Fraudulent feelings

The wolf suffers an attack of imposter syndrome.


How do we ever know when we have a realistic view of our own abilities?

When I’ve come up with an idea and start to work it into some kind of shape, I often enter a ‘genius phase’, which includes happy imaginings of friends and publishers being blown away by the idea, adoring children laughing out loud at my wit and daring, and wonderful visualisations of hilarious, perfect drawings. I love ‘being a genius’ and probably couldn’t move forward without going through that phase at least once. Of course I’m aware that it won’t last, but it’s so enjoyable – why not make the most of it?

But once that joyful ‘genius phase’ is over my original idea either gets put aside or – worse – turns into a real project. Then there’s the to-and-fro and grind of the project itself. My idea becomes a daunting chain of tasks. And when it’s finally over, I’m rarely satisfied with the end product. Praise makes me feel awkward (except when the praise is from children, happily …) because of the discrepancy between the planned and the final product, whether it’s a drawing or a book. And then I start to feel like a big, fat fraud. Apparently this is known as ‘imposter syndrome’, defined in Wikipedia as:

Imposter syndrome: an inability to internalize ones accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

And the past couple of weeks have been ‘imposter time’ for Wolfie. Generally there are reasons for this. Here are my current ones:

  1. The ‘never-ending story’: the wolf has tweaked, culled and re-written the text for a picture book – currently under contract – about 30 times, and (aaagh!) re-done the corresponding illustrations. After hundreds of hours of work, I can’t remember the point of the story (or what remains of it). I can’t remember the point of myself.
  2. Using the wrong materials: I still think that using coloured pencils (over paint), as well as digital techniques and micron pens (over brushes and nibs) is somehow inauthentic – if you’re only using them because you haven’t mastered fine art materials.
  3. Time – or lack of it: there’s no getting around it: if you have cubs there are not enough hours in the day – four or five if one prefers a squalor-free lair.
  4. Cash – or lack of it: agonising over a picture book does not pay. Money is validation. Money is also useful for buying holidays, cars that are less than 20 years old… oh, and food.
  5. Bookshops, instagram, twitter, the internet in general: all chock-full of witty, amazing, active people and beautiful, imaginative, thought-provoking work, against which the wolf’s efforts cannot begin to compare.

When going through this phase I’m usually completely in my own head and failing to be ‘mindful’. Grrrr… mindfulness. The Wolf’s idea of hell is being trapped in a meditation class and forced to imagine a ‘happy place’ for eternity .


******** The Wolf digresses ********

When the cubs were tiny and I was sleep deprived and stressed, I saw a psychologist for a few sessions. The psychologist tried to engage me in the idea of visualising a peaceful paradise, which I could then visit at will. I closed my eyes, we put on the ‘whale song’ track, and she talked me through it:

Psych: “So imagine yourself on a beach…”

Me (thinking): “A beach… so a sandy or a pebbly beach?… and would it be a surf beach? Probably yes.. but..”

Psych: “And now step towards the water…”

“Hang on.. hang on… I haven’t thought of a beach.. what beach. Maybe Pakiri beach in New Zealand. That’s perfect. Must remember it…”

Psych: “And start to let the water lap at your ankles”

“Oh what..oh no… I can’t remember it… is it facing west or east? And if it’s a surf beach, the water wouldn’t ‘lap’ would it?”

Psych: “Are you relaxing now?”

Me: “Actually, I feel sick.”

The sessions did go well – just not that one.

******** End of digression ********

Going to a ‘happy place’ is not for me. But here’s what has been helping counteract the fraudulent feelings:

  1. Using other skills: This week I did some commercial design work. It went well, people said they were pleased. And it paid properly too – more validation.
  2. Making realistic comparisons and sharing problems: I read some other people’s writing-in-progress – people at different points in their careers, all of whom I admire. This helped me realise we’re all having the same struggles.
  3. I went walking and swimming. Mindfully, of course.
  4. Having a rant: I spoke to experienced picture book author/illustrators – apparently my picture book experience happens to everyone who’s been doing it for a while. It’s just one of those things. It will be over soon (one way or another…)
  5. I had a nice, big glass of bubbly while ranting.

And here’s what I’ve been telling myself:

The more you know.. the more you know you don’t know. And if you knew that in the first place you wouldn’t do any of it… (this is where the transient ‘genius phase’ is so useful).

Stop being self-important. Feeling like a fraud may be due to measuring oneself against an impossible level of perfection. Which is self-important. And unbearable – so move on.

The learning curve should keep veering upwards. It’s good not to be completely happy with one’s work – it means there’s a reason to keep going.

Wise words Mrs Wolfie. Wise words… (allows self brief ‘genius moment’)

Any time is good for a genius moment.

Any time is good for a genius moment.

I chatted to a wonderful children’s author/publisher recently, who told me: “If someone presents me with something they’ve done and they say: ‘It’s great and it’s completely finished’ then the alarm goes off. Guaranteed it won’t be right and they won’t be aware of how to make it right.”

So, it’s more of a worry never to have felt like a fraud, as this could be due to the dread ‘Dunning–Kruger’ effect, which Wikipedia explains thus:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

Which can lead to serous trouble. I found this anecdote on BBC NEWS MAGAZINE, date 15 April:

“… the classic example of the Dunning–Kruger effect concerns a bank robber who was astonished to be caught despite having smeared lemon juice on his face, which he believed made him invisible to security cameras. It was an idiotic belief, of course – but he was too much of an idiot to see it.”

Wouldn’t have been great if the lemon juice had worked though? There could be a book in that.

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