Updated: May 14, 2020
About a year ago I started freelancing. I started writing invoices, keeping documents and being sent money from people who genuinely wanted me to work on their projects. I’d made things for years before this - of course, I knew practically how to create things. But I’d never gotten the same satisfaction as I did when I had been commissioned to create a piece that I would inevitably get paid for. However, as it often does, as soon as the first invoice came in - so did the anxiety around it. I couldn’t believe I was actually being asked to create work for a record label.
Money is inherently at the forefront of everything creative. When I worked for free, or when I worked for my friends - there was always a hint of ‘you get what you pay for’. I didn’t ever feel too anxious about this work because with a lack of money comes an assumed lack of value. It was always a favour - whilst I always put 100% effort in, I could always fall back on the idea that I was still doing it for free. The problem with commodifying your creativity is whilst you are putting a price on your time, equipment and skill level, it is always going to feel like you’re putting a price on the artwork you’re creating. Maybe you designed a tour poster for £40. You could have spent hours on it, implemented the skills you gained during your £30,000 degree and used every piece of pricy software you’ve got downloaded as part of your extortionate Creative Cloud package - but if it doesn’t look like it’s worth £40 then you’ve got a problem.
As each commission hit my inbox I’d feel this sense of dread. What about if I couldn’t do it? What about if my self-taught knowledge of Photoshop couldn’t do what I needed it to this time? I’d have an inner argument with myself about starting the project. Mainly because the idea of it ever being finished seemed impossible. Of course, time after time, I’d always get it finished. The client would approve it, pay the invoice and move on. But the anxiety wouldn’t stop. The project was finished but I’d still feel like a fraud. It was more than self-doubt. It was like a belief that I am somehow tricking an entire company into believing I’m a graphic designer.
Every time I posted a commission on Instagram, I would throw my phone (metaphorically, of course, I’m a creative - we cannot afford that) across the other side of the room. As far as I could. I couldn’t bear to look at the comments where I imagined someone who knew my industry much more than I did, was tearing apart my work and calling me for being a fake. It would feel like I am walking completely exposed into an open-field of the world’s biggest critics. However, I am twenty years old and my phone doesn’t stray very far from my hand. So I would check it, and there would be no calling-out, no accusations - simply likes, compliments and the odd bot instructing me to DM them. Interwoven with this was motivational pastel pink quotes telling us that every #GirlBoss was just participating in a process of ‘Fake it Till You Make it’ - so I felt much more content, still like I was lying to a whole industry, but at least I was doing it convincingly.
The process would repeat on every commission. Sometimes it felt glaringly obvious to me that I wasn’t right for some of them. But I would still get them. By this point, it felt as if it was good timing or just good luck. I had a whole portfolio of work and a building CV but I still couldn’t understand why I would be getting asked. I’d write out a new invoice and simultaneously picture myself on a documentary in five years time about how I tricked the UK’s Music Scene to trust me and bankroll my frivolous life of renting in Zone Three London and the fortnightly Lidl trips.
One day, I stumbled upon a podcast called The High Low by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes. They were discussing a listeners problem where she always has an aching feeling that she is going to be found out, that she cannot do her job properly. Instantly the hosts referred to the dreaded ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Working in journalism, both hosts had known all too well the implications of always feeling like your work is not good enough - despite it being constantly praised.
Imposter Syndrome is defined as a ‘collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success’. I laughed this off at first:
1) How does something like this even have a word? Everyone feels self-doubt about their own work.
2) There’s a real arrogance to insist your work has ‘evident success’.
Then it clicked.
What I am not going to suggest is that my work has always been successful. I’ve had my fair share of harsh rejection emails leading to crying into a packet of digestive biscuits and requiring 24/7 reassurance from everyone I’ve ever met. Sometimes your work can genuinely be bad. And that’s okay. Everyone has days when they have no creativity and no time. When they’ve misread the brief. Admitting on these occasions that you need to re-do the work is perfectly fine.
But spending every minute of every commission feeling like you are tricking people is not. Feeling like you’re going to be found out as a fraud is not. Learning about Imposter Syndrome felt like a bit of an awakening. I could accept that whilst I might still feel like my work is not good enough - there was an (albeit depressing) relief in knowing that 70% of people feel it in some capacity. I personally believe Imposter Syndrome can ebb and flow in everyone’s life. Everyone has times when they feel like they’re not actually supposed to be doing what they are doing. Despite things being overwhelmingly positive, it all seems like a bit of facade.
There’s no real closing statement to this. There’s not a lot we can do about it. We’ll all still make our things, feeling a bit anxious about them no doubt, but all we can do is surround yourself with people who care. Who want to hype you up, who will tell you that whilst the artwork can exist by itself - YOU made that. It’s yours. Your skills, expertise, creativity cultivated it. Not some outside source, fraudster or fake. And it is your job to listen to them and take it on board. If your client is telling you that YOUR work looks good - then YOUR work looks good.
Often Imposter Syndrome stems from a desire to be like somebody else. Another way our habitual action of comparison is played out in our everyday lives. We see a designer we like. We want to be like them. We see our work is not the same - then we must be bad. But we have to understand that we are allowed to appreciate different things to what we produce. If everyone produced the same thing then what would be the point? Everybody has different skillsets, experience levels and even access to software. If you’re tied down to a particular style in your commissions - create your own work with a style that you enjoy doing - that you know you are undeniably good at. It is hard to find fault in something that you love doing.
Take the time to brag about your own work. Find the people, a platform, a place where you can shout about your work from the rooftops and let everyone know about it. Eventually, you’ll feel much more content in knowing that you deserve the praise that comes from it. It’s still important to acknowledge that there may be imperfections in our work, recognising Imposter Syndrome shouldn’t mean that we never want to get better. Critique is still vital and embracing them is a good part of our development as creatives. However, when self-doubt and critique plays an overwhelming part in our lives - it has a haltering effect and you should think about ways to make you support your own work.
I’m a real advocate in supporting everyone creative or otherwise. Remember that you deserve to be here just as much as anybody else does. If you sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud - you can give me a follow on @mollymaetaylxr or @mollymaetaylor_ and I’ll be your forever hype-man until some psychologist understands how we put a stop to all of this.
Here’s hoping they don’t doubt their own cure.