Trying something new can be scary, uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. And yet by any definition, this is what creativity is all about. It’s no wonder then that feelings of imposter syndrome are rife in the creative industries. One survey found that the creative arts and design industry has the highest rate of imposter syndrome across all sectors, affecting nearly 87 per cent of respondents. Should we fight these feelings or accept that they’re part of the creative life? And how can we ensure that they don’t end up overwhelming us?
Since going freelance just over a year ago, Belgian 3D illustrator and animator Loulou João has created her trademark psychedelic fantasy scapes for brands including MTV, Spotify and Adobe. But for a while her success sent her spiralling. As she struggles with anxiety generally, Loulou’s career-related panics would manifest as feelings of intense negativity, loss of focus, nausea and even difficulty breathing.
“I didn’t feel ready, I wasn’t confident enough in my own capabilities and didn’t feel like I deserved these opportunities,” she tells It’s Nice That. “It took me quite a while to shake off that feeling and grasp that I wasn’t going to fail miserably at every commission.”
Loulou is now far better at dealing with feeling overwhelmed and confident in the amazing things she’s capable of. Over the past year, roller skating has become one of her most dependable activities for overcoming those unwanted spirals. “Trying to take a step back and take a breather usually helps,” she says. “Taking yourself out of that situation, even if it’s just for an hour or so, is a great way to have these emotions cool down a bit. For me skating is my go-to method. How cheesy that may be, it’s my way to clear my head and recharge.”
For Loulou, it’s all still a work in progress, though. “A lot of factors play into this,” she says. “The biggest one is that I’ve had to unlearn so much. As a woman of colour, I truly had to create my own seat at the table. After being put down so many times, it was hard to believe in my own potential.”
But there were also more prosaic forces at play. Life as a freelance creative is mired in uncertainty. Not only do you lack job security and a clear direction, but freelance life often involves precious little IRL collaboration, even during non-Covid times.
“On the one hand, it’s great to work with people all around the world,” says Loulou. “On the other, calls and emails remove that sense of natural conversation or connection, making it harder to anticipate what the other person is feeling and thinking. As a true millennial, I’ll get stressed out if there is no smiley at the end of an email.”
“As a woman of colour, I truly had to create my own seat at the table. After being put down so many times, it was hard to believe in my own potential.”
And then there is, of course, the subjective nature of creative work to worry about. “Working in the creative field is not an exact science,” Loulou explains. “It comes from your own experience and trying to package that in a way that others can relate to. That’s not always easy as there is no template that will always do the job.” Accountants (presumably) always know when they’ve done a good job, whereas with creativity there’s always room for a little self-doubt. “I think there is always a bit of imposter syndrome going on.”
Someone who understands this better than most is the illustrator and animator Zipeng Zhu, who threw himself into the deep end when his career took a wild U-turn. Born and raised in Shenzhen in China, Zipeng’s plan was to keep studying biochemistry, a subject he found he was very good at. But he soon became fixated on taking a more creative path and ended up moving to New York at 18 to attend art school. “Almost all my major life decisions were made by my gut instead of my brain,” says Zipeng. “I think I was too young to know what fear is. I got into a huge fight with my parents when I told them I was applying for art school only, especially as I chose New York as it’s the setting of Gossip Girl.”
It turned out science wasn’t his only strong suit. Zipeng landed his first design internship at Pentagram and was hired by Sagmeister & Walsh immediately after. The pressure of starting out at such prestigious agencies eventually caught up with him, though, and he began to belatedly learn what fear was.
“One of my first projects as a professional designer was to create a game show from concept to post production,” he says. “I was so excited and scared at the same time. I couldn’t believe this was my job but I also felt like I was not qualified. It’s uncomfortable to have a completely open brief. It was as if my whole design definition had been destroyed, all the arbitrary rules and boundaries were gone.”
Feeling totally out of his comfort zone, Zipeng found the strength to push through by remembering that the work is just a job that needs to be done. It’s a feeling he’s had to conquer time and again, especially now as he runs Dazzle Studio, which is not limited to any medium or discipline. “Just sitting there doing nothing and getting stuck with your feelings is not helpful,” he says. “It’s important to remind yourself that a thought is not a fact.”
Pentagram designer Harriet Richardson has also developed mind games to beat her “soundtrack of self-doubt,” as she neatly puts it. “Starting at Pentagram at the age of 22 was torturous,” she says. “Not because of the work. Or the people. Or even the 2.5 hours a day spent on various Tubes. But because of the nasty inner monologue that set up shop in my brain.”
While telling herself she was slow, clueless and incapable, Harriet would try to hide her screen and anxiously compare herself to other designers who’d been there for years, even decades. “Nothing makes you feel more insecure than direct comparison to the experienced,” she says. “I was undeniably and genuinely out of my depth. I didn’t use grids. I didn’t know a single typeface other than Helvetica and I saved everything into a folder called ‘Sort Me’. I felt like I was pretending to be a designer.”
“I didn’t know a single typeface other than Helvetica and I saved everything into a folder called ‘Sort Me’. I felt like I was pretending to be a designer.”
Harriet developed two tactics to combat her negative self-talk. The first and most straightforward was to tackle things she didn’t understand head-on through determined learning. But to really kick her imposter syndrome, she had to give her brain as good as she got.
“Every time I had a nagging, negative thought, I’d scream really positive thoughts about how great I am,” Harriet says. “Try these examples (it helps to give your louder internal voice a Northern accent, for dramatic effect): ‘YOU’RE DOING SUCH A GOOD JOB’; ‘LOOK HOW MUCH YOU’RE LEARNING’; ‘REALLY, WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?’; ‘NO ONE HERE KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING EITHER’; ‘YES BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITCH’; ‘YOU DESERVE A KFC AFTER THIS!’”
Things also improved when Harriet started to realise that those around her were not as confident as they initially seemed. “I’ve overheard Pentagram partners (who shall not be named) muttering, ‘Come on, you can do this, it’s just a bloody poster.’ Which is very reassuring to hear for anyone in design.”
This anecdote suggests a possibility that we all perhaps implicitly understand: that imposter syndrome and feelings of self-doubt never quite go away, no matter how experienced or “successful” you are. There’s even a chance they’re not such a terrible thing either, provided they can be controlled and channelled in the right way. “There’s value to being in the deep end because it’s one of the best ways to learn, as uncomfortable as it may feel at the time” says Harriet. “There’s only one way you can go from not being able to do something, and that’s being able to do it.”