Imposter Complex

Riley Carpenter presenting her group’s found art near Robeks at the Long Beach State Student Union

Finding Art

When Riley presented her group’s Found Art in class on Wednesday, she said,

I have a kind of cheesy quotation, "Grow where you are planted"

I responded that if you’re going to quote something, you shouldn’t apologize for it in advance. Take the heat and present your ideas. After all, I shamelessly shared the wisdom of Hannah Montana on Monday! And before the semester is over, I’ll also be presenting the wisdom of Buffy Summers.

I know I shouldn’t go on too long about what was a very small moment, but there’s an important Life Lesson here. An Art Lesson too! Note that I’m not dissing Riley or her team in the least! They did nice work! But this is a chance to discuss something that students and other human beings feel all the time. "Cheesy quotation" was only two little words slipped into a presentation. Still, many of us can feel that we, or our ideas, are somehow unworthy and apologize for what we want to say before we say it.

Imposter Complex

We’re often unsure of ourselves. In school, we can be afraid to speak out of fear that our ideas might be wrong or stupid. When we leave the university and begin our careers we can have feelings of Imposter Complex. Feelings that we are Business Managers, or Engineers, or Artists, but we know that we’re not good enough. Or not smart enough. Or not worthy enough. That sooner or later they are going to find out that we are fakes. That we don’t know what we are doing. Or don’t deserve our jobs. Or shouldn’t be hired.

To cover ourselves we make excuses before we say what we want to say.

This might be stupid, but…

I have come to believe that these excuses are of no value.

  • There’s a good chance that your ideas are smart and solid, so why cut them down in advance?
  • Even if your idea isn’t genius, is anybody going to think, "well, at least they said it might be stupid before they said it"?

There are so many things in this world to feel insecure about! My advice is: do your best, don’t apologize, and take the heat if it comes. You’ll be surprised how often it doesn’t.

Do you think that Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump ever apologized to anyone that they might be a fake or that what they’re doing might be stupid?

Late Nite Art Installations

When I was an art director at Disneyland, sometimes we’d be installing a stage at 3 am so the chairman of the Walt Disney Company could show up at 7 am and make a press announcement. Now and then I’d be uncertain if some important element was going to arrive before 7 am! It was an uncomfortable feeling! In those moments I wanted to tell one of the managers I was working with that there might be a problem. And if they’d been in a position to help, then I should have told them. But, they weren’t. It was pretty much all on me.

Luckily, we did have some experience doing these sorts of events. Also, I had the two most amazing assistants you could imagine, Chris, and Rick, who would never let you down. After 5 years of doing events there, the show always went on. We didn’t fail even once. Sometimes it was more elegant than others, but it always worked out. What I learned from those sometimes stressful 3 am setups was that there’s no point sharing your insecurities with someone who can’t help you.

If the show hadn’t gone on at 7 am, I’d look pretty bad. Maybe I’d be fired. But having told someone who couldn’t help me wouldn’t have changed anything. And if the show went on fine at 7 am, then why would I want to spoil that success by confessing my insecurities to someone?

For me, the answer wound up being

  • be as prepared as you’re able
  • work with the best people you can
  • take the heat when you have to

Tell Me a Good Story

There’s a related idea when you’re talking about art. Or talking about anything. I want to encourage you to never say, "I did it that way because it was easy, or I was lazy, or IDK." That’s never a great answer. I want to encourage you to take the time to think deeper and come up with a more substantive reason for your choices.

Am I encouraging you to BS your answer?

Actually, no. The human brain is large. But human consciousness is small. We only have conscious access to a small part of what’s in our heads! As I’ll be explaining in Art Idea #10 – Art is a good way to Talk to Your Brain, I have come to believe that Psychologists, Priests, Psychics, Ouija Boards, Tarot Cards, and even Faculty Office Hours, are all kind of the same thing. They’re not about some smart person, or some spirit, giving you answers. It’s about someone who can help you gain access to what your brain already knows. What your brain knows but isn’t available to your consciousness.

BTW, you have a 2nd brain in your gut! It turns out that "I have a gut feeling" isn’t a romantic metaphor, it is a literal thing.

Some artists do think through ideas first and then make work. But others make first. Thinking up a good story for why you made something isn’t coming up with a BS explanation. It is allowing your conscious mind the time to be able to speak about the instinctive ideas other parts of your brain acted upon.

Confidence + Doubt

As you grow into your career it might become easier to have confidence that your ideas are worthy. I’ve known artists who have had staggering amounts of confidence.

I’ve now spent this whole essay encouraging you to have confidence and take the heat. But the truth is that my own life and career have been much more defined by Doubt.

Too much doubt can be paralyzing and I don’t recommend it!

Confidence can do wonders for your career. Ask Kim or Donald. If your confidence is justified, even better. But, one limitation of confidence is that it can offer you too narrow a view. Doubt, in moderation, can be an engine encouraging you to think differently. To look wider. To consider a greater diversity of ideas or solutions.

My advice is

  • have confidence
  • and a little bit of doubt
  • but never apologize!

And by "never apologize", I don’t mean, "don’t apologize when you’re wrong." I mean don’t cut yourself down by apologizing in advance for your unworthiness. Do your best and take the heat.

grow where you are planted


Comments? Questions? What great art did you see, make, or experience today?

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