I have spent the past week at the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which is like no other gathering I’ve experienced. Complete strangers hug me, and for the most part–at RWA–I’m OK with that. What follows the hug is usually something along the lines of, “I love your books, especially the one about the guy with the dogs, and the Shakespeare lady, and there was a nervous pug…”
In the past few years at RWA, the concept of imposter syndrome has popped up in many discussions, and even on the programming. What is it? What to do about it? Is it a uniquely female affliction and if so, why? To quote the Harvard Business Review: “Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters‘ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”
Oddly enough, I have been reading lately about expertise. What is it? Who has it? What does it take to become an expert? Malcolm Gladwell and others have popularized the notion that expertise is not a function of innate talent. Experts are made not born, and generally, they are made by enormous amounts of practice, with 10,000 hours being the figure most often cited.
But I can sit in a practice room and saw away on my violin for 10,000 hours, and still not become very accomplished. To develop expert status, I need two other resources. In addition to assiduous practice, I need knowledgeable, devoted teachers. I can make progress by self-teaching, but those experienced instructors will propel me toward true expertise. The final leg of an expert’s stool is… emotional support.
To achieve the status of master, along the way, we need not only teachers guiding our hard work, but the support of those who have faith in us and our ability. We need a cheering section, or we’re likely to give up, doubt, backslide, and drift away. RWA is one place where authors who mostly toil at their craft in solitude can find both competent instruction and enthusiastic support. Of the two, the enthusiastic support is the more precious.
I suspect that is part of the origin of imposter syndrome: Somebody has worked very hard, for a very long time, while receiving good instruction. They lacked support, however, and thus when success arrives, nobody is saying, “I knew you could do it! I’m so proud of you! The great day has finally come and your hard work is getting the appreciation it deserves!”
So maybe it’s not imposter syndrome at all. Maybe it’s “If I wasn’t worth supporting along the way, maybe I don’t deserve success now” syndrome. Perhaps we should call it sabotage syndrome: When somebody working very hard toward a goal must do so without needed support from friends, community, and loved ones, and the success achieved is emotionally sabotaged by those who withheld needed emotional support. Just a theory.
Is there an expert-in-progress you’ve supported? Did you get the support you deserved as you struggled to develop competence? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of My Own and Only Duke. (And no, Quinn Wentworth does not suffer from imposter syndrome.)