Among the well-worn tropes within the creative world is this: fake it till you make it. We’ve all said it. Or thought it. Particularly when we feel like we don’t belong, like we have no idea what we’re doing, when we feel like everyone else has their creative shit together and we’re staring into the void hoping no one discovers we have no real idea what the hell we’re doing.
Imposter syndrome is a state in which we believe not only that we’re faking it, that we’re not real photographers or real artists, but wannabes and fakes, but also that no one else feels this way, especially the ones we look up to. We mistakenly believe that they all have it together. That they are as confident on the inside as they look on the outside. Well, I’m here to tell you, they are as full of shit as we are. And not just full of it, but it’s not even together, per se. Like you and me, their shit is disorganized and crammed into whatever little mental cranny is available.
Imposter syndrome is a symptom of comparing yourself to others. We only feel like fakes because we’re looking at others (all of whom also feel like fakes) and measuring our insides against their outsides. We look at ourselves through a cracked and grimy mirror, and at others through stained glass. Usually rose-coloured.
“We are all faking it. But that’s not a bad thing. Not when faking it means making it up as we go. Learning what it means to be us. To be alive in this world and to create whatever it is we make as our art from that place of vulnerability and humility.”
We aren’t faking who we are. We’re not pretending about that, and we’re not trying to be something we aren’t. We’re just making our art with both feet planted firmly in uncertainty. Uncertain of the future, of the thing we’re making—the photographs, bodies of work, writing, whatever—and uncertain of how we feel about it. That’s a short list of the near infinite uncertainties we have.
Uncertainty keeps us humble. It keeps us asking questions. It keeps us hungry for more, for better, for deeper. Uncertainty is the natural habitat of the artist (read: human being). The only thing we really know for sure is the stuff we discover on the well-worn paths that most artists avoid for fear of repeating themselves.
In other words, the good stuff is in the uncertainty. The Uncertainty is what lies on the other side of the Comfort Zone. It’s where the magic (if there is such a thing) is to be found.
Uncertainty is not, however, the same as a lack of confidence or a lack of courage. It is the reason we need those very things. Confidence in the creative process to get us where we’re going without the map we wish we had. Courage to begin, to do, to make, to move forward, knowing that the way is dark, that we might bump into things, but that bumping into things has never yet truly harmed us. And when we don’t have confidence or courage, to pretend we do and get to work all the same. Courage isn’t that rare state of being in which we have no fear; it’s the will to act regardless and not be paralyzed by that fear.
I started writing this to encourage you, but I feel myself sliding into a sermon, trying to convince your mind that it’s all a game when what I want most to do is to speak to your heart.
So listen up, you deeper parts in which the doubt and the fears reside: the greatest artists and creative people against which you could possibly compare yourselves were a hot sticky mess. They were truly messy, troubled, long-suffering souls. No artist in the history of time has had their shit together any more than you do.
A short list of brilliant people who most decidedly did not have their shit together: Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh, Tennessee Williams, Kurt Cobain, Beethoven, Georgia O’Keeffe, Goya, Caravaggio, Freddie Mercury, and probably anyone who’s ever appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Messy, troubled, mercurial, even broken? Perhaps. But aren’t we all? Aren’t those, to quote Leonard Cohen (another bright mess of a human being), the cracks where the light gets in?
“The imposter, if there is one at all, is not the one whose life is a disorganized collection of poorly assembled shit, it’s the one who fails to recognize it, accept it, and get back to work. Flaws and all. You don’t need to fake it. You just need to be you.”
A couple weeks ago I implored you to reconsider your relationship to your comfort zone. If the so-called imposter syndrome is what keeps you there, then it’s time to take a deeper look at those against whom you keep comparing yourself. Not at the brave face they put on for the public, not their Instagram feeds and their Facebook posts, but the soul-level stuff. We are all afraid. We all live looking forward into uncertainty (unless you live looking backward, and that’s arguably worse).
For however else you and I differ from each other and from the great creative people of history, we share this: we are broken, messy people, dogged by fears and traumas, buoyed now and then by hopes and joys. And when we accomplish any great and beautiful thing—at whatever scale we make it—it is not made because we lack fear, or possess remarkable genes, it is because in all our human weakness, and from the middle of stories fraught with complications, we do the work and pour ourselves into it.
