Success and Failure Redux


Lately on Magical Words David and Stuart and others have talked quite a bit about the measure of failure and success, about the nature of rejection, and how we might redefine it. Reading about it has made me pick at my own personal scab: I’m a fraud. I’ve always felt like a fraud, like I’ve been faking it my whole life. I have a PhD and am a Professor of English and I am pretty sure that I’m the worst one ever and I really don’t know what I’m talking about. I feel the same way about being a writer–that everything I write is crap and I could explain why that all is, but suffice it to say, I walk around with a secret belief in my own fraudulence. I could talk about other ways that I’m a fraud, but you get the picture.

There really is no cure for it. I’m not sure that if I hit a bestseller list or  made it onto Oprah that I’d lose that constant worry. I’m not sure what it would take, which takes us back to what is the definition of failure or success. Part of the problem is that moving target, that sense that there is never enough money or enough books sold or anything else to make you feel successful. Or to make you feel like not a failure or not a fraud.

I’m trying to figure out what the point of this post is. I guess it comes down to the fact that for me, it isn’t just about defining success, but also the constant rear guard battle against a lack of self-confidence. I have spoken to other writers and I know that at least a few suffer from the malady. The only cure is to fake confidence and keep writing because it’s not like I can stop. I wouldn’t know how to stop. If I lose myself in the stories then I can forget the fear and the doubt.

What do the rest of you do? Providing that you suffer the same malady. If not, move along, nothing to see here. 🙂



22 comments to Success and Failure Redux

  • Disna,

    Nope, I definitely get it too. Of course, I’m on the “not published much” side of things, so the fear that eats at me is that I’ll never be good enough to be traditionally published.

    I find exercise helps. I can go on the elliptical for half an hour and expel my anger and worry. Swordfighting class is pretty good, too—something about holding a four-foot blade … 😉

  • Diana> Ooh, I feel that way, too. I think grad school has something to do with it–most profs I know felt that way (and several still do, despite the public face they show). Success helps some, outside validation. When I actually teach someone something it helps. I mean, I’ve shared my knowledge, so I must know something, right? I’m sort of a relentless optimist. Eventually the world must conform to my pov. 🙂 But when I have moments, they are really hard for me. The one thing I’ve found that works well is to voice the fears, usually to my best friend. Once I say them out loud, they don’t sound as massive, as scary, or as true. But yeah, I’m scared I really don’t know anything, am not good at anything I do, etc. I think it isn’t limited to authors, either. So sometimes success is just not quitting, and I’ve got to remember that.

  • Oh Diana, I feel you! I’m still waiting for all the other writers to realize I’m an impostor and kick me out of the club. ^_^

  • Laura: I want a swordfighting class!!! *total envy* But I had it before publication and never lost it. I’m working on being on the elliptical regularly now. That almost looks like success but knowing me, I could turn that into fraudulence.

    Pea_faerie: Do they really? Wow. They fake it so well here! I would like to be a relentless optimist. What a cool concept. I wonder if I can train myself. I have to remember that too. I might hae to put that up by my computer. Thanks for that.

    Kalayna: You’ll never be kicked out. Only if you stop. Trust me.

  • Totally agree. As in art/academia, so in life (religion, politics etc.): people with no self doubt terrify me.

  • AJ: so it’s a virtue. I can get behind that.

  • As a lawyer, I was nearly crippled by the Fraud Factor. I hated the self-doubt that surrounded me like a cloud, day in and day out.

    As a librarian, I experienced very little Fraud Factor. I suspect that was because I was a reference librarian, and I had the right — indeed, the obligation — to say regularly, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll look it up for you.”

    As a writer, I bounce between Fraud Factor (“what? This up and coming writer wants advice? From ME?”) and non-fraud (“I haven’t achieved anything in this field after 12 novels and multiple genres – what is wrong with me?”)

    All things considered, I’ll take the librarian-mode, for peace of mind… But the writer mode is what I’ve chosen, so I’ll have to live with it 🙂

  • Have you ever looked into Byron Katie’s stuff? She has a philosophy for dealing with self-defeating beliefs called “The Work.” You can learn more about it at

    This is not woo-woo Law of Attraction junk. She gives you practical ways to address your fears and empower yourself.

    If you look around the Internet, I’m sure you can find a free download of the basic exercises. That alone may help you break free of your doubts.

