Imposter syndrome is defined as, “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.'”
We live in a culture that constantly idolizes and borderline (or literally) worships celebrities and cultural icons. Part understandable, part fanatical–maybe it seems obvious where it comes from.
Particularly today. I’m technically a member of the oh-so-revered Millennial Generation. You know, that bunch of do-nothings that do nothing but kill cherished icons in the restaurant and disposable meal-related sanitation products industries. “Millennial” has effectively become a term to replace “kids these days,” or “whippersnapper.” It’s to the point where people are calling people who aren’t millennials millennials.
But I’m an older millennial. Born in 1983, I’m almost the oldest of what can legally be considered a millennial. In fact, many an online tantrum has been thrown by older millennials trying to come to terms with the fact that they’ve essentially been making fun of themselves for about a decade.
Being an older millennial, I also have a lot in common with Generation X, which is typified by a cynical, disaffected, and even slacking mentality. I’m sort of on the cusp, if you will. Some call my bunch the “Xennial” generation. Tail end of those who grew up during the societal upheavals of the 60s, beginning of the crowning head of the birth of those who were apparently hyper-coddled and can’t write in cursive, change a car tire, or start a lawnmower.
I’m of the generation that definitely can’t live without a cellphone but may very well remember having a rotary phone. And who want the world to explode when the internet lags, but also remembers the days before call-waiting and when caller ID was an extra thing rather than an automatic one. We would also pick up the phone to kick our siblings off the internet.
So I guess I should have a very cynical outlook on the internalization of society’s expectation that I will never amount to anything but an aficionado of upscale toast.
Honestly that sounds pretty close to accurate.
Really none of that matters, and it’s all just context.
I graduated high school in 2001. I wasn’t a very good student despite having some very good teachers. I didn’t go straight to college. As a kid (I’m talking single-digit age) I wanted to be a “scientist.” Those were those super-smart, lab coat-clad people who did all that super-smart stuff.
I played guitar. I gave lessons for a bit and played in bands for a bit longer. In about 2004 “scientist” started to take shape now that being a nerd wasn’t frowned upon. I started to realize that I wanted to be an anthropologist, and potentially an archaeologist.
But having been an eh student (I never even took the SATs), and being riddled with anxiety, I don’t think I quite took it seriously. In 2008, the housing market/economy in general collapsed. I was 25 and managed to work it out so that not only would I buy a house with no down payment, they’d pay me $817 at closing. I didn’t expect that last part but it was pretty cool.
It wasn’t until after that that I started seriously considering going back to school. I had talked about it for years, but for some reason I was almost 27 before I got around to it.
It was a good idea, even if driven by anxiety and self-doubt.
I did pretty well. Probably better than I would have had I expected to do well. I completed my general education requirements at the Community College of Rhode Island before transferring to Rhode Island College for anthropology. Before finishing my time at CCRI, I completed an honors portion of a course in English Literature. It was pretty fun. But this was just community college. It was just general studies.
At RIC, I finally kind of felt in my element. I knew anthropology stuff. People would joke about and talk about stuff I could relate to. And again, I did well. I loved every class and still my anxiety made me go overboard. It was a tight-knit group and everyone was on a first-name basis, even students with professors. We treated each other with the respect you’d treat your colleagues. And the faculty felt this way, too. The students are colleagues, even if they are training.
I’d do a month of homework in a week, worried I wouldn’t have time to figure it out. I’d email professors a week before the semester started, asking about papers and wanting to start certain ones beforehand.
An archaeology professor mentioned to the class that I work to my own drum. That I’m very good at managing my time. I disagree. I was in a panic pretty much the whole time. I wasn’t managing my time, I was in damage control. I guess you could say it’s the same thing–when you’re working full time and taking 5 college courses, time management has to be effective.
Some students backload their semesters and are swamped with catching up.
I front loaded them because I didn’t think I could ever handle anything.
I got special permission to take my senior seminar course early to avoid having to stay on an extra semester. It’s not a typical thing.
I attended the Koobi Fora Field School in 2013 and it was a dream come true. Again, I did really well. But I never checked my actual grade. I got my credit but was too afraid to find out how well I’d actually done, despite being part of really awesome stuff and having personally found hominin fossil materials. I just didn’t think that I was actually any good at it.
I worked out an honors thesis in biological anthropology. I developed a model of figuring out how much variation we should expect to see in the fossil record based on what we see in living species. I spent a few years in the collections at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology measuring a buncha stuff on primate skulls. I never wanted to hear back because I never thought it was a legitimate thing. Some of the stuff I found out was pretty…weird. My honors advisor wants me to publish because of it.
