Impostor Syndrome

Polygon did an article about impostor syndrome recently, which I thought was rather good. It’s absolutely something I struggle with, and it’s something that virtually everyone I know feels to a greater or lesser degree. We’re all looking at someone else, who’s achieved more, done cooler or more successful things, and point to them as the kinds of folks who have it all together. It feels like we’re just a step away from someone realizing we don’t really know what we’re talking about, while people who actually know what’s up are the real successes.

Impostor Syndrome

Just browsing Facebook right now, scrolling through updates, I can see at least ten different people expressing impostor syndrome, making comments like “wow, this game is so great, I’m doing something wrong” or “I wonder what it’s like to actually be good at [whatever]” or “I hope no one realizes I have no idea what I’m doing” and similar sentiments. These are mainly very intelligent people, who are smart enough to know that they don’t know things and are concerned about getting called out on what they don’t know, what they haven’t accomplished, or what they’re missing.

Last year, I basically turned my life upside-down. I left my job to focus full-time on my MBA, with the intent to transition careers from something on the game design / implementation side to something on the management side. After a brief stint at a local Baltimore program, I found myself frustrated with the program and looking for something that would get me more what I was looking for– something that would get me out of Baltimore rather than build my network within it. I transferred, purged most of my possessions, and moved across the country, to a city where I knew three people and had had relatively little contact with all of them.

I’ve told this story to people, and I’ve had them describe me as “brave” for taking the risk. Whenever I hear that, there’s a part of me that instantly denies it. I tell myself that the difference between the brave and the very stupid is success– this choice I made was brave if I can make it work, and very stupid if I can’t. Like any risk, it’s hard to tell if it was a good move or a bad move except after the fact.

There’s been some unequivocal good that’s come out of it. I’ve become much closer with my friends who live here, closer than I’d ever been before I moved. I’ve had time and distance to reflect on myself and what I want, and that’s a clearer picture than ever before. My coursework is legitimately compelling and interesting– the program I’m in here is very good, and I really enjoy it. It’s forced me to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t moved. For the first time in years, I’m happy, and it’s happiness that’s not contingent on having everything I want.

At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that it could all evaporate. It’s not stable, at least not until I can sustain and support myself, and I’m keenly aware of every passing day. I worry irrationally that someone is going to say “wait, what are you doing here thinking you can manage and lead people? Don’t you just make games?” I worry that if this doesn’t work out, I won’t have a fallback; I won’t be able to go back to working in games so easily if it came to that. I deeply worry that any apparent ability on my part is a combination of bluster and luck, and I’m not actually capable of any of the things I think I am.

Compounding the problem is that I’m rational and very good at rationale. I can justify these worries with evidence, to the point where I’m not even aware I’m doing it and I can’t tell if it’s a reasonable concern or an irrational one. I don’t have a job yet because I can’t actually do these things I think I can do. I do well in class because the work is easy and everyone in the class does well, not because I’m any good at it. I’m not insightful, I’m just stating the obvious.

When people talk about impostor syndrome, I can relate. For nearly every accomplishment I have, I have a reason why it’s not all that impressive, or a counter-example. I am waiting, eternally, for the other shoe to drop. It makes me reticent to speak my mind, or be honest about my thoughts, because what if someone calls me out on how wrong I am all the time? Moment of truth: some days the only thing that keeps me writing this blog is the general belief that no one really reads it. It’s a continual shock to me when someone comments and says they’ve read it.

A classmate of mine came up to me, recently, with a comment out of the blue: “You know, you’re a good guy and really smart. You’re way too hard on yourself. Give yourself a little more credit; you’re awesome and you don’t appreciate yourself enough.”

I tried; right now I can’t. I’m trying to get there, though. Instead, for anyone reading this for whom the feeling resonates, let me pass on my classmate’s sentiment. You’re great, and you’re way too hard on yourself. Give yourself credit– I may not even know you, but I know you’re more awesome than you realize. Take the time to appreciate yourself.

Thanks for reading.

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