work – let other people do it for you. They’re going to do that anyway, so don’t waste your own energy on doing it. That doesn’t mean you ship dross – but it does mean that you get it as good as you’re personally happy with, then break cover and let the snipers take you if they will).

The other piece is to not care too much. (I struggle relentlessly with this – it’s part of the confidence bit above). So if I put out one track and it’s okay, but not great? So what. If I don’t put it out, it may as well have not existed. If I do put it out into the world, in a couple of years I’ll have put out 10 or 20 of them, and they’ll be getting better all the time as long as I put effort into the weak spots.

(That said, I still need to fix the mix on Slightly Jarreing… oops. It’s way too compressed. Luckily, I’ve learned a fair bit in the past week or two, so I can go and fix it).

As long as I’m learning with every one, I can flip my thinking into the “I’m a noob” mode – learning is good! So what if I release a bunch o’ trash? If I get good, I can pick another artist name, wear a helmet like Deadmau5, and be enigmatically and mysteriously anonymous, and no-one will ever know.

So that’s how I deal with it. That, and I’m lucky enough to have a raft of really great mentors, teachers and friends who will encourage me without picking me apart or destroying my ego. Those people include Robin Green, Scott Selfon, Mark Shoemaker, Ruf Dug and more.

And my wife, who absolutely hates 90% of the music I put together because it’s so not her genre – she hates pretty much anything with a saw-wave, or a four-on-the-floor drum beat – but she still encourages me to pursue it. And my daughter Lexi, who doesn’t count, because she’s a captive audience when I’m subjecting her to it on the way to school in the morning. It’s not like she can undo her seatbelt and jump out of the moving vehicle. But she still likes my “music for robots”, even if at 7 she’s a better pianist than I’ll probably ever be.

Sometimes all you need is people who can critique through encouragement – the same way great teachers do – rather than tearing it down. Sometimes it’s really all you need.

And, because if I don’t post some of the music this’ll ring a bit hollow, here’s some tunes.

This is my first one… Entropy (1997) (on Soundcloud)

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/25488457″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

This is where I’m at now… Slightly Jarreing (2017) (on Spotify). This was my comfort food response to Impostor Syndrome.

… I’ve been doing other stuff too. You can find that on ReverbNation.

If you’re digging through ReverbNation or SoundCloud and wondering why there’s a bunch of Work In Progress stuff there, and why I’m breaking my rule (finish things!), it’s actually because I’m kind of cycling between tracks. I work on new stuff when I don’t have enough inspiration for changes to existing tunes… and come back to them later. They aren’t dead yet.

About Simon Cooke

Simon Cooke is a video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker and all-round good egg in Seattle, WA. The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind.
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