One of the hardest parts about being a new(er) professional is the inevitable feeling that we’re an impostor. It’s often a nagging thought somewhere in the backs of our brain that says, “Everybody else knows more than I do, I don’t belong here, they’re going to find me out any minute now.” Impostor syndrome is real. We should talk about it more often.
While experience and time helps, for many, it’s having these thoughts right now that’s the problem. In Jeff Goins’ book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, he tells the story of renowned ballet choreographer Twyla Thorp.
When Thorp was training as a young ballerina, she would find the best dancer in class and stand behind her, envisioning herself as their shadow. She remembers feeling like a complete fraud compared to everyone else but figured if she could just mimic someone really good, then maybe at least no one would notice. She was onto something, as that intense shadowing put her on a path towards the many awards and accolades she’s collected ever since.
Goins says that “You’re not an artist because you steal; you steal because you’re an artist.” He goes on, “The difference between an artist and a copycat is that the artist builds on the works he has received, and the copycat just mimics it.” Thorp started by mimicking, but after she built up a base of knowledge she started applying it to new combinations. It’s this transition from mimicry to application that captures how we outgrow the feeling of being a fake.
When we’re new at a job, feeling at least a little bit like an impostor is the norm. The answer is not to imagine we’ll just suddenly snap into “I’m a pro now!” but to put ourselves in the shadows of people we admire and copy, copy, copy.
This doesn’t have to be done formally (no ordained mentorship required), it can include people we don’t even know (hello YouTube), so long as we just do the work. The important part isn’t to “fake it ‘til we make it,” but that we steal precisely and deliberately from the people we most admire in our profession.
If we’re going to feel like an impostor anyway, we should at least impersonate the right people. When done over time for the right reasons, great things can happen.