Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Case for Insecurity. How a moderate case of impostor complex can actually be a good thing.

I love what I do. Always have. I love my field and I work for a pretty amazing company. Not infrequently, I find myself feeling like the nerdy kid who accidentally got invited to the hippest party of the year and no one realized I wasn't cool enough to go. But here I am! And therein lies my problem. Or wait. Is it a problem?

I have always been a creative soul, and I have been a creative professional for the last 13 years. I have been part of teams who have won an award or two. At this point one should maybe feel accomplished, experienced, dare I say…confident? Don't be silly. I'm an impostor.

While everyone else around me seems totally legit, I constantly feel like I am waiting to be found out. Like a less stylish DiCaprio in "Catch me if you Can." My insecurities sometimes make me wonder how I ended up surrounded by so many great creatives when clearly I am not the real deal. I am especially prone to this kind of thinking at the start of a new project, something that tends to happen with fair frequency in this line of work. This sense of not being worthy of where I am at haunted me for years. Still does on occasion, but now it manifests itself as more of an unsettled stomach vs. panic attack.

A decade plus into being a designer, art director, whatever label you want to slap on us lucky few who get to design and get paid for it, I started to realize I wasn't the only one waiting to be called out as an impostor. And it just so happened that these people were the creative minds I admired most and some of the most successful people I have met. The real creatives. Not frauds like me. But many carried with them perceived flaws that no one else could see. Because they weren't there. It made me start to think: maybe a moderate case of impostor complex wasn't necessarily a bad thing? Did I possibly have one? Here is why I believe your inner confidence-lacking, acne-prone teenager can be helpful to your career along with some ways to combat that pizza-face becoming destructive in three plus three easy bullet points. Like a self-help book but free and, you know, hopefully less depressing.

1. Insecurity makes you try harder
When you wonder if you deserve to be where you are, you work harder to try to live up to people's expectations of you. It's like being the 5'9 guy that made it to the NBA. The professional version of playing the game with a chip on your shoulder. You think you're not good enough to be here, but someone decided you are and now you will work hard to live up to it. Resting on your laurels isn't something people with an impostor complex tend to do.

2. You appreciate where you are at and how far you have come
When you weren't recruited by every hot agency in town before you even finished your first tender homepage or perfectly kerned headline, you know the true fortune of loving what you do. It's not something many people experience. You feel thankful. When you came about your career in a roundabout way, maybe you didn't even go to a Prestigious Design School (cue pearl clutching and possibly a fainting couch), you soak it in without entitlement or ego. And if it's one thing I have learned it's that people tend to enjoy individuals who feel about their work the way a preschooler feel about a bouncy house.

3. You make a more compassionate co-worker, manager, mentor.
Empathy isn't a word you hear thrown around a lot in professional settings. Deadlines, budgets, deliverables, WHO DIDN'T WASH THEIR COFFEE CUP, yes. Compassion? Not nearly enough. When you know the second guessing one can do to oneself in a career, extending empathy to people around you gets easier. It can be a powerful tool to help you relate to others.

But let's face it. As much as I am painting insecurity as a secret sauce to success, I am not saying you should let that backstabbing harpy be your best friend. It can be a pretty debilitating if you let it. So to counteract the negatives of your personal parallel universe’s Stuart Smalley, these are some things that have helped me:

1. As opposed to crimes, the chance of being found out as an impostor does not decrease drastically after 48 hours.
Especially in the design field, if you claim to be something you are not, you will be found out eventually. So if you are employed, the client really liked that presentation and your boss claim that on occasion, you sort of rock, believe them. Let me repeat that: Believe. Them.

2. If you have a bad day, no one dies.
Unless you are a surgeon who stumbled onto this blog, in which case, feel free to disregard. Failing, not nailing it, sucking it up, bombing it…it happens. And as someone with an impostor complex, you will probably learn more from it than most because "Man, I knew this would happen!”

Bonus: In advertising there is almost always beer in the office fridge to soothe the inevitable failures that happens to us all.

3. How dare you call your boss an idiot?
That's rude. By insisting you are not that good, if only to yourself, you are in essence calling all the people who helped you along the way, including your boss, morons for thinking you are pretty decent. They are probably not morons. Chances are they are great people who saw someone with some talent and passion. Someone who might not be perfect, but someone willing to work really hard to get better. Someone who possibly resembled a giant golden retriever when they talked about their work. Possibly.

Summary: Don't call your boss an idiot; even subconsciously.

So next time that voice in your head, who if you are anything like me sounds strangely like Joe Pesci, starts whining about how you are not good enough, just remember that sometimes Joe Pesci just needs a hug and a Snickers bar. Carry a mental Snickers bar with you at all times. Bet you don't get advice like that from self-help books. Thanks for reading.