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Impostor syndrome: a closer look

Digging into the core of whats up with the infamous impostor syndrome, so you know the real reasons behind it, allowing you to understand how to get over it.

Perception of the Impostor Syndrome

Recently a blog post [1] by Kimberly Voll touched on the subject of the Impostor Syndrome and her personal experience with it.

What left me concerned on how her post didn't convey the realization of the real causes of her experience and while the post did end with a step in the right direction (instead of looking for validation from others, focus more inward on understanding yourself fundamentally), I feel it won't be enough to help her avoid the same experience in the future.

The biggest part that had me alarmed was this quote:


"The elusive cure for the impostor syndrome isn’t externally available. In fact, I’m not sure that it is even curable. Instead it seems to arise as a natural side effect at the intersection between our perception of our place in a complex and changing world and how others see us. We are understandably biased in our assertions, and the consequences of not belonging are bred into us through evolution."

Its clear that she feels this an unsolvable issue, something out of her reach or comprehension. There is no clear definition where the problem stems from, only guesses on the origin of the problem.

Looking at Kimberly, she's a teacher and a consultant, having worked with students, created countless prototypes, small games, proof-of-concepts and more. Now she even published an actual, commercial game, yet despite all that effort, the feeling of not being valid as a person to teach game development still persists.

Whats worse is that the feeling of being an impostor grew stronger after publishing the game, despite the project is a commercial and a polished one, yet for some reason it made things worse.

With all that in mind, how can this be? Isn't the irrefutable proof of being a competent game development teacher right there?

 

Impostor syndrome, revealed

Its true, we do live in a world with other people and our success depends on the people around us one way or the other. Thus it is entirely natural to seek validation from others and it will indeed make us feel unsafe if we fail to be validated, because our very survival depends on it in this current society.

If you're not taken seriously, then you'll have a hard time selling yourself or your products to keep you fed and your rent paid.

We go through life, gather experience and information along the way, and eventually become competent at something or gain knowledge on something very valuable or potent.

But knowing something is only half the battle. Unless you can show it in physical form, any attempt to take you seriously is very difficult because its hard to relate to what you know without actually having gone through that myself. I don't see what you can see.

Imagine this: Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb; you are now in his shoes before he invents the lightbulb.

Through experience and knowledge, you had realized this grand design of a lightbulb and maybe even drawn a plan of it, but you don't have the physical finished product in your hand. It doesn't exist yet.

However, the idea is awesome, you can see the potential, the way it could change the world, how much good it could do... even if its not done yet, you still have an urge to talk about it and share this great knowledge with other people.

But what do the people know of the great concept of a lightbulb? Sure it sounds neat, but its not here, so why care about this idea and you for that matter? What happens then is that the people tell the you to go build it, then come back to them when its done. And when it actually does, then they'll go see it for themselves. Only then can they see its value and judge it accordingly.

Meanwhile, between now and the moment you publish this invention, unfortunately, you'll be stuck in this torturous state of mind of knowing something, but being unable to share it properly with the world until its done.

The impostor syndrome comes to play when that something is very advanced and complex to create, but due to survival reasons or other pressures, you end up making smaller projects instead of this great, grand concept that is stuck inside you for the time being. And every time you finish a smaller project, it feels like betrayal, because you know you are far more capable than just this.

And when you interface with other people during this period, it feels awful, because you see the object of your validation, but you cannot grab it at this moment, not until its complete. You can talk with them, but they will be unable to validate you until you have that very irrefutable proof, the final product that you can point a finger at and say "Look! There it is! This is what I'm talking about"

So the only solution is to actually make that special thing come to life in physical form and let it reach the success its meant to. Build that world-changing thing and publish it. This is the very cure to the impostors syndrome.

 

The Impostor Syndrome: Kimberly's case

Its like Einstein used to say: "you cannot solve the problem on the level it occured". I know that quote might be a bit overused these days, but it always holds true.

To start with, its important to recognize that the impostor syndrome is only the side effect, not the actual problem.

The real problem is lack of irrefutable proof of her true potential.

Being a teacher, Kimberly has been giving knowledge and empowering her students based on her experience. Having done countless of proof of concepts and prototypes, while teaching and consulting, there is probably something very special that she personally has within her, some higher idea, some grand design or way of thinking. Something truly impressive.

However, while you may have the know-how, a strong gut-feeling and a mountain of prototypes, theres nothing singular that would effectively make an outsider see that potential mentioned above.

You can talk and teach, but ultimately there is no such object of proof that will immediately make another person go "holy smokes! Yes she indeed knows her stuff and I respect her".

Its basically a situation of all-talk-no-action. Anyone could walk up to her and begin to question her competence and while she may be able to make sound counter-arguments or explain something, all of that can be easily undermind by a simple statement: "Thats all nice and cool, but what you're talking about doesn't exist right now".

And indeed, there is nothing physical that you can point a finger at in the real world and say, "There it is, the irrefutable proof, take a look". Even though she did just release a commercial game, a proponent could just brush it off as "Its yet another casual mobile game, like the thousand others already out there". Its mean to say it, but I doubt that project expresses her full potential even remotely.

In other words, what is needed is a piece of solid proof of your true potential that you can always point a finger at and proudly say that you did that. Something that shows the larger and more advanced ideas of why is she pursuing teaching game development to begin with.

In the case of Kimberly, this can be a presentation of her prototypes that strongly conveys the idea behind them, the way of thinking behind them in the most polished, approachable and simplified way, that upon seeing it, a person would be genuinely impressed by it.

An alternative is to make a commercial game that incorporates the special things Kimberly has been teaching to her students all this time, that includes all or parts of the ideas and concepts from her way of thinking. Not just a published game, but the published game.

When either of the two are created and published, then you can actually rest assured to look forward to get what feels like impostor syndrome satisfied and dealt with. If the feeling persists, then what you did to fight it may have not been the real answer.

 

[1] http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/KimberlyVoll/20131209/206598/An_Impostor_Among_Us_Shipping_my_First_Game.php

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