When I was eight years old I was cast as an extra in a summer stock production of Stars in My Crown at Kentucky Lake in Western Kentucky. I played a pupil in the schoolhouse scene and a young native American (we called them Indians back then) in the Trail of Tears scene. I never once felt that I was not perfectly capable of the roles that I was playing. I was too young to be that self conscious. I mostly ignored the audience and immersed myself in the game of pretend that was my perception of the play.
Years later, when I was eighteen, I got a job as a gunfighter and guitar player at a western theme park. Once again, I did not feel like I was doing anything beyond my capability. I was a competent musician for the repertoire that we performed and the acting involved in the gunfights was hardly on a Broadway level. I was comfortable performing in front of an audience. I was also comfortable interacting with them in character as we were required to do between performances.
It wasn’t until I found myself in a startup computer firm writing software that I had my first brush with imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, for those of you who don’t know, is the feeling that you don’t have the proper credentials or otherwise are not properly prepared to do the job that you find yourself hired to do. I first heard about it as such in an essay written by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors. He described it as the feeling that someone was going to knock on the door and tell him that he had been found out and he would have to get a real job now.
I had two years of college when I joined the Army. The Army trained me to fix a minicomputer down to the circuit level which included classes on writing assembly level programs, the most fundamental level of programming, just slightly above the actual binary machine language that computers directly execute. In short, I knew my way around computer hardware.
I have always been something of a fanatic about small computers. At that time, I spent way too much of my time away from work reading about computers and teaching myself how to program in the various higher level computer languages that were being introduced all the time. Although I didn’t have formal training as a computer programmer, I probably had as much experience programming as most other people entering the programming job market at that time.
The problem was, I felt like an imposter. I couldn’t believe that they were paying me to write programs, something that I would be doing even if they weren’t paying me. I had no experience writing software as complex as I was being asked to but then most of my colleagues were in the same boat.
Gradually, as I successfully completed one assignment after the next, I became more confident in my ability but the feeling of imposter syndrome never quite left me. I always felt like I was in slightly over my head. Even after earning a B.S. in Computer Science, I still felt inadequate.
Then, quite recently, I found a TED talk on You Tube. A fellow named Mike Cannon-Brookes explained how you can use imposter syndrome to your benefit. He explained that many successful entrepreneurs were afflicted by imposter syndrome but that if you just pushed through the feelings of inadequacy and did your homework you could figure out how to do the things you were feeling inadequate to tackle.
I realized that this was what I had learned to do, without being aware that I was doing it. It had become so much a part of my approach to my assignments at work that I didn’t know any other way to do it.
Which brings me to my latest challenge. I’ve decided that I want to learn to write fiction. I have been actively working on it for over ten years now. In the last seven years I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately called by the community). For the past four years I have participated in a writer’s critique group sponsored by the library. We have published three anthologies of short stories to which I contributed a story to each.
I have been doing the work to become an author. To make a distinction, a writer writes. I am already a writer because I write every day. An author publishes his writing. I am an author, in that I have published stories in the library anthologies and I have published essays on my blog for a number of years. But I am not a professional author, in that I have not been paid for my writing as of yet.
You can see my progress as a writer by reading the stories in the anthologies. But I am still struggling both to master the medium and to shake the feeling of imposter syndrome. Advice like that given by Neil Gaiman and Mike Cannon-Brookes helps. So does putting in the work and seeing my progress. But I long for the lack of self consciousness that I had when I was young.