You’ve probably heard about imposter syndrome. It’s the fear that you don’t deserve to be where you are, that you haven’t really earned the right to be doing what you’re doing, that you’re a fake who is about to exposed at any moment.
Imposter syndrome can be surprisingly common amongst people who outwardly seem extremely successful. It may be obvious to other people why they are where they are. It might be obvious to everybody else that they completely deserve their success, but there’s a little voice inside of them that keeps whispering:
“You’re not good enough, you don’t deserve this, you’re going to get found out”.
Imposter syndrome is certainly something that many creatives are going to have to deal with in the course of their careers, but I think there’s a bigger issue that many of us face when contemplating our creative work. You see, the very nature of imposter syndrome implies that you’ve already achieved something - it’s just that you don’t really believe you deserve it.
But there’s a similar fear or syndrome that many people struggle with before they ever achieve anything. In fact, this syndrome can be so severe that it stops people from succeeding by preventing them from ever creating work in the first place. I call it “Who am I?” syndrome.
In extreme cases “Who am I?” syndrome will paralyze people who have the potential to be artists and stop them from ever producing work in the first place. It is the crippling, debilitating, devastating belief that not only do you not have what it takes to succeed, but that you are so fundamentally incapable that even producing the work is an preposterous, arrogant, self-indulgence that it’s ridiculous to undertake. It manifests itself with a simple question that can stop us dead in our tracks.
“Who am I to think that I can do this?”
What makes both imposter syndrome and “Who am I?” syndrome so difficult to overcome is that the thought patterns they create can exist simultaneously alongside other, entirely opposite beliefs and mindsets. Although they obviously contradict one another, it is entirely possible to believe that you’re born to be an artist and at the same time believe that it’s ridiculous for you to even try to make art.
To me “Who am I?”syndrome is much sadder and perhaps more prevalent and pernicious than Imposter Syndrome, because at least those suffering from imposter syndrome are out there in the arena. People suffering from “Who am I?” syndrome rarely even get onto the field. “Who am I?” syndrome creates writers who don’t write, composers who don’t make music, artists who don’t paint and photographers who don’t take pictures. And it’s a tragedy.
I’ve suffered from “Who am I?” syndrome for most of my adult life, and it’s only now that I’m starting to realise something that I think is crucial in overcoming this unfounded, but potentially ruinous belief. What I’m telling myself is this:
Everybody has the right to make art.
Everybody has the right to make art. And what’s more, we don’t need anybody’s permission to do it. Not everybody has the right, or the talent, or the gumption to make a career as an artist, but every single human being on this planet has a right to make art.
It can be bad art, it can be the worst art in the history of the world, it can suck harder than anything in the history of art - in the history of sucking (to paraphrase Kung Fu Panda!), but it is allowed to.
You don’t get to control your talent, you don’t get to decide how the world views your art, you don’t get to know whether you’ve really got what it takes until you actually sit down and do the work - but you don’t need anybody’s permission to do that.
Who are you to make art? You are a human being and that is all the right you need.
I’m trying to remind myself that it may be that I just don’t have what it takes and that it’s a pipedream to imagine that anybody would care what I produce. But none of that matters if I just remind myself that I have the right to make that art - even if it is destined to vanish into obscurity.
We might not have the right to make anybody care, we might not have the right to make any money, we might not have the right to anything other than apathy or derision, but we do have the right to create.
It’s time we exercised that right.
Barry Dallman is a musician, writer and eternal student of the creative process. He is fascinated by the process of personal change and the challenges creative people face in committing to truly meaningful work. He's documenting his own creative struggles in the hopes of inspiring others to pursue what really matters to them.