Success and the Impostor Syndrome

Last weekend, my friend Hope Bolinger and I went to the Rochester Writer’s Conference in Michigan. We sat on a panel of four literary agents, answering questions from microphones on stage in front of a crowded ballroom. Hope and I taught a class to another full house. And afterward, I talked with dozens of people who had questions, book pitches, and wanted to discuss everything about the industry imaginable.

At night in bed, my mind spun.

The next day, everyone on Facebook was sharing and commenting on posts about the conference. My Facebook friends and family commented on my pictures. “So amazing!” “Impressive!” “So successful!” “So proud!”

My heart warmed at the love my friends and family showed, as well as from the kindness of the Rochester staff, presenters, and attendees.

But part of me felt like a fraud.

Real talk: I’m twenty years old. I just learned how to wear makeup and walk in heels this semester so I could look older at conferences. I’ve only completed three semesters of college, I’m in the middle of another, and I have two ahead of me. I’ve only been working in the industry for a little over a year. My first published articles came out only two years ago.

That’s terrifying to admit on the internet. I have clients depending on me. I regularly email with editors from major publishing houses. I teach writers decades older than me at conferences. I get paid for my writing.

So why on earth would I share something like this that undercuts my professional credibility?

Three reasons:

     First, I think a lot of us suffer from impostor syndrome in some way. I’m not equipped to be a teacher. I’m not a good enough athlete for this team. All these people are so smart, and I’m not.

     Everyone else seems so confident and competent. But you don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes.

You don’t see the athlete’s crippling self-doubt behind his bravado, or the extra hours he spends training because he doesn’t feel good enough.

You don’t see the brief look of panic in the professor’s eyes as you ask a question to which she doesn’t know the answer.

You don’t see me slip on a smashed tater tot and wipe out in the middle of the dining commons. (Okay, actually, you might have, because there were a lot of witnesses.)

Instead of feeling incompetent and focusing on what you don’t know, focus on doing your best and acting on what you do know. Of course, don’t get a big head, but it’s more about offering the knowledge you do have than pretending to have knowledge you don’t.

     Second, success and expertise are relative and part of a shifting scale.

I haven’t finished college yet. I don’t have a full-time job. I don’t have a book published. I’m freaking out about finding a post-graduation job and potentially living in a box under a bridge. I’m scrambling to pack in everything I can so I’m not lost in a sea of so many other applicants with more qualifications than me.

Let me repeat: I’m losing my mind.

I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given. But not for a moment do I feel secure. I’m barreling toward graduation like the proverbial run-away freight train with no assurance of a career in an insanely competitive industry.

So for those who don’t feel successful, or feel like you’re striving so hard for something that could slip through your fingers at any moment, I feel you. I’m freaking out too. And those other people who present themselves as so successful? There’s a good chance they’re freaking out just as much.

     Finally, to all the writers out there who feel like they’re never going to make it: keep going.

I’m no published author or Pulitzer Prize winner. But I’ve suddenly found myself in the middle of the industry.

Introducing: me last spring.

I was depressed as all get out. The industry seemed impossible to break into. I was seriously considering changing my major to something practical like business.

Suddenly, everything hit. Bam! Writing award. Bam! New internship. Bam! Job on the school newspaper. Bam! Publication in a national magazine. All within a couple of weeks.

Things zoomed at breakneck speed from there. Another internship. More publications. More responsibilities. Promotion to junior agent. Contract as an agented author.

Keep in mind I had been in the professional writing program at Taylor for two years before this happened. Then, it all happened at once.

     Don’t give up. You might be just a day away from your “me last spring” story.

This conference made me think. I love where I am now. However, I also know I have a long way to go. It helps me to remember that we’re all just people. We’re all insecure. We’re all freaking out. We all aren’t where we want to be yet.

But that’s okay. That just makes this adventure more exciting.



4 thoughts on “Success and the Impostor Syndrome

  1. Thanks, Alyssa for the article. I was at the conference and both of you were brilliant. It was great to know the top 25 trends and the way you presented kept me engaged.


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