It is not from raw talent, nor is it from privileged lives that art comes, but from a willingness to splash that humanity, however messy and uncertain, onto the canvas, write it into the story, or put it into the photograph.
We may have a lot of reasons for not making our art or doing the work. But it is not, must never be, that others have it easier, are more talented, or in any other way have their shit together more than we do. It is profoundly human a state of being to lack shit-togetherness. The imposter, if there is one at all, is not the one whose life is a disorganized collection of poorly assembled shit; it’s the one who fails to recognize it, accept it, and get back to work. Flaws and all. You don’t need to fake it. You just need to be you.
“It is profoundly human a state of being to lack shit-togetherness.”
You might not be the smartest person in the world. Only one person can hold that title. I sure as hell don’t. Make your art anyway.
You might not be able to do it all by yourself; few of us can. I can’t. Make your art anyway.
You might not be as talented as you think others are. Talent is overrated and most often just the result of hard work; you just don’t see the effort, only the results. Results always look easy. Make your art anyway.
You might think you have had it too easy, or too hard. You haven’t. Make your art.
Make your art. You do that by being you and no one else. The only imposter is the one trying to be someone else.
We don’t need you to be someone else—someone shiny, unbroken, or, for that matter, to be a dark and tortured genius. We don’t need you to have your shit together. We just need you to be relentlessly and unapologetically you.
And to make your art.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
“We don’t need you to have your shit together. We just need you to be relentlessly and unapologetically you.” Thanks for the good article!
I knew a trained artist who hung blank canvases on the walls of his home. He Had buried his talent in fear.
If we are splashing about with our art, at least we are filling our “canvases “with something exciting!
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This really helps me as a headshot photographer. There can be days where I think “what am I doing” but some of the things you mention will solidify my reasons for going on.
This article was amazing and so informative. As a Greensboro wedding photographer, I can put some of these tips to work for me. Thank you !
I am thankful for this post. I’ve been a “photographer” since high school, but only serious for the past 7 years. I struggle every shoot, worried I just don’t know what I’m doing. I love working with high school senior clients and shooting high school sports, but I haven’t figured out who I am as a photographer. I’m going to be 50 in 17 days and it feels like I’m running out of time – who am *I* as an artist? What is my dream? I really thought I’d be established by this age, a true professional, confident and knowing who I am. I raised my children, so that took a chunk of my time and I was a textile artist for 10 years before turning to photography. It’s disheartening and I think the more pressure I put on myself to figure out “who I am” as an artist, the more empty my mind feels. Anyway, your post helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one struggling through and viewing everyone else as together and thoroughly knowledgeable of every aspect of what they’re doing. I hope I can figure this out soon.
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This is a wonderful post…
“Make your art. You do that by being you and no one else. The only imposter is the one trying to be someone else.”
Thanks for you ever inspiring posts.. love reading them.
Thanks for stating what I feel quite often!
It’s funny, I spend way too much time questioning WHY I do what I do instead of just enjoying the process.
It’s just another way of feeling like a crazy fake…
Now I can relax and know I’m normal! Ha! Just a mess like every other human being!
I love it!
“We look at ourselves through a cracked and grimy mirror, and at others through stained glass.”
Also, I love how you said, “… artist (read: human being).” All human beings are artists! 🙂 love that.
Have a great day! I am your newest Follower.
Thank you, Sandi. Welcome here! 🙂
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I’ve known the feeling. It’s nice to feel like I’m not alone 🙂
I have been called many things by many people, especially when I am out of my comfort zone: I am nervous, full of talkative energy and ideas are sprouting faster than I can put them together. At that moment, I am called names and I won’t say what they are. Not only am I called names, but I am also attacked for probable deeper recesses of whatever mental status I may hold in the situation. Well, sometimes it takes a day or two to recover because I KNOW that I was not comfortable and I showed it! I am a genius (certified). I read voraciously. I remember a LOT. However, socially, I am a bit of a pill: I can NEVER remember names of people unless they have been in my life for a while. Hell, I don’t, at times, remember my OWN name (that is not scary to me though). Yes, that’s how the light gets in and I embrace this discomfort. I left the US 9 year ago this month and never returned, living in SE Asia, Malaysia, Thailand, Czech Republic and more plus I now live in Kyrgyzstan for my primary residence. I lived in bed for 10 years and got out for a year before embarking on this journey. Along the way, I found photography was something to really love and, for 6 years, I have learned daily! I finally took a shot in Prague and said to myself, for the first time in those 7 years, “I AM a photographer!” So, it does not matter how smart you are, how much money or where you travel: get those shots that satisfy (along with a LOT more that won’t and “Keep a’goin’!”