  • Di, I remember speaking with you about this at a Tor party at some huge con a few years back. And yes, I absolutely feel it, too. All the time. So that when things aren’t going well it simply feels like validation of those doubts. “Yep, they finally figured it out. I suck, and now everyone knows it.” As you say the only way past it is through it, if you get my meaning. Keep doing the work, because when the writing is going well, the doubts fade to background noise.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    In the circles I’m familiar with (science research academia), it’s called the impostor syndrome. I don’t have a link to any at the moment, but there have been a number of studies exploring it’s occurrence among grad students for whom it’s pretty common – and, I think, more common the longer you’re in grad school. My problem with it is that talking about it as a phenomenon still doesn’t help me NOT think of myself as an impostor. Apparently one of the indicators is feeling like one’s successes only come about because one works twice or tens times as hard at it as one’s supposed peers. But I’ve always felt like I’m too lazy for people to take me seriously as a real scientist, and that my successes, such as they are, are simply insufficient. I’ve chosen to make graduate school a job rather than an all-consuming lifestyle choice, so I know I don’t wear the face of a proper, dedicated scientist, and I suppose I sometimes combat feeling like a fraud with anger at a culture (America,Science,Astronomy) that rewards skill and success with the expectation/requirement of working ALL the time and giving up other things that we value for ourselves. Diana, you are a professor AND a successful author. In my book that makes you a wildly successful individual, being able to maintain and cultivate multiple aspects of important self. Of course, anger usually makes me more unhappy than simply feeling like an impostor. I’m happiest when I’m simply working, and especially when I’m problem solving, when I’ve run into a roadblock BUT! being great and clever! have SOLVED it. Because I think it’s hard to feel like an impostor or a fraud if we don’t also have a major ego to be pecked at. Maybe it often hides itself in the background, but to do things that are really hard, like graduate school or writing novels, we NEED an ego to push us, and maybe to help pick us up when we’re feeling down. Remember the ways that you’re special, and let yourself revel in them a little bit.

  • My inner four year old wants to run away or fight. She sees self doubt as a dragon who has her cornered and nothing seems to kill it. That said, for the grown up in me, yoga stretches help. Deep breathing. Exercise. I want to try Tai Chi, as I understand it helps to quieten the inner demon voices of self doubt. New things to learn in 2012, maybe. For now, it’s just me and the dragon. And the dragon is winning.

  • Fraud as a writer? Heck, I’m still waiting to feel like an adult. I swear I still can’t believe it when some kid refers to me as Mister. Me? Didn’t I just finish college? Whoops, that was almost 20 years ago. Once I can come to terms with that, then I’ll get started on the writer side which is just as big a can-o-worms.

  • I generally don’t talk about it for fear of drawing attention to myself. All anyone needs to do is look at me and I’m sure they know I’m faking it as fast and hard as I can, so I try not to give them a reason to look at me and think at the same time.

  • Interesting that there are comments that put this in context of being in the education system. I wonder what the common thread is? Is it the sheer number of years spent there? How the system works i.e. the institutionalisation of education?

    Me? I dropped out of school at 14, had to eat, and I regularly doubt myself.

    I don’t think it’s one of those ‘human condition’ things, which I reckon is mostly a cop-out (but that’s another story)

    Perhaps it’s because there’s a lack of consistent communal support throughout our lives.

    Imagine if we got the kind of honest feedback and support that we get here, for example, as well as in hard time and space (as opposed to on the internet) in the rest of our lives, right from the moment we popped into this mortal coil.

    I wonder what the ‘human condition’ would be then?

    In the meantime, I meditate/think deep thoughts/ride my bicycle, whatever it takes, to disengage my sense of Self from that judgmental ‘other’, the ‘them’ that can make our lives so miserable.

    I take a moment to smile gently at my own foibles and move on – usually back to the keyboard.

  • Widdershins – I wonder if you’re right about that lack of communal support. My grad school experience was blessed with some amazing people, but even so it was an incredibly isolating, competitive, self-doubting experience. But I was like that to start with. I remember being a child who was routinely congratulated on being such a good, obedient little girl and thinking “Ah, but if you only knew what I was thinking you wouldn’t like me at all.”

    I still feel like I have successfully played the role of adult when I manage to pay the bills on time. Rudyard Kipling said that was the way boys became men -they pretended to be the men they most admired and went on pretending until they forgot that that’s what they were doing, and so on to the grave.

    A couple of you have hit on the paradox of being like this – that we simultaneously think we’re inherently lazy and feel that we only manage to succeed when we do succeed because we worked 10 times harder than others. So no matter how hard we work, or how we succeed, we’re never sure of ourselves.

