|When The Awakening appeared on Best Sellers in Horror|
That feeling that whatever we do is not quite the real thing is sometimes known as the “imposter syndrome.” I recently shifted from full time lawyer who is writing on the side to full time author who practices law part time. This change has caused me to think more about identity and work, including what factors might affect the imposter syndrome.
Who feels it?
In the articles I read, the experts estimated that as much as 70% of the public experiences the imposter syndrome at one time or another. In fact, the New York Times quoted Maya Angelou, the late author and poet who spoke at President Obama's Inauguration, as saying she felt with each new book that people would find her out and realize she wasn't as accomplished as she was reputed to be. While some studies suggest women are more apt than men to feel like imposters, some U.S. presidents (obviously all men to date) have reported feeling that way on their first day in the Oval Office. Also, the two lawyers I spoke with about this were men. The first was the one mentioned above. The second was a male prosecutor. He'd been practicing about three years when we had the conversation, the same amount of time I had. I told him he seemed more like a real lawyer to me because he was in court more than I was. He said he thought I was more like a real lawyer because I often researched and wrote briefs (written arguments to submit on paper to the court) and analyzed and argued complex legal issues in ways more similar to what we’d learned to do in law school.
As Seen On TV
I suspect that professions frequently shown in television shows, books, and movies are more apt to trigger imposter feelings. Pop culture depicts the most exciting parts of any profession, leaving anyone who actually does those jobs feeling like they're the only ones doing the drudge work.
When I was practicing law full-time, a typical week went like this: get on an hour long conference call; read a document my opponent filed with the court; research cases in a legal database; write a legal brief; email clients and other lawyers; and rewrite that same legal brief four or five times. Maybe 15% of my work involved trials, hearings, or appellate arguments, but usually if I went to court, it was for all of fifteen minutes to an hour to argue a motion. In other words, the video would show: work at my desk, work at my desk, work at my desk, walk two blocks to court, sit, talk, return to my office and work at my desk. Even the criminal lawyers I know who try a lot of cases—making their jobs more like what’s on television—typically spend at least half their time sitting in court waiting for their cases to be called, trying to collect fees from clients, and driving from courthouse to courthouse. Likewise, I suspect most doctors don't find their lives nearly as exciting as those on television.
What's Money Got To Do With It?
How much we get paid or whether we get paid at all matters. Yet how much a person makes, especially in the arts, often has little to do with the quality of work. I've seen plays in various cities in the United States, including New York, and in London. The ones I’ve thought were the most amazing were at small storefront theaters in Chicago where many of the actors, directors, and other artists involved needed to have other full or part-time jobs. Likewise, most novelists, with notable exceptions like Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark, take on other work to help pay their bills. All the same, not making a full-time living at what you do can make it easy to feel you’re not worthy of calling yourself an actor, author, designer, artist, etc.
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As an author (and a lawyer), getting paid matters to me because it means I can spend my time doing work I love rather than working only with the goal of surviving. Equally important, it means there’s a demand for what I do. On the other hand, commercial success doesn't always leave people feeling satisfied or "real." The movie Birdman focuses on an actor with tremendous commercial success who feels the need to do "serious" work in order to feel like a real actor. Similarly, I know independent/self published authors who make a better living than authors published by traditional print publishers, but they still get asked whether what they truly want is a "real" book deal.
Longevity and passion often matter as much as money when it comes to identifying ourselves with our work. If you’ve been writing poems for twenty years, whether or not you show them to anyone or publish any, you probably feel like a poet. Similarly, if you love your work for a non-profit medical clinic treating homeless people, that may be less important to you than whether you could earn three or even ten times more as a plastic surgeon. For myself, I try to balance all these factors and focus on the best parts of my writing life and law practice.
Beware The Shifting Bar
Viewing goals as unimportant or easy to achieve once we’ve met or surpassed them adds to the feeling of being an imposter. For many years, I never called myself an author, as opposed to a writer, because I hadn’t had anything published. Then once I’d had poems, short stories, and articles published in magazines, I still wouldn’t call myself an author because those publications paid very little or nothing at all. I felt that way even though many literary magazines and trade journals don’t pay their authors, and even though before I had those pieces published, getting into any of those publications seemed like a high hurdle. Years later, when I started publishing my thrillers, my goal was for the first one, The Awakening, to appear in the Top 10 on the Kindle occult or horror best seller lists. When that happened, I was very excited, particularly since it appeared alongside a Stephen King novel and stayed on both lists for many weeks. I printed out the horror list the first time and framed it (see above--this is in my home office). But within a week or so it didn't feel as significant. In retrospect, it seemed easier to have achieved, and it didn't feel like the stamp of approval I'd once imagined it to be.
All the same, I believe in setting new and larger goals all the time. It keeps life and work exciting and compelling and keeps me moving forward. But I try to remember how hard certain goals, like the first 10,000 downloads or the first $1,000 in sales were before I rush to the adjust the bar.
What about you? Do you feel like a "real" [insert your profession here]? Why or why not? Would you like to feel differently?