I’m a horrible writer. My sentences don’t flow consistently, my paragraphs are imbalanced, and whenever I try to list things I end up going off on tangents. I’m an English major with a limited vocabulary and inconsistent punctuation who relies on digressions and asides to sound conversational because I just can’t get dialog to flow right. I just returned from an accidental month-long hiatus, because I’m bad at balancing professional and personal writing projects.
Which is kind of strange, given that I write for a living.
If you’re doing something to master it, you won’t. Even if you know everything about it, you’re still going to feel like a beginner when you come up against something new. Even when you get stronger, the weights don’t get any lighter. Don’t let feeling like a beginner prevent you from developing your mastery, though, because the masters get up feeling the same way every single day.
You’re always going to suck. Everyone sucks. What matters is what you do despite that feeling.
Always The Student
Remember when you were young, just out of school, and felt like you’d made it? You ran the gauntlet, made it through your classes, and walked out the door with a piece of paper saying you were smart enough to do whatever it was you wanted to do. Felt great, right?
Until you realized that the whole time you were learning about your field, your field was advancing and your knowledge was out of date.
I create motion graphics as a hobby. I’m barely past the ‘I think I can adapt this tutorial without help’ stage, and I spend more time troubleshooting my own mistakes than I do actually creating things. I’ve been lucky enough to have my graphics run at TEDxLSSU, but the fact that I actually made them was more luck than skill.
Every time I sit down with After Effects, I have to reacquaint myself its workflow. I’ll eventually get the basics down, but with the way the industry works there are new tools and plugins coming out every day — and as the quality of my work increases, so does my need to stay on top of what’s new and what’s important.
You can be confident in your craft and still feel like a student, because that sensation of always needing to learn is a good thing. Can you imagine an artist saying ‘eh, this is good enough’ and not practicing anymore? It’s absurd.
If you feel like you’re always a student, that’s okay. Because even the people who have mastered their craft devote time every day to learning how to do things better. Feeling like a student will get you further than pretending you’re a master, because even the masters need to learn.
What I’m describing here is, essentially, Imposter Syndrome. There’s a ton of content out there that describes it, and a fair number of people that laud it in the same way that I do. But for all of the effort they’ve put into defining it, they’ve said little about why it’s so beneficial for people who want to improve themselves.
Imposter Syndrome, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is the sensation that you’re a fraud or a phony, in respect to your skills and responsibilities. It’s the sense that, no matter how successful you appear, you still suck at whatever it is you do. Lot’s of people let that feeling undercut their success, instead of using it to their advantage.
If you want to improve, you need to be humble. You need to understand the need to practice the basics every day, even when you’re performing at a high level. You need to consistently re-visit the foundations of your art, and challenge your bad habits and unconscious shortcuts. You need to question your understanding of both the product and the method that produces it.
You have to kill the assumption that you’re doing things the right way, so you can learn how to do it better.
If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome. Don’t fret. Take ahold of that feeling, and use it as a lens to critically examine your skills and abilities. Be mindful, use it as an entry point for enhancing your daily practice, and learn.
Learning How To Learn
Now I know what you’re thinking — what if I’m not good at learning things? Am I doomed to suckage?
Remember how I said that I suck at writing?.
I meant that.
It feels like I suck as a writer, because every time I look at an article by someone else, I see communicative techniques or metaphors that I’ve failed to use in my own work. I see succinct descriptions of things that took me paragraphs, and I spend hours at the keyboard every day just to find beginner writers expressing themselves with more clarity, and I’ve been writing for years.
I’m lucky, in that my primary skill as a writer is my ability to switch between different styles (this frustrates Jana to no end), but I’m unlucky because learning those new styles takes me ages. I have to read and study and compare and analyze, because otherwise I don’t improve.
This is my day job, and it comes that hard to me.
If you feel like you suck, that you’re always a student, and that you don’t know how to learn the things you want to do, you’re not alone.
That’s how talented people feel too.
When you start out you feel lost, and then once you get your feet under you, you feel dwarfed. That goes on for a while and then it’s like a marathon, with random boxing matches thrown in. Because once you reach par, you realize that the difference between the moderately functional and the wildly successful isn’t innate skill — it’s their willingness to learn.
So if you’re beating yourself up because you don’t feel like Yu-Gi-Oh dishing out the trap cards, stop it. The only people who feel like masters are the ones who stopped being students. And the people who stopped learning are the ones who can’t keep up.
Succeeding With Suckage
You’re still not convinced that feeling like a beginner and staying in ‘student mode’ is the key to success, are you? You’re probably thinking that it’s different for you because you’ve been on the struggle bus so long there’s a plaque over your seat. That it will feel different once you hit your stride, and feeling ‘off’ about it means something is wrong.
You’re not the issue; you’re just riding the wrong bus.
Feeling like you suck is fine. Feeling like you suck is good. Hunkering down into student mode is the de facto way you flip the paradigm and make real change. I started blogging, despite feeling like a student. I started freelancing, despite feeling like a student. I started coaching, despite feeling like a student. If I’d waited until I felt like a master, I wouldn’t have started at all.
Success is built on continuous learning, not static mastery. I choose completeness over happiness, dedication over motivation, and education over stagnation, because nothing short of that would be satisfying. And the first step to that is pushing yourself to learn even when it feels like you’re drowning.
Never let your inexperience or inability prevent you from trying to improve. Yeah, you suck at whatever it is you’re trying to do. You’ll suck at it forever. But somewhere between feeling like you suck right now and feeling like you suck ten years down the road, you’re going to develop the skills and understanding to leverage that feeling into further success. And at some point, you’ll recognize that it’s the drive to know more that really got you there.