Effortless Perfection and the Impostor Syndrome
Over the weekend, I read an article in my college alumni magazine about campus efforts to battle “effortless perfection.” For those unfamiliar with this relatively new buzzword, “effortless perfection” is the impression that someone is handling a challenge perfectly, without any visible effort. It’s the old ‘don’t let them see you sweat’ work ethic, where people (often women, often minorities, often people who are supposed to be grateful for the status they’ve achieved) are encouraged to hide all of the frustration, fear, and hard work that lead to stellar accomplishments. The article discussed numerous campus initiatives to debunk the myth of effortless perfection, including the creation of safe discussion groups where students could admit how hard they find the balance of their academic and social lives to be.
While I’d never heard of effortless perfection, I’ve spent decades getting to know its sibling, “impostor syndrome.” With impostor syndrome, people who have achieved greatness fear the day when they’ll be unmasked as impostors. Lawyers, for example, dread being revealed as people who do not automatically know the answer when a client presents a problem.
Every female lawyer I ever worked with admitted to suffering from impostor syndrome, back when I was practicing law. (To be fair, there were some women — mostly successful senior partners — with whom I never had this conversation. And as I sit here typing, I can’t remember ever having the impostor chat with a single male colleague.) When we felt safe, comfortable, able to share, we all agreed that we weren’t quite sure what we were doing in our legal practice, that we were just waiting to be unveiled as impostors who had no right to pull down the salaries we did, who had no right to win a coveted seat among the partnership.
We were terrified someone would see us sweat. We had utterly bought into the culture of effortless perfection.
Some of those impostors — many of them — went on to highly profitable careers in the law. They made partner, or they became in-house general counsels, or judges or high-powered lobbyists.
Others of us chose other professions. I became a librarian, where one of the great joys of my professional life was to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I have many ideas about where to look. I’ll get back to you.” Later, I became a full-time writer, where I get to say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll create it, right here, out of the fanciful ideas swirling through my brain.” Both careers gave me a chance to exorcise the impostor, to truly work with less effort, less perfection expected.
I suffer bouts of self-doubt. I wonder whether a particular manuscript will find a home in traditional publishing. I question whether my promotional plan for a novel is the best it can be. I watch fellow authors succeeding at X and Y and Z and I wonder why I even try to compete, because my books will never be as good, never be as recognized as theirs.
It’s the impostor syndrome stirring again. And you rarely read those concerns here, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, because really, who wants to read the second-guessing of someone who is supposed to entertain. Writing, especially writing full-time, is a dream come true. It’s a reward for years hard-worked. It’s a joy and a pleasure. Why would anyone show the blood, sweat, and tears to get here?
Bottom line: I curate my contacts with the outside world. I don’t tell you every time I have a headache, or when the blues have set up residence in my head for a day or two, or when I didn’t sleep well, or any number of other things that prove my life is less than perfect.
In part, I don’t tell you those things because they’re boring — we all have headaches, and the blues, and lousy nights’ sleep some of the time.
But I also don’t tell you those things because I want you to think of me as a fun author, as a person you want to spend time with, as a person who truly enjoys her life and the stories that she tells. Because that’s true — I do enjoy my writing life — despite the headaches, the blues, the lack of sleep. Why make you think about transitory negative things when the overall scheme of things is positive?
So, am I perpetuating the myth of effortless perfection? Am I subjugating my impostor fears, with the possibility that I make other authors’ impostors raise their own nasty heads?
Or am I following through on the promise I make to my readers, the promise of every fiction author on some level — to entertain?
I don’t have any answers. But I’m asking myself more questions than usual these days…