Am I An Artist? (Getting Over Impostor Syndrome)

by sarahgrand

“So, is anyone here not a designer?” The moderator of the event peered around the room as the audience broke out in laughter. I nervously looked over at my roommate, who I had brought along with me as a wing-woman, not sure if I should raise my hand in response to this question…

I was at an event hosted by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York City. Four design directors of prominent magazines were speaking about their backgrounds and the responsibilities of their current positions. How did I end up here? I joined AIGA a couple months earlier because I love graphic design, and want to learn anything and everything I can about it. Yet, clearly, I am reluctant to consider myself a designer, well, a real designer at least.

If you ask me, I’m a civil engineer. That’s what I went to school for, and that’s what I do for my day job. I have no qualms about identifying as an engineer because I have tangible proof of my validity. I have a degree from an engineering school, a full-time job at a construction company, and I have even passed my “Fundamentals of Engineering” examination. Identifying as a designer, or dare I say an artist, is a bit more troublesome.

Aside from a semester-long internship at Martha Stewart (where my responsibilities primarily included pinning up inspiration images around the office), I have no formal work experience in the art or design industries. I have barely any educational training in these areas either. I have never experienced a critique of my work, and to be honest, I’m not really sure if I’m any “good” in my creative endeavors, at least from an expert’s standpoint.

Yet, making visual ideas come to life is something I’m extremely, madly passionate about. It’s something that I absolutely need to do, kind of like how a musician needs to make music. This insatiable desire to create is something that never goes away for me; I am always susceptible to becoming inspired, and my list of goals is always increasing.

I make all different kinds of things. When I was younger, I expressed my creativity through food design. A couple years ago, I discovered Adobe Illustrator, and got into graphic design. I bought myself a laser color printer and started making invitations and stationery out of my New York apartment. Today, I continue to do this, while searching for art and design opportunities with a farther reach.

Technically, you could say I’m a freelance artist and graphic designer. But, I feel super uncomfortable calling myself this. Maybe it’s because, unlike engineering, there are no standard qualifications or professional degrees to prove that one is a designer or artist. Maybe it’s because I did not go to art school, and my “side business” is not my main source of income. Maybe it’s simply due to a lack of personal confidence. Or, perhaps it’s because I don’t fit in with the art and design “scenes,” if you will; I’m not troubled or edgy or trying to make some sort of ironic statement. To quote Kevin Smith, “I just like making shit.”

Whatever the cause, it’s a conflicting feeling. I love my work, and deep down I know that I have talent. But, particularly when I share my work with other creative people, I wonder if it “counts” or is “valid.” I feel inferior compared to real artists, yet I’m not exactly sure what a real artist is.

For a long time, I lived in silence with this inferiority. Last summer, I attended a panel called “The Creative Journey” with three artists-turned-authors at BookCon in New York City. During the Q&A portion of the event, I decided to speak up about the invalidity I associated with my work for the very first time, asking the panelists if they had ever experienced something similar.

The moment I finished speaking, one of the panelists exclaimed, “Sounds like you have Impostor Syndrome!” Right then and there, just like that, I had a diagnosis. A simple diagnosis for something I thought was so emotionally complicated.

Though not officially listed in the DSM, Impostor Syndrome is a very real and common phenomenon, in which those affected have trouble internalizing or accepting their accomplishments. To put it simply, it’s a form of intellectual self-doubt. People experiencing it often brush off their own abilities and attribute achievements to luck, timing, or other external factors, fearing they will eventually be exposed as a “phony.”

The syndrome can affect anyone. I am an engineer/designer who feels illegitimate compared to those who went to art school, or work in creative jobs full time. Maybe you are a passionate musician with an unrelated day job, and feel fraudulent compared to those who fully devote their lives to music. Maybe you love to cook, and have many impressive accomplishments as a cook, but never went to culinary school, and feel inferior compared to “chefs.” The list goes on and on. The panelist that first told me about the syndrome, a well-respected author, cartoonist, artist, and blogger, even admitted that she feels uncomfortable referring to herself as an “author” in front of other writers.

The panelists at BookCon left me with some parting advice, which has really helped me get over feeling like an impostor, though I still have my moments of weakness (hence almost raising my hand at the recent magazine event). I’ll share their advice with you, and hopefully this will help if you have ever felt the same way before:

  1. Understand that being good at multiple things is BADASS: I used to think that going to engineering school and working in construction showed I wasn’t “truly” interested in art or design. But it’s actually quite the opposite. The fact that I come home from work, and voluntarily work on more work, solely out of passion, says a lot. Not many people have something they will devote time and energy to without some sort of reward other than personal satisfaction. If you are one of these people, understand that you are rare and special! And if you balance a totally different day job at the same time, that’s pretty badass.
  1. Own It: “Own it” is probably the best piece of advice I have ever received. Giving roundabout explanations for why you are qualified, acting a certain way, or interested in something just makes you seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about – the exact opposite of what you are going for. Take yourself seriously, be direct, and unapologetically own your accomplishments. Even if someone doesn’t like you or your work, they’ll at least respect the fact that you’re owning it and being yourself.
  1. Keep Making Stuff: Keep making stuff and never stop. Again, even if someone is not a fan of your work, they’ll respect your passion and the fact that you are producing volumes of work in the first place. Also, making things leads to new opportunities and better technical skills. I’m a novice right now, but I’m sure if I keep making things as diligently as I have for the past two years, I’ll eventually surpass those who went to art school, but are lazy bums.
  1. Realize You Are Not Alone: There are so many people that feel this way, that they named a whole syndrome after it! What you are feeling is totally common and normal, and knowing this may help you get over it. Also, remember that there are many, many people with lots of confidence that feel totally comfortable calling themselves artists (or whatever) that might not even necessarily have anything to show for it. So,  as long as you have the work, that’s all the proof you need.