Imposter Syndrome. A loose term to describe a lack of confidence in one’s ability, value or position. At least that’s how I understand it.
It’s a term I try to avoid where possible. Rach Smith covered this pretty well in her cannily-titled post, “I haven’t experienced imposter syndrome, and maybe you haven’t either”. I don’t doubt that those working in teams suffer these anxieties, but freelancers may be more susceptible to feeling that they’re an ‘imposter’ or ‘fraud’ as they don’t have the support network of their colleagues or boss. On top of this, they’re often juggling many roles so a lack of confidence in one area may spread to others (“I know my work is good but is it really worth that much?”).
I’ve thought about this topic a lot over the years and experienced many doubts along the way, perhaps with good reason at times. But with all things considered (budget, timeframe, experience), I feel I’ve offered good quality and valuable work to my clients during my freelance career.
I recently saw a couple of tweets from two legends of the design industry that I greatly respect.
The first was asking for advice on ‘imposter syndrome’. The second, from a different author, was bemoaning the state of the web in fairly general terms. One of those, “If I see another design that does X…” or “Why do designers do X?” type things (X = something vague). You get the picture.
People have suffered from self-doubt since long before Twitter, but seeing these tweets alongside each other made me wonder if there’s a correlation. Does the frequency and negativity of tweets like these erode the confidence of others working in the industry?
The problem with tweets like these is their vagueness. I suspect this is a result of trying to protect whoever the criticism is aimed at, but the unintended side-effect is that can catch others along the way. I’m sure many freelancers have read similar things and thought “I’ve done something similar” or “Are they talking about me?” at some point (or maybe it is just me).
Of course, questioning your abilities is a sign of humility and a positive thing to do, but tweets like these aren’t conducive to a positive atmosphere. Having tweeted things like this in the past, I now feel that this method of venting could be framed with a more positive slant.
Self-doubt has been a problematic gremlin for me to shift at times. I feel that might have something to do with my journey to where I am now. Here’s a potted history:
I started learning how to build websites in 1999 when I was about 11. Back then, sites were built with tables, and CSS wasn’t really a thing. I learnt by reading books on HTML, checking out examples in the latest .net magazine and looking at the source code of almost every website I visited.
I started to learn a bit of PHP and MySQL. Lots of websites came and went before I developed my own CMS to run a magazine site that was focusing on web development. I learnt a lot.
I was also a budding musician, working hard to get through specific grades before university. I studied music at the University of York and then did my postgrad at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
In this six-year period, I didn’t build many websites. I created the occasional thing here-and-there, but I was pretty music-focused. I only had time to maintain existing skills and learn essentials when necessary.
Shortly after finishing my MA, I decided to focus on designing websites again. From the outside, it probably looked like a sudden career shift. For me, it was a positive change in the direction of something I’d always done. I just needed to brush up my skills, get some clients and work out how much to charge.
I started by making very cheap sites for friends, then branched out to Elance (now Upwork) where I was able to pick up some easy jobs for little money. I kept my rates low to reflect the fact I was still learning and refining my skills.
Over the next couple of years, I worked on a lot of projects. I worked hard and tried to learn as much as I could between client work.
The voice within
During this transitionary period, there were plenty of times when I felt like an imposter. The switch from working as a professional musician, where I was pretty confident in my position, to being a web designer with almost zero client work experience, was pretty surreal.
I’d have questions swirling around my head. They might be as mundane as “Is this work any good?” but occasionally get a bit deeper: “Does it matter if clients are happy with my work if someone else could do a better job?” (answer below).
Ultimately, my morale was maintained as I was receiving unanimously positive feedback from clients. As time passed, I increased my rates in line with the experience and portfolio I was developing.
The self-taught element
When I started to write this post, it occurred to me that other freelancers may have taken a similar path. Out of interest, I put the question to Twitter. Freelancers: how did you learn to do what you do?