    I guess that’s how I handle those feelings. I work like mad and then relish my breaks like a child who got successfully snuck out of school. And I vent to my best friend. It helps immensely to have someone say “No, no. You’re doing fine and you’re going to be alright.”

  • Di, at some point before my book came out, I decided Tor only bought it as a favor to my agent. (I’ll wait while you stop laughing.) I know it was a stupid thing, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea that I’d actually written something good enough to publish.

  • Mindy: I have a hard time picturing you uncertain. Wow. Just hearing everybody here makes me wonder if there’s anybody who doesn’t feel they are faking it.

    D.R.: I’ll have a look. Thanks!

    David: that’s what I’m doing. What makes it worse is the difficult book market right now. But we struggle onward and upward.

    Hepseba: Yes, this: “But I’ve always felt like I’m too lazy for people to take me seriously as a real scientist, and that my successes, such as they are, are simply insufficient.” That’s me right there. Part of me knows it’s crazy, and yet . . .

  • Faith: remember The Handmaid’s Tale: nolite te bastardes carborundorum That must be our motto against all the dragons. I’d like to try Yoga and/or Tai Chi. I need to make that happen.

    Stuart: *giggle* yeah, I was just thinking a couple of days ago that I must be an adult since I have kids and actually pay bills and the bank let me have a mortgage . . .

    Edmund: Uh huh. Yes. Xactly.

    Widdershins: I wish I could disconnect that way. I envy that ability. But the communal support thing–I can really see that.

    Sarah: I wonder if it has to do with the fact that we do have a secret life inside our minds that is ruled by tact, manners and a certain amount of lying. But the weird disconnect for me is this. I feel lazy, but even when I finish a book and I *know* that took work, I can’t seem to let that bit of information hook into my head and be evidence against the lazy. Instead, it’s like a ghost. If that makes sense.

    Misty: Nope, not done laughing yet . . .

  • I used to have that fear of not being up to standard. It peaked just at the end of university when I figured that everyone in the professional world just knew everything and would have gotten straight high distinctions for every bit of work. Over time, however, I have seen so much shoddy work and poor application of logic that I realise I may not be the greatest (I’m pretty sure I’m not) but if I consider myself to be somewhere around average then half the people I meet and know are less capable than myself and half are more.
    I’ve got a 50/50 chance in any encounter of being as good or better than the other person/people. So I have a go, put my 2 cents in and take the wins with the losses. No real fear because at least half the other people will look up to me even if the other half look down.
    And you have to remember that most other people are filled with self doubt. So much so that if you act with confidence, they will assume you have authority. Eventually your thoughts will follow your actions and you will be confident and have authority. Is it justified? That’s up to how you want to qualify “confidence” and “authority”. Just look at the CEOs of those big companies that lost billions during the GFC. Are they capable? I think I could have run General Motors into the ground at least as well. Where’s my millions of dollars? But they are afforded some authority aren’t they?

  • Scion: You’re right. I’m discovering how many people are lacking confidence and faking. It shocks me. I want my million too. I just wish that my faking would become real quickly. Sigh.

  • We, as writers, put ourselves – naked, alone – out there for the world to see every time we let a story or novel or poem out of our hands. We stand, bare, for all the world to see. How can we not think we’re frauds? When we stand before the mirror we see every fault; how can we possibly believe no one else sees them?
    So, too, with our writing.
    There’s nothing wrong with that feeling if we USE it. We diet and exercise. We dress ourselves, apply makeup (okay – not the guys. Maybe.), shave, comb our hair. What we can’t fix, we hide and hope no one notices. It’s the same with our writing. We edit and trim and plot and word-smith and do all we can to make it the best we’re capable of, and hope any flaws we missed are well hidden.
    Being certain we’re frauds, imposters, not good enough, ensures we try harder to fix what’s wrong.

  • Stuart made me laugh.

    Exercise definitely helps, but the feeling is temporary. I suppose accolades might wash the feeling away for a while too, but how do you ever really overcome the self-doubt? I’m not sure you can. There’s always a rung higher up on the ladder, always another person ahead of you. There’s always somebody else to make you fell inferior.

    At some point, I might just have to realize that I should be happy with what I’ve accomplished, and live with that until I do something better. Then reset the bar and maintain happiness until the bar can be reset. Even then, I’m not sure that’s much different than dealing with the problem; it might be putting it off to deal with later.