Why you're probably more brilliant than you think

Stamp out creative impostor syndrome (but watch out for the Dunning-Kruger effect), campaigns Gary Marshall.

The satirical website The Daily Mash has a great slogan on one of its T-shirts. "I'm brilliant," it says, "and everyone else is an arse." It's the perfect motto for anyone working in a creative industry, because there's a very good chance that they feel the exact opposite.

We've known about impostor syndrome for a few decades now. It's particularly prevalent among women in corporate environments, but it does affect both genders - especially in exciting, glamorous creative industries that are packed with talented people. It's the belief that everyone else is brilliant and that you're an arse, that any success you've had is entirely due to luck, not talent or hard work, and that it's just a matter of time before you're unmasked as the hopeless fraud you truly are.

Not everyone has it, of course. Some people have the exact opposite, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is when people who are incompetent think they're just fantastic. However, chances are that if you're any good, you'll probably feel bad: impostor syndrome particularly affects high achievers, who feel that if they find a particular thing easy then they must somehow be cheating.

It's a horrible thing, and if you're a freelancer it's even more horrible: you're already a nervous wreck due to the stress and financial instability of what you do, and you're also operating on incomplete information - so while everyone in the office knows that Sue's taken a few days off for some extreme sports thing, all you know is that Sue isn't answering your emails. That clearly means that Sue thinks your work is crap, your ideas are crap and that you're crap, so you might as well go and live in a ditch.

Crushing criticism

A bit of humility is never a bad thing. But impostor syndrome can go beyond that, stopping perfectly capable people from doing things such as pitching for projects, taking risks or just asking for reasonable rates. Even utterly innocuous things take on terrifying significance as you look for dark omens and signs of impending apocalypse, while constructive criticism can utterly crush you.

So how do you beat it?

Talking is the biggie. Sometimes even the worst terrors disappear in sunlight, and opening up to someone else can do the same with this. Watch out for unreasonable expectations – are you comparing yourself with your peers, or with some design god with decades of experience? – and analyse your missteps critically: if a project wasn't perfect, there may be mistakes you can learn from: poor time management, perhaps, or a too-vague brief. These are things you can learn from and watch out for in the future.

Take pride in the projects that went well, the nice things people have said about you and the obstacles you've overcome, and own your mistakes: failure is a crucial part of learning, and someone who's never failed is someone who's never tried anything new. Beware of negative thinking and excessive self-deprecation, and more than anything remember this: you're brilliant, and everyone else is an arse.

Words: Gary Marshall

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