Sometimes it happens when I’m working alongside a National Geographic photographer, as I listen to him brag about his recent book deal.
Sometimes it happens when I’m talking to a Harvard scientist during a research expedition, as I listen to her explain complex data logs.
And sometimes it happens in the middle of the night – as I lie in bed, replaying conversations in my head. The longer I toss and turn, the deeper my thoughts spiral into self-doubt.
I can’t believe that guy just got his fifth book deal. I can’t even finish writing one book.
Everyone on this team has a PhD, and I only have a bachelor’s degree.
Do I have enough experience to be here? Am I smart enough?
Imposter syndrome affects all kinds of people, across many different professions.
But the strain of imposter syndrome that afflicts full-time freelancers is particularly harsh.
When I had a traditional job, I rarely questioned whether I was “good enough” to be in my position. Now that I’ve been my own boss for the better part of five years, I’ve questioned myself more times than I care to admit. But I’ve also figured out how to respond to the nagging voice of doubt inside my head.
Being a successful freelancer includes building a resilient mindset – which isn’t a thing you can do overnight. It takes intentional, repeated actions: recognizing negative thought loops. Prioritizing self-care. Transforming mental blocks, like imposter syndrome, from self-criticism into acceptance and confidence.
In my previous job, if I ever felt insecure or unsure of something, I could chat about it with my supportive boss or friendly co-workers at the office.
Now that I’m a freelancer, I’ve realized how important it is to build community with other self-employed folks. When we engage in candid conversations about the unique challenges that come with this type of work, it feels less lonely and more affirming.
Whether I’m grabbing coffee with a colleague or giving a presentation at conference, the topic of imposter syndrome always comes up.
Last summer I had a conversation about it with my friend Jon, one of the most creative and successful people I know. After spending several years working as a designer at Meow Wolf, he now works as an independent contractor for theatres and interactive spaces all over the country.
Jon said, “from my personal experience, I don't think the imposter syndrome ever goes away – it's what keeps you grounded, hungry, and open to learning and growing.”
That attitude shift may seem subtle, but I think it’s crucial. <tweet-link>Instead of focusing on what we may be lacking in our professional lives, we need to concentrate on what we can attain.<tweet-link>
Over the past few years, I’ve given dozens of presentations to college students. I share the story of my career with them, showing photos from expeditions and encouraging them to think outside the box when it comes to potential professional paths.
After every talk I give, several students stick around to chat. They are always very kind, saying things like, “You’re amazing! Your photos are incredible! You have the best job ever!”
The first few times this happened, I felt flustered and self-conscious. I didn’t know how to respond to their effusive praise. I felt the urge to deflect the compliments or downplay my success.
But belittling myself or my work will not inspire young people.
I quickly realized that if I’m going to put myself in the spotlight, I need to set a good example – not just for following an untraditional career path, but also for having the confidence to do so.
Now, when someone tells me they loved the blog post I wrote, or the talk I gave really resonated with them, I don’t blush or mumble. Instead, I smile and say, “thank you so much, that really means a lot.”
Talking with college students also gives me a regular reminder to pause and appreciate what I’ve accomplished. It’s been over a decade since I earned my bachelor’s degree, but I can still recall the fear and insecurities I felt around graduation time. I didn’t have a job lined up. I had no idea how my career would pan out.
Twelve years later, I have a dream job in an industry that I didn’t even know existed when I was in college.
When I’m having a bad day, caught in a negative thought loop about whatever, I try to picture my 18-year-old self. What would she think of the mid-30s version of herself?
There is no doubt about it – she would be stoked.
It’s easy to focus on all the things I haven’t done yet – organizations I want to work for, places I want to go, projects I want to complete. But every once in a while, it’s important to look back and feel proud of what I’ve already accomplished.
A few weeks ago, I received a message from a young photographer who is just starting to get into full-time freelance work.
She wrote, “Do I need to have an LLC? Is it difficult to get one?”
I smiled, thinking back to those first few months of freelance life, when filing for an LLC (insert Hectic blog link here?) felt like a massive mystery.
Obtaining my LLC was one of the many things I had to figure out. Making peace with imposter syndrome is another.
<tweet-link>But figuring stuff out on my own is empowering. The more challenges I face, the more resilient I become.<tweet-link> I’ve built up enough mental fortitude to cope with the occasional bad day or sleepless night. I’ve gained enough confidence to look forward to a future that is unknown.
If all goes well, I will continue to be a freelancer for a few more decades, perhaps even the rest of my life. I will do good work, and I will occasionally make mistakes. I will continue to learn a lot, but I will never “have it all figured out.”
And that’s a good thing.
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