You have no idea what you're doing
I’m not alone.
I know you’ve thought the same thing.
Especially if you work in any kind of creative anything.
“Who the hell am I to be in this profession?”
“I’m not even close to being as creative as (enter name here).”
“I don’t have a degree/ training/certificate in (insert profession here). How can I be an expert?”
I could go on. And on. And on. At least one of the above statements crosses my mind daily, and it’s been a struggle to deal with, especially recently. I see a fresh-out-of-design-school kid churning out beautiful work and I instantly think “What the hell am I doing!? If only I had gone to design school maybe I’d be farther ahead.” (yes, architecture school is technically design school, but you get what I’m trying to say). Or I see a branding colleague’s business take off and a tinge of jealousy rises its ugly head as opposed to genuine happiness. This isn’t where I want to be or how I want to act.
But why is this the case? According to Amy Silvers, “My theory about why it’s common among designers is that our jobs are poorly understood and defined, leading to skepticism about the validity of our work…The fact that there are few accepted measures for objectively evaluating the quality of our work just exacerbates the situation.”
While looking at others work for inspiration is the energy that churns creative innovation, negative thinking like this has the reverse effect, igniting defeat, creative regression, and discontent. It’s no way to grow your business or stretch your creative muscles.
Or since Marie Kondo is all the rage right now, I’ll put it in popular terms: “Comparison doesn’t spark joy, so get rid of it.”
Ok, we’ve identified there’s a problem. So how do we fix it? Here are four simple tips for starting the process of negating the negative thoughts and show that you DO know what you’re doing.
Declare Your Strengths
I can’t take total credit for this tip, as my sweet friend brought it up during a text conversation the other day. My immediate response was “that is a BRILLIANT idea!” Flip the script and make it about strengths, not weaknesses. For example, when I was in graduate school I had to do an “pre-architecture school” year before starting the actual architecture program. This was for all the students that didn’t have an architecture undergrad degree. So we had mathematicians, interior designers, historians, teachers, historic preservationists (hi there), you name it. We all thought we were at a disadvantage by having to take this extra year to catch up to our architecture colleagues. What we found out later on was that our program was one that each year all the professors in the School of Architecture would compete to get the opportunity to teach because they LOVED working with the outside perspectives and experience our class brought to the table. What we saw as a negative was actually a positive. It enhanced who we would be as architects and our professors recognized it as a positive.
So are you really good at translating a client’s vision? Do you have a leg up when it comes to color theory? Have a specific product that you excel at producing? Then celebrate that! And make sure to celebrate it when you market your business. Clients want to hire someone who is an expert, so highlight the skills you shine at, not what you wish you shined at.
Take courses, join mastermind classes, surround yourself with experts in and outside your field. Rather than compare yourself to what you see on Instagram/Dribbble/Pinterest, take that energy and invest it in genuinely making positive changes you can control to your business and design process. I have learned so much from involving myself with other creative minds that I now genuinely believe I should never be the best “designer” or “branding strategist” or “businesswoman” in the room, because then there’s no room for growth. Rather than be intimidated by what you see, look at it as an opportunity to learn from these experts. You’ll take bits and pieces from each interaction, give it your own unique perspective, and then turn it into a strength that you can then market. Want to be better at free hand design? Then take a course by a free hand designer you admire. Our brains are sponges, we’re always learning, so capitalize on that and turn the combination of your background and the new skills you’ve learned into one of your strengths.
Reiterating what Amy Silvers said above, there’s no defined mark of success in the creative industry. I had issues with this when I left architecture, for in that industry there are defined marks of success: Internship —> Exam Eligibility —> Passing Exams —> Registered Architect —> Project Manager —> Division Head —> Partner. It’s pretty clear cut. In the design world those hierarchal roles often get stripped away. While this is great for innovation, it can also cause designers to feel stagnant and unconfident. To avoid that pitfall, take a moment to redefine what success looks like to you. Is it to make a certain amount of money per year? To hire a certain amount or kind of clients? Work on a certain type of project? Take the time to map out what you want and use that as a barometer, not someone else’s definition of success. Often you’re in a different season of life than someone else, so while what they’re putting out in the world may look like what you want, it is often a reflection of what that person’s measure of success is and may not be ideal for you. Identify it, appreciate it, but resist the urge to compare.
No matter how defeated you feel, never stop putting things out into the world. While scary, especially when you feel defeated and vulnerable, what you create will stick with someone. People will find your creations and they will be loved. Just this mind shift will help you realize that you do know what you’re doing. Stop for a second and think of where you were a year ago. You have become an expert in something in the time since, whether designing for a certain client, or even something as non-design related as refining your accounting processes as a small business owner. Take those skills and create a free guide or a blog post, even if it’s not perfect. Put what you know out there. I guarantee you someone will take a bite (someone other than just your family and friends.) Use that experience to mold and shift your next product, honing as you go. It’s not a perfect process, but that’s just it. It’s a process. Creating is never ever done, there’s always room for improvement. But if you stick in a vicious cycle of creating and never putting it out into the world, you’ll never get that valuable feedback, whether in the form of someone hiring you or someone letting you know how you can improve. Yes it’s scary, but it’s necessary for us to grow as creatives.
The tips above are just jumping off points for improvement and will require constant work. However identifying the issue and tacking it is a huge first step to overcoming something so common in our industry. You’re not alone in second-guessing yourself, as even top creatives can claim to have experienced imposter syndrome at some point during their career. Re affirm to yourself daily that you do know what you’re doing. So go forth, be confident, and create.