Nobody ever taught me how to write. Nobody taught me how to take photos. Nobody taught me how to do graphic design. Or political consulting. Or filmmaking. I’ve never been taught properly how to do any of the things I’ve spent my life doing. Because of this, I have a terrible secret.
I’m insecure about most of what I do. I feel like a fraud — and I’m scared I’ll be exposed one day.
See this simple photo of Molly sitting on my desk over the weekend? I could not have taken that photo a year ago. It looks simple — and that’s much of its charm — but it’s a very difficult photograph, at least by my standards. And unless you know a lot about photography, you wouldn’t be able to shoot it correctly, either.
If people love what I do, I beat myself up and say they just don’t realize how untalented I am. I tell myself they don’t see the work which I attempt and throw away because it’s terrible. They don’t know I’m a fraud — as a writer, photographer, filmmaker, whatever. I’m hiding it from them.
But if they hate what I do — or worse, don’t even care enough to notice it, much less hate it — their indifference hurts in a different way. It’s evidence that they realize I’m an untalented fraud. It’s evidence that they’ve figured me out. It’s proof that I’ll never be good enough.
You see, I can never be good enough for the critic in my head. When I succeed at something, I explain it away as blind luck or artful trickery. So it’s hard to believe I could repeat a success and even build on it to achieve something better.
I recently went through a lot of old email and other records related to what went on right after I made my short film in 2005. When I wrote and shot “We’re the Government — and You’re Not,” I had no idea what I was doing. I was a neophyte just blindly following my instincts. Nobody taught me anything.
I was fortunate enough to find a few key people who helped me make the short a reality, but perhaps none of them mattered as much as the talented Alicia Robbins, who I hired as director of photography. Alicia was from the same Birmingham suburb where I lived and she had gone to high school with someone who was working on the project.
She was already working in Los Angeles in the film industry, but I was able to hire her because she could combine a three-and-a-half-day shoot with a trip home to see her family. She was already a talented professional who knew how to translate my script into the shots that needed to be on the screen. I was very lucky to have her.
After the film was finally shot and edited, I sent a copy to Alicia to review. She was spending part of her time in Los Angeles and part of her time teaching film at Northwestern University in Chicago. In the time after I sent the DVD to her, I received a couple of unsolicited emails from her, both of which I found recently:
— “So, I just had some of my movie industry buds over [in Los Angeles], and they loved the Government flick! They thought it was so original and funny!”
— “I showed my students and fellow faculty members at Northwestern the film, and they all loved it! They thought it was so clever! So, I think you definitely have a good chance of making it into a couple of big festivals at least!”
I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you because I was getting very positive feedback on my short from people who knew what they were talking about — and I found a way to ignore them.
You see, I had completely forgotten about Alicia’s messages telling me that her LA film industry buddies liked my short and that film students and film faculty at Northwestern praised it.
Why would I do that?
This short went to 20 or 25 film festivals and won something like five awards, mostly awards for something such as “audience favorite comedy,” but it was best in show at one festival. On YouTube, the couple of different versions have been seen something like 350,000 times. I even sold 500 copies of the DVD, including somebody in South Korea who bought five copies.
But through it all, I felt like a fraud. I obviously didn’t know what I was doing. If people liked it, I must have gotten lucky. And if I’d just gotten lucky, everyone would realize that I was an imposter as a filmmaker if I made another one.
I might get lucky with one film, but the second would surely show me to be a fraud. And that fear of being an imposter as a filmmaker led me to spend the next 14 years making excuses for why I couldn’t make another film — and why I haven’t spent the time making better films.
That talented director of photography that I told you about wasn’t like me. She had faith in herself and in her work. At this point, she’s just started as a director of photography on the ABC television show “Grey’s Anatomy.” If you look her up on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), you’ll find her recent credits — and if you’ll scroll down to 2005 in her list of credits, you’ll find my film listed, too.
Something in me refused to believe the 20 or 25 film festivals which accepted my film — from programmers in the U.S., Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand. Apparently, I had them all fooled.
I refused to listen to the people who gave my film awards, including the rather nice one that came with a $2,000 prize.
I refused to believe the praise that came from the people who wrote and asked to buy copies of the DVD.
I refused to pay attention when the only person I knew with film industry connections gave me very strong feedback from her peers that I should move forward.
I did all this because my imposter syndrome was too powerful. I had to find reasons to explain away this success. I had to ignore the fact that the other first-time filmmakers I knew often felt lucky to make it into one festival. I had to ignore all the evidence — and believe my fears instead.
I’ve been working hard on my photography lately. I have no special reason to do this. I guess I’m trying to prove to myself that I actually have some talent and that I can actually do good work.
I don’t take so many photos of my animals and sunsets and nature around me simply because I enjoy the results. I take them because I’m working to get better. Lately, I’ve been working on shallow depth of field and I’ve been working on challenging lighting conditions, such as the conditions of the photo of Molly.
And you know what? I’m getting better.
I’ve been pushing myself lately in ways that make me uncomfortable. I want to force myself to get better at the things I do. Part of it is because I want to do better work, but part of it is simply because I need to beat my fears.
I need to get so good at everything I do that I can no longer believe I’m an imposter.
I have to believe I’m a great writer. I have to believe I’m a great photographer. I have to believe I’m a great filmmaker. I have to believe these things before I can allow myself to take the steps I need to take.
Getting better at the things I do — and making it difficult for me to believe my inner critic’s lies — are the only ways I know to beat imposter syndrome.
As I looked recently at the feedback I had from my short years ago, I wondered what would have happened if I could have allowed myself to make another film. And then another. And then another.
I can’t say for certain, but I strongly suspect I’d be making my living by making films. I doubt I would be a Hollywood blockbuster director, but I believe I would be making art that matters — and I believe I would be living comfortably doing it.
Here’s why I believe that. I’m going to say this quietly and I hope you won’t repeat it.
I suspect I am far more talented than I have allowed myself to admit. I have a sick fear that I can do great work if I’ll just allow myself to quit being afraid — to quit making excuses.
I have no idea why I feel this way, but I feel as though I’m about the enter the most intensely creative period my life has ever seen.
All I have to do is to let myself do the work that comes so naturally to me — and to stop believing I’m an imposter. I might just do some pretty good work.