I’m fully aware that a poll of 114 respondents who are probably-but-not-definitely freelance is a low sample and completely non-scientific. That said, the stats were pretty surprising. The results were as follows:
From the comments, it seems the respondents who checked ‘other’ generally had some combination of the available options.
The percentage of self-taught freelancers was much higher than I anticipated. If that scales even roughly, that’s a pretty significant portion of the freelance pool and may partly explain why ‘imposter syndrome’ is discussed so frequently.
This would make sense in the web industry. In the grand scheme of things, it’s an incredibly young area. Specific web design education hasn’t been around for long. Even those who have received a traditional education and transitioned, e.g. graphic designers, have had to adapt to the challenges of a responsive web. To some extent, everyone who has been working in the industry for the past 20 or so years has been self-taught.
This isn’t to say traditionally-educated freelancers don’t suffer from self-doubt. I’m sure they do. My point is that freelancers who have taught themselves might be more vulnerable to feeling that their skill set is incomplete or that their work holds less value than those who received a formal education.
Whatever value you attach to the piece of paper at the end of a degree, the knowledge that you’ve received a well-rounded education, in theory at least, may help to quieten inner-voices. If it does, and you remain aware of the gaps in your knowledge, perhaps that’s an overall benefit.
In my case, I’d say this has been the predominant underlying cause of my self-doubts, and the contrast to the level of formal training I received as a musician has only exacerbated things.
Whatcha gonna do?
With all of this thinking and introspection, I’ve come to realise some things that help me to keep my self-doubt in check:
It’s good to have doubts
Just imagine what you might be like if you didn’t. These doubts are a sign of humility (that’s good) and, if you have them, you’re probably not ripping anyone off (also good).
Work out your value
Whether you share this with your clients or not, have a rationale for how you came to your rate. This is particularly useful if you’ve just increased your rates or are trying to justify a quote to yourself.
This ties into the self-taught element above. If you keep on stretching yourself and broadening your knowledge, you’ll bolster your confidence.
Do your own thing
Try not to be negatively affected by other people’s work or comments on social media. That doesn’t mean to ignore them, learn what you can and turn them into a positive.
Know that you don’t have to be the best in your field to have a career and do good work. If I learnt one thing as a musician, it’s that there’s always a bigger fish. Keep on developing your skills and doing your best work – it’s all you can do.
Also, bear in mind that you don’t have to be amazing at every bit of your business. If you’re terrible at numbers or project management, outsource those elements so you can focus on what you’re good at. The stress isn’t worth it.
No freelancer is an island
Join social media groups, Slack channels and other online communities that have an overall feeling of positivity. Freelance Heroes and DIFTK, an online community for parents who are freelance, are great places to start.
If you can find a community that’s collaborative rather than competitive, and where the users are genuinely there to help each other, you’re on to a winner.
A reality check
So to answer that question: “Does it matter if clients are happy with my work if someone else could do a better job?”
It depends. Or as Stewart Lee would say, “context is not a myth”.
Clients don’t just hire you for your work or experience; they often hire you because they want to work with you. This can be easy to forget.
I’ve turned down plenty of work over the years because it wasn’t quite the right fit or it was just a bit too far out of my comfort zone. When I’ve explained my rationale to clients, they’ve often responded in one of two ways:
1) They appreciate my honesty and bear me in mind for future projects that are more appropriate
2) They say they’re willing for me to develop the skillset on the job
That second response feels pretty amazing when it happens, but sometimes, even when that’s offered, I still won’t take the job. Perhaps I think the learning curve will be too steep, it’s an area I’m not interested in, or the size and stress of the project would be too disruptive.
If you find yourself thinking this, balance it up. Given the timeframe, the budget, your experience and history with the client, could you do a good job that offers value to the client? Would the client really be better off hiring someone else? If you truly believe so, you can always politely decline and offer a recommendation. Otherwise, have confidence in your abilities and take on the challenge!