On feeling like a phoney

Earlier today my husband sent me a link to this blog post by programmer Scott Hanselman, on feeling like a phoney, despite career success. Give it a read first, if you’ve got a minute. I’m a couple of years late here, but it’s good stuff that most of us will relate to. Unsurprisingly, I do too, and wanted to blog a quick response (as a “you and me both, husband!” as much as anything else!).

I think something that can exacerbate this for freelancers, or anyone with a professional online identity, is the need to present our skills, competence and confidence to potential clients, customers and colleagues (this episode of Sesame St is brought to you by the letter C!). To market our skills, services, and – as a hundred “you are your brand!” articles around the web remind us – ourselves.

I think most of us are a mix of those feelings of despair when we look at work from someone we feel we’re miles behind, those feelings of euphoric pride when we create something we’re really pleased with and go “wow, I made that!“…and hopefully, underpinning it all, a reasoned awareness of the skills that we do have after years of study, practice, and (hopefully!) constant learning. But we’re having to present one side of that when we write copy for our website, or promo mailers, or job queries.



I need to present myself as an expert at what I do. And I am. (<As an example of this feeling of phoneyness at work, I’m itching to take that sentence out.) Are there people good at things I’m weak at, people with encyclopaedic knowledge of areas I’m less versed in, people with years more experience? Of course! That doesn’t make the presentation of my professional self inaccurate. And sometimes a job comes along that’s a bit different from my usual work, and perhaps it’s difficult, and perhaps I need to invest more hours than I would confess to get it right. But I rise to the challenge, and the work is good. I am good.

However, I am also aware of my shortfalls and challenges. And as the Scott Hanselman blog mentions, the more we know, the more we’re aware of how vast the expanse of things we don’t know is. I’m a mishmash of knowing and not knowing, confidence and worry, and I know myself as that. But that – that whole, mixed, person-ness – isn’t the same as an advert for my services. So, yeah, it can feel like just pretending. Phoney.

There’s also a related feeling, which I think, for me, is a stronger one. Because despite the worries about being a phoney, to be in our careers (or putting work out online, or submitting it to publishers), we must have some sense that we have skills, that we have something of worth to put out there. So while I may sometimes feel like a phoney when marketing and presenting myself as an expert, I don’t feel like I don’t have skill or things worth putting out there. What I feel most is tied in to my potential, to what I could do and make and achieve.

And to the idea of not meeting that. Not having met that. Not meeting it in future. In terms of feeling like a phoney, perhaps the feeling in question is: feeling like I’m presenting myself as someone who has been meeting, and is currently meeting, their potential…and the fear that that’s not true. The looking around at others so much younger than me achieving so much. The number of books my peers have put out, the jobs they’re getting. The fact I did Fine Art for my undergrad degree and took a while to realize I should be making comics and illustrations and books. Lost time.

And the thing is, the past is done. There will always be things we coulda woulda shoulda. And we can’t second guess what unexpected things from our past experiences might be adding something, somewhere, to the work we create.

Towards the end of his post, Hanselman states ” It’s OK to feel like a phony sometimes. It’s healthy if it’s moves you forward.”  I agree. A worry that I’m not meeting my potential, not where I could be, is a reminder that I have things to make, things to get out there in the world. A reminder I’d better get my ass in gear and go do them!

He ends with this quote from Dave Ward, and damned if this isn’t one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard: We’re all just fumbling around in the adjacent possible, grasping at whatever good ideas and understanding we can manage to wrap our heads around.”

The adjacent possible. Dang. I’m off to go root around in there a bit!