By nature, human beings are comparers: our happiness depends, at least partly, on feeling better off than others. Studies have shown that many of us would rather earn more than our co-workers, even if that meant earning less money overall. And we judge our creative output similarly: we deem it a success if it’s as good or better than other people’s.
But there’s a huge problem lurking here. We’re comparing apples with oranges—or, as the saying goes, comparing our insides with other people’s outsides. That guy on stage who’s giving a super-smooth presentation, while you wait nervously in the wings until it’s your turn? He might well be a panicking wreck inside. You could never know.
In fact, if he’s really good, he probably is panicking inside. Research suggests that the so-called “impostor syndrome” may get worse as people get better: the more accomplished you get, the more likely you are to rub shoulders with ever more talented people, leaving you feeling even more inadequate by comparison.
The genuinely untalented, meanwhile, probably have no idea that they’re no good—because they’re too untalented to realize it. (This is the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” inspired by the tale of an incompetent bank robber who thought rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible on security cameras.) In short: if you’re worried you don’t measure up, that could well be a sign that you do.
And the truth, deep down, is that we all feel as though we’re just winging it. “I have written 11 books,” said the late Maya Angelou, who was renowned as a novelist, poet, and memoirist, “but each time, I think ‘Uh-oh. They’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.’” Angelou was a remarkable talent, but she was equally remarkable in being willing to admit that she didn’t usually feel that way.
This is something it’s even harder to keep in mind today, when our lives unfold in public on Facebook and Twitter, and via well-designed web presences. We use these, naturally enough, to showcase the best parts of our lives: the joyous weddings and enviable vacations, the finished projects, and testimonials from satisfied clients. But we forget that we’re only seeing everyone else’s highlights, too—not the sleepless nights, the abandoned attempts, the moments of despair and self-doubt.
None of this is an argument for abandoning self-criticism completely. Holding yourself to exacting standards, within reason, is a vital discipline for improving your product. But it is an invaluable reminder, as we navigate the world of creative work, never to take other people’s facades as reliable evidence of what’s going on within.
The real trick to producing great work isn’t to find ways to eliminate the edgy, nervous feeling that you might be swimming out of your depth. Instead, it’s to remember that everyone else is feeling it, too. We’re all in deep water. Which is fine: it’s by far the most exciting place to be.
Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, and writes a column on psychology for The Guardian. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him at @oliverburkeman.