I commented during the thesis presentation that everybody is winging it. I still feel that way. I’m just not convinced that I’m not transparently clueless.
I graduated with honors because of my fancy thesis. And summa cum laude because I guess I’d done well. It still felt bogus though. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I’d never be able to repay my loans and they’d repossess my degree or something.
I finished in 2014 and my graduation was spring 2015. In 2017 I started Pedal Powered Anthropology.
I never thought anything would happen with it. I just wanted to share things and maybe get people excited. Do what I’m doing anyway and maybe if I threw the bottle far enough, someone would see my message. I didn’t entirely take it seriously.
But people started to react to it and I started, I think, to get a bit better.
I made my first “real” video project, because I don’t really consider my introductory videos to be “real.” I called it “documentary-style” because I didn’t feel justified calling it a documentary, even though if you did it, it would be.
I completed my first feature-length documentary which I published to YouTube on February 6, 2018. I didn’t interview anyone because I didn’t think I was a “real” anthropologist. I recorded all of the music myself because I didn’t feel legitimized in reaching out to anyone. I’m still worried what people will think of the soundtrack.
Not two weeks later I was screening it at the Museum of Work and Culture. I didn’t think anyone would show up because I didn’t think I had any right calling my work a documentary. I didn’t think I had any legitimate knowledge about the content of the film.
My heart was in my chest for the entire screening. It has been at every screening since. I don’t know that that will change. I expect people to walk out. I expect people to criticize and tell me what’s wrong with the content. And by “wrong,” I mean, “inaccurate.”
After the first screening, several people from the standing-room-only audience asked me if they could purchase it on DVD. I said it was only on YouTube. One woman handed me $10 and insisted I take it. The museum told me that if I did publish it to DVD, they would want to sell copies in their gift shop.
I was still hesitant. Who would want to buy this? Why would anyone want to? I go through this every time I email somewhere regarding a screening or to see if they want a copy for their collections. I secretly hope they never watch it or don’t know what’s already on there.
At my last screening I sold 12 (I think?) copies. Since then, someone from the audience has gotten in touch to set up my next screening (9/24/2018). Since that one has been set up, there are two more in the works, one of which is at a venue that is going to pay me for my time. I’m going to be extra worried at that one.
I ran off 50 copies of Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution on DVD. But they’re getting low. I’ve sold enough to pay for the camera with which I’m filming my next film, as well as those initial 50 copies. And the next 100.
As I type this, I’m duplicating the second run. I feel like I’m bootlegging it. I feel like the cover art doesn’t look professional. I feel like the slim cases look amateur.
I can’t stop doing work because I’m constantly worried it will never be enough.
I look back at my story, and if it were yours I’d be telling my friends about it. Objectively, it’s pretty cool. Living it, you feel like it’s bullshit.
We see experts, icons, celebrities. We don’t see the years they spent working at whatever they do. So we don’t recognize our own talents and abilities for what they are.
Have you ever heard of the sophomore curse? A friend in a band I used to play with said that [regarding bands] it’s not because of the success of their first album has made them lazy. It’s because they spend YEARS on that first effort. They probably came up with some of the riffs to the title tracks just messing around. Tracks that are now the soundtrack to someone’s life.
They spent years writing, rehearsing, playing in dive bars to 8 people who were there to see someone else. Years making sure nobody would see how awful they really are. Perfecting their set, their album, their act.
Then they put it out and everyone wants them to do it again. Right away.
You don’t see the work that goes in. You see the product that comes out. James Hetfield from Metallica once described the band as being so broke they’d eat “hand sandwiches.” Meaning they couldn’t afford bread so they just ate the lunch meat. Now Metallica is one of the biggest bands ever. Ever.
I can’t speak to everyone, but I know for me, it’s difficult to ever understand why anybody–in or out of my field–would take my work seriously. I do know that imposter syndrome is a real thing and that many (if not most) people in academia (and every other profession) experience it.
You probably have, too.
So when you see someone posting about their [insert anything someone creates], make sure you let them know you appreciate it. You don’t have to buy anything or financially support them if you’re not able to. But know that every musician hearing their recordings remembers exactly how they felt during a session and how hard it was to nail a take. Every video I put out I know how many times I cut “um” out and how many times I had to mentally or verbally rehearse a segment before getting it right.
Any creative person really only shows you the tip of the iceberg. It can suck, it’s lonely, it’s alienating, it’s overwhelming, it’s time-consuming, and you never feel like you measure up to anybody else who does anything even remotely like what you do.
Have you experienced imposter syndrome? Feel free to comment below.
And for the record–I never did find out my field school grade.