Thank you for this!
thanks for the nice stuff you have written, you definitely got your shit together.
I was just asking myself why all the good-looking, creative, smart and successful people have a website, and no one of suckers like me. And if thats not enough, those good-looking, creative, smart and successful people tell on their website how you can become a good-looking, creative, smart and successful person too by just following simple rules … odd stuff like discipline, believing in yourself and so on.
Okay, seriously. Just stumbled upon a website of an interior designer who moved from Germany to Vancouver, you guessed it, good-looking, creative, smart and successful. I mean, who would write on his/her website/instagram “i am an average interior designer” or “if you found no other one for the job i will do it”. So don’t be blinded by those good-looking, creative, smart and successful people, everyone is different, works different and defines success different.
So, now where is the “Make Good Art” Button ?
P.S. Seems to be a cold summer in West-Canada looking at your clothes ?
Feeling the same.
Thank you David! Your article was just what I needed at this time. I have been struggling to get back to photography as I’m doubting myself. Will the next photos be good enough for my standards? I know the answer now. Get back out there and accept perfection doesn’t happen every time.
I totally feel like I am faking it. I often feel like I am not so much a photographer as I am a camera operator. I feel like I am as much of an artist as a backhoe operator. (No offense to any artistic backhoe operators out there).
I don’t compare myself to others though. I know what I have created is different than what they have created. I compare me to my past self and I find that very depressing. I don’t feel like I am creating with the same energy and passion as I once did. I feel like I go through the motions and I am not being authentic in trying to realize my vision. I am a fraud because I don’t do the work I need to do to bring my ideas to life so they sit in my head or worse, get half-assed to completion.
I just helped my photoclub put on the Canadian Camera Conference here in Calgary and I drew a lot of inspiration from the speakers. But inspiration doe not mean perspiration, friends.
So I have to tell me myself over and over and over again.
Hi Craig – I sent you a personal email about this in hopes I can somehow help you find some clarity and re-discover the joy. Let’s talk.
don’t worry that you think you might be worse today than you were in the past, that happens often to creative people. Maybe you should take a short break from photographing and than get back with new enthusiasm … and most off all, more relaxed. Since you still feel inspired by the speakers i think all is well, just be more relaxed about yourself.
Thanks for the words of encouragement and thanks to David for his personal email to me. Since I wrote my comment I took a look at what I was doing (or not doing). A lot of my photographic vision comes from seeing interesting things in day to day life so this week I strived to get back to seeing the images that life has given me. That has inspired me to tackle the backlog of images I want to edit which in turn has inspired me to think about what I want to shoot next.
So I am trying which makes me happy 🙂
Last week, I posted a black & white portrait that I was really fan of, saying to myself that this post would raise a great amount of likes. What happened is most probably the best think there is, not a single like. That was a wake up call to me and your blog post is confirming what I felt at that time.
This is my work, it’s the way I feel when I take a picture and each result represents where I am in terms of experience. I need to find messages to convey, use my photography to achieve that and learn the rest of the creation process as I go.
Thank you for your message, my journey can continue on my own rules and not by the others.
Keep at it, Pierre. The artist isn’t entitled to anything but the work itself. The moment we get sidelined by likes we’re in trouble. Sounds like you’re discovering that. Chase the joy of the making instead. Chase the satisfaction of the process. Keep at it, my friend.
Feel like I belong again despite my struggles to ‘get things right’ after reading this…Thank you.
