It’s hard being awesome. Seriously.
Just recently I’ve had a spate of incidents at work where I’ve written some code, it’s gone through testing, and as soon as it’s gone live it’s had to be fixed or backed out because something went wrong, we missed a test case, or we didn’t realise what would happen in the real world once real people (or robots) got hold of it. I’m not so sensitive that I’d have a meltdown over something like this; I get annoyed at myself, I get annoyed at the system, and I get on and fix it and make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again. But when it happens three times in a row, I start to question whether I’m actually worth what they’re paying me.
So it’s pleasant to be called into the head of department’s office and be told that I’ve been doing good work, I really fit in well with the team, and here’s a massive pay rise. Wait, what? I was thinking I’d be sitting at the bottom tier for another year while I carry on learning how not to screw up so often, and I was considering leaving a few months ago because I was bored and under-utilised.
The fact is that I’m an amateur. At almost everything I do. I was certainly pro-level at juggling, while it was my living, but since then I have relied on my innate flexibility to get ahead. I know a bit about sound, so I’ll be an audiobook engineer. I have some IT skills, I’ll do some Excel work. I reckon I can write, I’m a pretty good editor, so I’ll do a bit of that too. And then I kind of work out how to make a piece of software do clever things, based on the fact that I studied Computer Science, briefly, 20 years ago, and suddenly I have “Software Developer” as my job title and I’m in a team of people who have been doing this kind of work exclusively, for years, and I know full well that I bullshitted my way in by being confident, putting the charm on, and overselling myself. And then I make mistakes, and I wonder how much longer I can get away with it. I obviously can get away with it, but that’s not the point.
What I’m dealing with is the dissonance between how I’m perceived, and how I perceive myself. I’m pretty sure I’m no superstar developer, and I am hypercritical of my own performance. I dislike being told that I’m good at something that I don’t feel I’m good at, because using charm and personality to advance myself, in the absence of real results, feels a bit like cheating.
Impostor syndrome is a real thing, but I’ve evolved systems for dealing with it. First among them is that I use my intellect and actually get good at what I’m doing. I look at the organisation, the whole system, I work out what its weaknesses are and how I can improve what I’m doing to fit in better – while simultaneously working out how I can stand out. I find it helps to be six foot one, dress all in black, and juggle at corporate events, but that’s just me. The rest is practice. Intelligent practice, not just doing things over and over in the hope that I get better, but really examining and drilling through the things that I need to work at. A lot of people have called me “arrogant” for whatever reason, but I’d just say I’m confident enough in my own flexibility that I can say: “Sure, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I can learn.” It’s a risk and reward equation: I do risk abject failure, falling flat on my face and being ridiculed by my peers, but if I get it right, the benefits are massive. I think that most people just never get past the risk, whereas I’m prepared to go for the big win over and over again, because that sharp edge is where life is interesting.
Tonight I’m going up on stage for the opening night of Pinocchio. It’s an interesting milestone for me, as it’s the first time I’m playing the title character in anything at all – even if I’m only actually on stage for a few brief minutes here and there, and everyone else is doing the heavy lifting. It’s also the first time I’ve done puppetry on stage, and that’s been a real trial by fire. I wasn’t even intending to be in the show at all, but when the opportunity came up and no one else could do it, I was “arrogant” enough to believe that I could do justice to the character, I could learn to operate a puppet with sensitivity and intelligence, and I was prepared to travel 40 miles each way for rehearsals, every weekend for three months, and spend time at home reading up on modern puppetry and material performance theory, practicing lip-synch and getting the damn thing to look where it’s supposed to look… and all the while reminding myself that I talked myself into it, I volunteered for it, and I had no option but to get it right. Not just to do a passable job, but to justify the director’s faith that I’d be able to do it right.
The reward for that? Being able to walk out on stage at the end of the show, feeling incredibly pleased with myself, and take in the applause with a massive grin on my face, because in theatre, I know exactly how good I am (“quite”, thus far) and the rewards fit perfectly. And I will use that to drive forward to the next project, writing and directing a play in collaboration with the gorgeous and fascinating creature who shares my life. I am under no illusions about how difficult that will be, but once again: we have a chance to expend effort, push the boundaries of our experience, and chase the big payoff of blowing people’s minds.
No sense in aiming low, is there?