AS AN author, I hear about Impostor Syndrome a lot. This syndrome, if you have somehow lived this long without encountering it, is when perfectly capable, competent people believe their own success (or lack of failure) is the result of sheer luck and circumstance—that they are, in fact, frauds.
Writers are easy marks for this kind of corrosive self-doubt; no matter how successful you are as a writer, of course, there will be a group of people who consider your work to be terrible, and most writers wind up in that Twilight Zone of mid-level success: A few publishing credits to your name, but no significant sales breakthrough, meaning you make a few pennies and get some recognition, but you’re still working a day job and still hustling every minute of the day instead of lounging by the pool of chocolate pudding in your tropical estate. Or something; your fantasy of being rich and wildly successful may vary.
So when you sell a story or a novel, it’s easy to think you just got lucky, and many of us do just that. I often have that urge to mutter joke’s on you, suckers! as I sign a book contract, so I’m no stranger to Impostor Syndrome. The thing is, while I’m not an impostor as a writer, I certainly have been an impostor throughout much of my adult life, because I am a firm disciple of the Fake It Til You Make It religion of sleeping in and not doing the research.
The Miracle 18
Up until a few years ago, I had a Day Job. In a sense, I still do; I’m not a full-time novelist, I’m a full time writer, which means a lot of what I write I do in order to earn a living. But writing as a Day Job is a perfect fit for me, because I’m good with the words. What I did for 18 years of my life in a professional capacity was not a good fit, because it required three things I do not possess: Attention to detail, organization, and the ability to wake up in the morning.
So, if I was terrible at my job, how did I keep it for nearly two decades? Here’s a timeline of events that hold some clues:
- When I got my first job in the industry, I was a chubby, tow-headed kid of 23 who wore enormous glasses and whose clothes were always 2 sizes too large (that is not a joke) and so I firmly believe my bosses during the first 3 years or so simply took pity on me.
- Over the first 5 years or so, the company I worked at went through several mergers and re-organizations, and I had about 6 bosses over that time, so no one ever had the chance to appreciate my incompetence and apathy.
- At some point my bosses realized I was the only person in the office who could write a Visual Basic script, and I had a shadow career creating toolbars and widgets . At one point, despite this having nothing to do with my actual job description, I probably spent 75% of my time doing this.
- By the time I was forced to actually focus on the core work my job demanded, I’d had a decade to more or less memorize the basic shortcuts, which meant that as long as the other people I worked with were competent, I could fake it.
Eventually, of course, the whole house of cards collapsed. Looking back, I’m impressed that I was able to fake it for as long as I did, and I have to say that making a living doing something I’m actually good at is an incredible feeling. Some people have been feeling this their whole lives! That seems incredible, but it’s true.
What’s the moral of this story? Sometimes that creeping feeling that you’re not very good at something isn’t Impostor Syndrome, it’s reality knocking on your door. Of course, I was lucky that my incompetence applies to something I didn’t want to do in the first place, and that sheer luck or the power of my charm (which is potent) kept me employed.
Or possibly the moral of the story is that if you work hard enough you can in fact earn a living without wearing pants.