Can I tell you a secret?
I’m not really a copywriter.
I’m a chancer. A phony. A charlatan.
I snuck in by the back door a while ago, and I’ve been getting away with it ever since.
Luckily, I haven’t yet been found out, and I’ve been fortunate enough to hit on clients who must not have met any proper copywriters yet. But it’s only a matter of time. One day the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.
People who feel this way suffer from impostor syndrome. They don’t believe in themselves because they can’t internalise their achievements. Objectively, many ‘impostors’ are actually very successful, but something stops that information from going in. The warmth of accomplishment never reaches their hearts.
In the real world, I can now look back on quite a few years as a successful professional writer. My earnings have grown, as has my list of clients, and their feedback has been almost universally positive. I even get less experienced copywriters asking me for advice.
From the inside, though, all that seems cold and hollow. I can’t take my achievements seriously; my career is a story I just don’t believe. Those testimonials may sound good, but the clients only wrote them because I asked. God knows what social followers see in me, beyond a way to grow their own networks. And novices seeking help are clearly confusing age with wisdom.
Sometimes I think it might be easier with the right qualifications or awards. But actually I’ve seen top writers confess to severe anxiety, particularly at the start of a job. Faced with the blank page, the open brief, even those at the top of the tree must rewrite their story from chapter one, every time they pick up a pen.
Throw in some actual problems and it gets even worse. Evolutionary psychology says we’re hardwired to give more weight to bad news than good, to make us pay attention to threats in the environment. That’s all very well for foraging on the Serengeti, less so for hermetic seclusion in a home office. A pointed comment here, a request for a rework there, and I’m plunged into self-doubt.
More seriously, I feel revolted by the act of writing itself. To put words on a page, even in the voice of a brand, feels crass and presumptious. I don’t dare disturb the universe. But needs must.
I know lots of copywriters write fiction or poetry too. For me, that would just shovel creative angst on top of commercial anxiety. Outside work, I go for physical tasks and pastimes that I know I can accomplish, like climbing or woodwork.
It’s easy to confuse impostorism with appropriate modesty. If you’re British, it just feels wrong to trumpet your own achievements, even inside your head. But there are times when a bit of constructive pride is exactly what you need – the sort of pride that goes before a rise, not a fall.
Social media can be friend or foe. Personally, I find it makes a good mood better, but a bad mood worse. If I’m feeling confident, I can trade some wit and wisdom with journalists, novelists and real copywriters, which feels great. But to my inner impostor, the Twitter feed is just an infinitely scrolling succession of people being funnier, more intelligent and better informed than me.
Social media also encourages professionals to push their opinions to build intellectual and professional authority – to be the followed, not the follower. Peering out at these experts from the cave of the impostor’s mind is as baffling as it is depressing. How can they be like that? Aren’t they afraid of being challenged? Are they disgusted by their own arrogance, or do they just see it as the price of success? Is it all an act, or do they really believe? I guess you have no choice but to honour your personal brand, even if you’ve come to find it flimsy or risible.
NLP suggests we can simply model the behaviour of those who’ve already achieved excellence. To be confident, just copy what confident people do. Perhaps it does all come down to ‘fake it till you make it’. Maybe even those who’ve made it are still faking it, on the inside. Who knows?
Being a copywriter, albeit a fake one, I think it’s more about the words. If you don’t let the positive ones inside your head, all you hear is the negative ones that are already there. So beating impostor syndrome is about learning to listen in the right way. Put like that, it sounds so simple. I’ll let you know when I manage it.