An interesting thing happened this morning while I was conducting a bit of research before beginning this essay. If you search online for articles on imposter syndrome, you will find no end of them, including from prestigious publications such as Scientific American, Healthline, and Psychology Today. It’s a real thing, and according to these articles a large percentage of high achievers have it. Here is what threw me, though. According to these articles, imposter syndrome afflicts high achievers, not ordinary folks. And all of a sudden I was stricken with the horrible realization that I’m not good enough to have imposter syndrome – I must simply be a genuine loser. That’s not true, of course, but you can see how insidious this psychological malady is.
So what is imposter syndrome? Basically it is a feeling that you are a professional fraud, that despite your accomplishments you don’t believe that you deserve the respect, attention, honors, or position that you have earned. The articles on this condition list various ways in which it manifests, but basically it comes down to a feeling of unworthiness and a fear that others around you will uncover you for the fake you are. Imposter syndrome can be debilitating; it can prevent you from continuing to take chances and take steps to further your career.
And I must have it really bad. Here I am telling myself: You can’t have imposter syndrome – you’re not good enough! I’d have a good laugh if it wasn’t so tragic. Let’s look at this objectively. Am I worthy of this affliction? I’ve published almost thirty books. I have enough professional credits to have been able to become a full member of Science Fiction Writers of America, which was a goal of mine ever since I decided that there was nothing in life for me but to become a writer almost fifty years ago. As a young writer, determined to find my own unique voice, I took off on the road, enduring countless hardships in my single-minded pursuit of writing excellence. Now, I write every day, seven days a week, no matter what else is going on in my life. There’s no doubt; if I look at my career objectively, I deserve to have imposter syndrome, damn it! My failures and shortcomings have nothing to do with the quality or quantity of the writing itself, but rather from what I perceive as low levels of success and wealth when I compare myself with my peers.
And there’s the danger inherent in imposter syndrome: comparing yourself with others. Recognizing this danger, though, also offers a solution. The key is to focus on your own goals and the path you take to achieving them. As a writer, the words, thoughts, emotions, and ideas that you want to communicate erupt from within. The only way you can really be an imposter is if you imitate or copy other writers, or even worse, hire ghost writers to compose the words for you and then claim them as your own. The way you become a real writer is by writing. All the rest are bells and whistles, including fame, money, awards, and so on. Remember: making a lot of money or winning an award does not make you a writer. You are a writer if you write. You are an imposter if you take credit for writing that you didn’t write. It’s as simple as that.
As for accomplishments, if you write a piece and keep it on the market until it eventually sells, you have earned that credit. If you sell enough words to qualify for membership in an organization for writers, you have earned the ability to associate with your peers. Look to your own art and your own career. It is yours and no one else’s. The comparisons are what kill you. Looking around and comparing yourself with others when you are striving to reach your goals is like losing concentration while walking a tightrope or climbing a mountain cliff. Instead, walk your walk until you get where you’re going. It is pointless to compare your location with that of others. Every person has their own path. As Whitman says in “Song of Myself” when he hooks his arm around the waist of his fellow traveler and points to the open road, “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, you must travel it for yourself.” How can you possibly be an imposter on a path that is yours alone?