Letting Go of Creative Ego or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ask for Feedback

With designers at places like Facebook and inVision revealing that they suffer from imposter syndrome, it seems like were entering a new era of openness and honesty. If they can admit to feeling like imposters, its okay that I do too! What a relief, right?

Right?

Im not convinced.

As the creative & UX lead at LimeRed, I think a lot about how interactions between team members can shape a design and the eventual output. Our confidence in ourselves and each other can be the difference between a team that just gets by and a team that pushes boundaries in creating amazing work. I believe that we have to be able to express doubts and show vulnerability in order to truly work together.

But having doubts and vulnerabilities doesnt make us imposters, it makes us humans.

(Do I fall into this trap from time to time? Of course I do. I didnt go to school for design, so sometimes I feel like I have to explain away or excuse that fact, as though my years of experience & my portfolio dont qualify me as a designer.)

Imposter syndrome may be real, but I call BS on imposter syndrome culture. Its a rebranding of the insecurity culture so well satirized by Amy Schumer, where were supposed to say we suck??(warning: gets a bit graphic at the end).

But just as insecurity is tied to our ego, imposter syndrome is tied to our creative ego. The conflict between how we want others to perceive us and how we perceive ourselves creates this gap that makes us feel like frauds.

Wikipedias definition: Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Internally Assured Destruction.

So whats the problem?

Well, apart from constant personal stress generally leading to feeling unfulfilled and anxious in our jobs and daily lives, not much.

(Kidding.)

Fear of being exposed as a fraud has much larger implications to the work we do than one persons internal conflict. This fear causes us to clam up, be defensive, keep our work away from other eyes and their inevitably harsh feedback* for as long as possible. Were protecting ourselves.

But this fear, the danger from which we need protecting, exists mostly in our own heads. Presumably, when you were hired for a job, you showed your portfolio, interviewed, maybe did some sample exercises case-interview style, just like I did here at LimeRed. Cool.

So how could you possibly have no idea what youre doing?

You couldnt. Shut up. Unless you were hired for a position where no one looked at your skills (in which case you have bigger problems), your fear is around what? Not knowing how to do something that everyone assumes you would know? Messing up in front of your superiors? Missing something completely obvious that was right in front of you?

Let me tell you a story about creative ego.

I have a lot of ideas and Im pretty opinionated. When I had to do group projects growing up, if I didnt do it myself it either wouldnt get done or was not up to my standards. As a result, I developed a need to be in control of any creative process, and had a hard time allowing space for other peoples ideas.

Fast forward to after college, when I started working with an underground arts & music events organization. My ability to show up when I said I would & generally take responsibility for things meant that I ended up as one of the lead organizers pretty quickly. Score one for my creative ego.

But I was just starting out in that world, working with people whod been living it for years or even decades. ??Id have awesome idea after awesome idea, only to find out that they tried it three years ago.

Our setup crew often consisted of lots of volunteers, working in conditions that never quite fit the plan. Id give very specific instructions, walk away to supervise something else, and return twenty minutes later to WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!

Does any of this ring a bell? No matter the industry, this is a trap easily fallen into.

Were there times that I had a great idea that was actually implemented? Of course. But far from being in creative control, the things I thought of that stuck were few and far betweenand damn did it sting to be shot down time after time when I had had such a stroke of brilliance.

Over the course of more events than I maybe care to remember, some things changed.

  • My creative ego and sense of control were ground down until I could separate them from who I am as an artist.
  • I genuinely started to care more about the collective final product than if any of it was my idea.
  • I learned to ask for help without hesitation because when youre balanced precariously on top of a ladder hanging a weird, heavy contraption you cant just fake it till you make it.
  • I learned to listen to other peoples ideas because a team of six people would have to spend an hour adjusting steel cable at dozens of attachment points if I was determined to do it my way.

As for some of these projects that the volunteers took totally off the rails? Hey, they didnt turn out as I had envisioned, but they looked pretty cool all the same.

Whos afraid of the big bad failure?

Forget imposter syndrome. I was an imposter. I had no goddamn idea what I was doing, and it really suckedup until the point where I stopped letting my creative ego drive. Once that happened, I was really and truly unafraid of creative failure. I had failed So. Many. Times. that it stopped mattering.

And that, my friends, will truly set you free.

Now, I ask for feedback with reckless abandon. I tell my colleagues when Im struggling with a concept, and I go to designers and non-designers alike for help.

On a recent project at LimeRed, I was working on style direction for a client who had two vastly different impressions they wanted to convey in their site design, paired with a brand color palette that didnt go with either one. I was working on several concepts and hated all of them.

In the past, I probably would have:

  • Stayed up all night bashing my head against the wall (figuratively) (or not).
  • Thought that I needed to figure it out by myself

…and that if I didnt it meant I was failing as a designer.

But, after the lessons of so many failures and bad ideas, I knew that trying to force through it on my own was about the worst thing I could do. So I exposed my soft underbelly and showed everyone my terrible designs. Far from expressing dismay that I didnt have all the answers from the very beginning, Demetrio (link to profile) mapped out the goals and obstacles on the wall so we could figure out how to achieve both aims. Emily (link to profile) challenged me to justify the addition of a secondary color palette until I knew I could sell it to the client. We nixed the bad and salvaged the good, with a final result that made us all incredibly proud.

Any time Im seriously blocked on a project, I talk through the challenges Im facing, and you know what? It really helps. The work is better as a result. The LimeRed teams combination of collective confidence and individual humility means that I dont have to worry that Im being judged for having a bad idea. If it helped get us to the good idea, then who cares? We dont expect each other to come up with the perfect design on the first try every time, and now I dont expect it of myself, either

*Not inevitable.

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