Imposter Syndrome, beginner’s luck, or lack of process

A few weeks ago, my dear friend Shannon Reed and I were joking around about writing a book to help people deal with being suddenly famous. (I think it was a joke, although now that I think of it, we did come up with a pretty solid outline of chapters.) At the time, Shannon had been in the New Yorker twice in a month, as well as McSweeney’s and Buzzfeed and a bunch of other places, and suddenly she was being noticed, even though she’s been writing and publishing for years.

When her first New Yorker piece came out, I checked in with her, and she said she thought maybe she had a little Imposter Syndrome, but then discarded that idea. I discarded it as well, because if anyone can write funny things, it’s Shannon. (She texted me through my entire two-year divorce process and my overwhelming memories of what I’m sure were a horrible and gruesome period are of her making me laugh.) But she was still all weirded out by the sudden fame, which was also confusing because she doesn’t care about being famous herself, but she does want her work to be famous, and it felt like people were conflating those two things. And we compared stories of weird things people had said to us because they thought we were famous. And we made up our fake book, about how to keep your head on straight during what could be utterly temporary fame and how to process all the mismatched feelings and the expectations that didn’t match reality.

Then a couple of days ago I read this post by The Blogess about why she doesn’t promote good causes people ask her to promote, and I nodded my head through the whole thing. People email me all the time to ask me to promote things, everything from blogging for depression awareness (every blog post I do has depression at the heart of it because I’m a person with depression, so) to clean water to raising money for a sick child to Kickstarting some new gadget that will improve parents’ lives to promoting some app that does something amazing. And the obvious answer is that you (The Blogess, me, anyone else who has even a little bit of fame or influence or whatever the current preferred term for internet recognizability is)  can’t promote any of it because you can’t promote all of it. And you don’t have a process to prioritize and sort through and then express to the people whose things don’t make the cut why they didn’t without being hurtful. If we were actual huge outlets with a bunch of staff to develop those processes, we could, but we’re just us, so we can’t.

Then, today my friend Carolyn Raship, who I admire immensely because of the way she rushes headlong into her own talent and into creative life, posted this post from Alicia Liu, “You don’t have imposter syndrome.” It is absolutely worth the read, and you should click over there now and read it and then come back here. There are diagrams. (I love diagrams.)

Liu has two key insights in her post:

1. It’s not Imposter Syndrome if you’re feeling uncomfortable because you actually don’t know how to do something. That’s just being a beginner, or not knowing something you still have to learn. Of course you feel weird when you don’t know something you’re supposed to know.

2. Calling that feeling of discomfort with not knowing something you need to know “Imposter Syndrome” pathologizes the process of learning.

YES. YES. YES. I’ll have what she’s having.

And as I was reading Liu’s post, it hit me that what many of us (especially women) feel as Imposter Syndrome ISN’T ABOUT OUR CONTENT KNOWLEDGE. It’s about PROCESS, or, rather, lack of process or unfamiliarity with process. 

Shannon knows she’s a good enough writer to be in the New Yorker and to have one of the most-read humor pieces on Buzzfeed–she doesn’t doubt her talent (or effort). Her discomfort was with the effects of being a stellar writer. She doesn’t have a process yet for dealing with increased demands, weird communications, requests, etc. I didn’t have a process for people recognizing me on the street and telling me I helped them survive their kids’ first few years and I felt like a fake, but now I do have a process for dealing with that, so I don’t feel like a fake anymore. The Blogess wrote that post to explain to everyone that she didn’t promote things, and writing that post was creating a process, so I’m hoping she doesn’t feel discomfort around those requests anymore. Even the example Liu gave about the ubertroll responding to her question about man pages wasn’t actually about her not knowing the content yet, it was about her not knowing the process that includes codebros mocking people and either getting around or ignoring them.

My takeaway from all of this is that even when you know your shit inside and outside, up and down, because of the natural progression of more and more people finding out that you are really good at what you do, you will be put into more situations involving new or missing processes. And that will be uncomfortable for you. So when you feel that discomfort, you don’t have to wonder if you think you”re really good at what you do. Instead, acknowledge that you’re doing something new and of course you don’t know how to do it yet and of course you’ll learn it and come up with a process to deal with it, just like you’d learn something new having to do with your actual content area.


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