You never stopped belonging, Jan. We’re a messy bunch of misfits, the only ones that don’t fit in are the ones that have it all together (nonexistent) and those that think they do (not much fun to be around) 🙂
This is just what I needed to hear. I felt it to my very core. Another photographer, MitchelK, also recently stated that we as an individual should not follow the crowd. We don’t have to shoot that iconic shot that others have seen so many times. Take a different path. Well, okay… but I’m not good enough, I hear myself say, to get that fabulous landscape shot that everyone will ooh and ahh about. Will my eye and lens portray the scene in front of me that I think is awesome and not like others? Can I ever make an iconic shot…do I really need to?
Two years ago, I did some Canyonlands photos and, just now, got around to “really” editing them. Now I am seeing the beauty of the storm off in the distance and the light rays hitting the expansive canyons below. Only because I put what I thought was “professional photography” out of my mind and decided what I, personally, thought was a “decent” shot could I really see it. I don’t care what others think of it. I will print it and hang it up on my wall and enjoy the memory of being there at that moment.
My life is stuck right now due to taking care of my 92 year old mom. I am taking this time to sort through the emotional and spiritual upheaval and rethinking my photography and how I am seeing it. Like a writer with writers block, we photographers get stuck too. Thanks again for nailing down the truth about feeling like an imposter, being a bit kinder to ourselves, and stop comparing ourselves to the so called professionals. Namaste!
HI Sherry – Thank you for the very candid note. I’d like gently push back and say I don’t believe external circumstances make us stuck (but then I don’t believe in writer’s block, either), in fact they are often the thing that takes our work deeper, if we choose. Emotional and spiritual upheaval doesn’t have to be a stopping point. Artists for as long as they’ve made art have not stopped their art-making in times of upheaval but have used their art-making to get them through that upheaval. They’ve let it inform their art and imbue it with deeper, more vulnerable humanity. And it’s good catharsis, too. I don’t want to add to the pressure. Do it or don’t, but know that the muse is waiting for you and can do astonishing things through the tears, the heart-ache, the pain, the confusion. As wiser voices than mine have said, “what’s in the way, is the way.” Don’t wait too long to un-stick yourself, Sherry. The muse is waiting. 🙂
Thank you for this.
You’re welcome, Jimmy.
I got to the point where I wasn’t even faking it any more. I had just stopped altogether. I’d totally run aground in terms of ideas and motivation. Demoralised by social media, Instagram likes (or lack of) and the general feeling of screaming into the void.
I deleted by website because what the hell was “Gavin Hall Photo” even about? Why write a blog post when the only people who were going to read it were either my Mom, or old acquaintances who would think I now had delusions of being an “artiste”. Why agonise over what to write when it would never be read?
I have a painting on my wall at home – it’s a seascape. Incredibly minimalist – golden beach, blue sea, white cirrus clouds and a piercing dark blue horizon line. It feels like my soul lives in that painting, staring out to sea. There is no noise, no clutter, just peaceful bliss. Those are the images I want to make – where your body and soul ache to visit that slice of eternity.
However, the more I tried to “rise and grind”, the more I tried to “create, share, sustain”, the more I tried to “shoot like a pro”, the more I tried to make an impact, the more it was all swallowed by a cacophony of irrelevance.
All of that sounds like a recipe for depression which doesn’t reflect my state of mind at all. However, creativity has had to go on hold whilst I find my way back to where the camera first appealed. We have better tools than ever but using them to good effect…that’s not easy.
Gavin – Sounds like you’re at a place of change. Nothing’s ever really clear in the liminal places. But they aren’t there to be clear but to be transitional. Your questions right now are more important than the answers you find from one day to the next. Forget rise and grind for now, that comes later. Forget it all, including your own judgements of what is and is not “swallowed by a cacophony of irrelevance.” Just find your joy. Find something that makes you long for more, scratch an itch, laugh, cry, whatever. But find something. And don’t worry about relevance to anyone but you. There’s no cacophony when you’re only listening to your own voice. I don’t think creativity ever has to go on hold. It’s a way of being. And a way of finding your way back. But it does have to be free of obligation and the clamour of the crowd. Even of your own expectations. Find something you love to photograph. Start there. Follow the joy. Sure, find a way to use your tools to good effect: your own joy and discovery is the best effect there is. You know where to find me. Let me know if I can help. I’m a good listener.
Kind and insightful as always. Thanks for taking the time to reply – very much appreciated.