Feelings of inadequacy persisting despite any success; chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence; bouts of perspiration-filled pontification peppered with an overriding feeling of being a fake, despite any external proof.
Yep, you guessed it: Impostor Syndrome.
The bane of many creatives lives, including mine. I can’t tell you why it happens, or what to do about it, but thought it might be worth sharing my first real experience with it back when I were a wee lad. Well, maybe not wee.
The day after my 21st Birthday, an email came in from BlueSky, a large pensions firm up the road, wanting to know if was available to take on some graphic design work, the usual sort of stuff, and worryingly, if I’d be able to pop up to their office for a chat.
Feeling like Seong Gi-hun at the end of Squid Game, the first thing to do was to not reply straight away - looks too desperate. Second, punch the air with joy - this was the first time a large, established company had got in touch to ask for work. But third was to worry.
I get very nervous before any meeting, but particularly with new clients, and even more so back then, usually manifesting itself as waves of chronic self-doubt. And I don’t really know why - I mean, let’s face it, they usually call me having seen my previous work.
The world’s amount of questions whirled around my head. What do I say? What if I don’t come across well? Are they going to find out I’m not as good as they think? What if they don’t like me or my work? What if they think I’m too inexperienced, or just said no, get out? My only real view of corporate life up to that point had been watching “The Apprentice”, so wasn’t feeling that confident – that programme has a lot to answer for.
I set up the appointment for the following Monday, and went into full cramming mode. Every spare minute was spent researching the company, the pensions market, industry terms that would make me sound clever – everything.
The day of the appointment arrived, and looking like the best man at a wedding, I’d put on my best 3-piece, made sure my beard was suitably sculpted, and hair adequately quiffed. It was only a 4-minute drive away, but I got there a good 10 minutes early, just in case, and sat in my cramped Mazda RX-8 going over every possible question they could ask. It was daft. I’d taken everything I needed, was appropriately dressed, and was so overprepared that Ted Hastings would have been suspicious something was up. What was going to happen?
I sat there trying to calm my breathing and bring my heart rate down - which of course didn’t happen. 2 minutes before the agreed time, I got out of the car, locked it, then locked it again – was never sure with that car – and wandered over to the intercom, fully expecting to be greeted by a receptionist, before the obligatory, “Sir Alan will see you now”. Trying not sound like a teenager on his first date, I was let in, directed up the stairs to be met by Alice, BlueSky’s Marketing Executive, and after the pleasantries was led through the bright office to meet CEO, Paul.
Paul is exactly what you want from a CEO, and more so, a client. Incredibly competent at his job, ambitious, decisive, knowledgeable, has clear direction, is ready to stand out and take risks in a methodical way … and makes “interesting” style choices. He once showed me a picture of himself at an event looking like something out of “Ripley’s: Believe It Or Not” - black pinstripe suit, black pinstripe tie, black pinstripe shirt, with all the stripes of different thicknesses, all going in different directions. Never forgot it, probably never will. Anyway, back to the meeting.
First things first, a quick shufty around the office - smart, bright, dark furniture, with a nice telly on the wall. Approved. Greeted by a broad smile, and a comment on my suit – tick - we had a quick handshake before taking a seat at his desk. It was strange, as soon as I shook his hand and said hello, a lot of the anxiety went. Not completely, the fear of dread was still there, but we were moving in the right direction. There was also quite a tasty leather chair behind his desk which I wouldn’t have minded having, so that kept me distracted.
We sat there for a good while chatting about his role in the company, his vision going forward, some of their biggest clients, and the headlines from the last few years of business, of which he was clearly, and rightly, very proud. I got in a few sarcastic comments now and again, which he politely laughed at, and all was plodding along quite nicely.
Then we got to the bit I’d been dreading – asking about me. I’ve never been someone who particularly likes talking about themselves, or bigging up what they do, so wasn’t really sure how it was going to go. There wasn’t anything at that time I’d done that was particularly noteworthy,.
I told how I’d left school and went straight into designing, which had forced me to learn on the job, and was always willing to experiment. I had a small office down the road (which was really just a tiny recording studio with a desk in the corner I sub-let from a friend of a freind), and that was about it. There was a real feeling of “when am I going to be found out?”.
But he seemed ok with everything, and we carried on chatting.
Then something that I wasn’t expecting - he asked my opinion. We looked through some bits and pieces from their previous designer and Paul wanted to know what I thought. Not what I was expecting. I answered honestly, said what I thought worked, and gave suggestions on where I thought things could change. And he was agreeing. Ideas went back and forth like ministers at a No.10 “work event”, and before you knew it, we were done.
Over an hour had gone by, and I hadn’t been thrown out, had anything thrown at me, or been called out as a fraud. There I was expecting a grilling from Nick and Margaret, but in fact, we’d covered quite a lot, and seemed to have got on quite well. Bringing things to a close, I shook Paul’s hand, probably said something hilarious and made my way out. My first ever big client meeting was done.
Driving back, there was the obligatory self-debrief.
A lot of things could have gone better, but looking at it objectively, it had gone well. I hadn’t sweated too much, I’d managed to get my points across, we’d had a laugh, and the whole thing had been relatively painless.
So, what can be garnered from all this?
Well firstly, Paul, if you’re reading this, thank you. I fully appreciate you won’t remember any of what happened, but realistically if it hadn’t gone as well as it did, and if you didn’t continue to push me over the years, I’m not sure what position I’d be in now. Paul and the team generously took me to my first swanky London meeting, my first business lunch, and gave me my first series of branding jobs, so I do owe them quite a lot.
Secondly, it’s far better to arrive on time and go straight in – waiting around beforehand does you the square root of bugger all.
And finally, that it’s fine to feel like this. To me, it shows that you care. There is an element of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, but as time goes on, it has got easier to deal with. Experience is a great teacher - a bit like my Dad (he made me put that bit in).
Now I appreciate that everyone’s situation is different, but there are some things that worked for me.
First, forget the awards and qualifications, you should be judged on skill level. I have no university degree in graphic design, or indeed any formal training in what I’m doing - everything has been learnt through trial and error, reading, experimentation, and learning on the job. My lack of “formal training” has meant I design and consult in a way that works for me, rather than what someone else has drilled in. This also means I am happy to come up with the daft ideas others would be too embarrassed to say, which is a plus.
Before any meeting, I take a bit of time to have a quick internal chat, cease and desist from going over all the possible scenarios, and roll my shoulders back to take the tension out. When going in, smile (but not so much you’ll be locked up) and I try to get a joke/some sarcasm in early. If they respond you know you’re on to a winner - if not, keep it as short as possible. My Dad, who is a teacher, starts each Parent’s Evening with the same opening line – “Do you have any questions, or should I just slag him off?”
The last thing is to know that I know what I’m doing. Don’t go in being arrogant, just have a bit of confidence, and be honest – if I don’t know something, I say. If I haven’t done or can’t do something, I say. Plus, if you are ever in the situation where a client is giving you a face-full for being a fake, having the competence of a wet flannel, or you’re wondering why you are even in the room, just ask yourself - is that really the sort of person you want to be working with?
And if all else fails, just use my Mum’s trick of imagining the person sitting opposite you naked - sorry Paul!