5 Steps For Faking Self-Belief

This month, for the very first time, my consultancy business paid all my bills.

The final piece fell into place while I was sipping camomile tea at 3am in Gatwick Airport (above), waiting for a flight to Barcelona. It was a weird moment – sat there half-dead from lack of sleep, ready to shut my laptop and hunt for a row of seats with no arm-rests so I could stretch out for a few hours. And – ping. E-mail confirming another potential client wanted to work with me – and my income target nailed.

And that was the first time I believed this business could work.

That’s a weird thing to say. But it’s truth. For the last 18 months, I’ve been running on a lot of hope, partly because I was doing something a little weird, and partly because it was me running it – and I knew my faults, and had my many mistakes permanently parading through the back of my mind like a carnival dedicated to suck.

From talking to and working with other digital creatives, I’ve learned this is a normal way to feel – but it’s barren ground when it comes to growing self-belief.

In my case, it seems the only thing that will convince me that my harebrained schemes will work out…is having them start to work out. So I have to attempt them in order to believe in them. Which is nuts, yes.

What the hell happened to “Believe In Your Dreams If You Want Them To Come True“?

Well, I have a theory about that. Bear with me.

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Yesterday I walked into the crypt of Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia, in search of the last resting-place of Gaudi.

It’s a strangely moving scene. Unlike the Sagrada itself, the Cripta looks like a traditional gothic church – the same columns and arches, the same (somewhat) restrained curves in the vaulted roof:

ceiling of Cripta, La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

(Compare that to the Sagrada’s nave to see how wildly un-Gaudi-like this crypt is.)

To one side, under a brilliantly-lit Virgin Mary, lies Catalunya’s most famous architect. He’s not commanding pride of place. That’s not him in the middle in that first photo up there, with all the pews facing him. He’s in a corner – a beloved, flower-draped corner, but a corner nonetheless. It’s a moving statement: this isn’t about me. I’m just the architect.

From the outside, the Sagrada is an incredible sight, huge and weird and beautiful, bewildering the eye, a shape impossible to pin down, to get a handle on. (It’s something of an illusion – strip away its most wildly creative elements and you’ll find a cruciform church complete with nave, transcept and three chapels.)

It’s also still being built, even now, long after Gaudi’s death. They’re still completing his grand plan.

Standing in the Cripta – yes, I could believe that someone said, “we can build this,” and other people believed him. It’s a formidable challenge, using skills utterly beyond my reach, but I could imagine it being done.

But the Sagrada itself? Not a chance. How could anyone turn this from a series of sketches into a church so challenging that it has taken a century to build – even a master craftsman nicknamed “God’s architect” by the Roman Catholic world? Yes, this is a church built with Faith, but it’s also the product of the belief of one man, who managed to convince enough people that it could be done. Somehow. I have no idea how.

(I imagine meetings. “So, Mr Gaudi, it’s going to take – how long? Ah yes, a century or more. That’s…quite a long time! HAHAHA, no, I’m not laughing at you, it’s…it’s a cough. And how many towers did you say? 18, was it? Why not 25, or 50? Why not infinite towers? And what will it be built of? Paella?”)

The Sagrada Familia is impossible. It’s madness. It can’t be done.

Yet there it is.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Scale this down, and everything remains impossible on a personal level.

All my most creatively accomplished friends are riddled with insecurity about their work. I won’t name names, because they’ll rapidly turn into ex-friends, but…they’re super-talented, extraordinarily tenacious, and right up to the second they achieve something, they’re convinced they can’t do it. No matter how confident they are in person, when it comes to their work, self-belief is lacking – or absent.

At first I thought this was a one-off, a trait of a neurotic few, or they were just being falsely modest. But nope. They all think they’re walking the plank. It’s such a reliable sign of creative progress that if anyone doesn’t believe they’re doomed to fail, I reckon they actually are. It’s all very confusing and I don’t pretend to understand it very well, but that’s Art for you.

So here’s what I think about belief-with-a-small-B:

1) It resides in two places: your head, and your heart. (Don’t get me started about how emotions actually have very little to do with a pump in your stomach. I know, ok? Let’s just keep going and not be scientifically up-tight about it.)

2) The belief you need to start a massive challenge will originate in your head. This belief is built with a mixture of rational logic and hopeful passion – that’s the kind of passion where you want it to come true and you’re willing to find out if it can.

But your true feelings? Your heart is yelling BULLSHIT! It knows it can’t be done. It knows it in a way that facts can’t disprove.

3) You have to ignore what your heart is telling you. Yes yes yes, deep down you know you’re doomed, you can’t actually imagine this thing working out – but you force yourself to fake it. Because that’s the smart thing to do here.

Meanwhile, your heart keeps shrieking, AAAAH, THE SKY IS FALLING! RETREAT, RETREAT!

4) Now you have to pretend to be someone who so awesomely, dynamically has their shit together that they really could make this ridiculous plan work. And a variety of things go wrong (bulletins from your heart: I TOLD YOU, I TOLD YOU) and yet you keep going, fuelled by a dream that only looks an acceptable risk on paper, when you ignore your most insecure feelings and focus on momentum and a few seemingly encouraging facts.

5) Suddenly, something starts to work, in a way you can’t ignore. And faced with this evidence, your heart celebrates along with the rest of you (and starts coming up with some wild ideas, which you should probably write down) – but then after a while it says, Well….well, okay then. I guess that happened. But hey, get real. It’s a FLUKE! Nice lottery win, but wise up. Cut your losses and run. RUN. NOW! FLY, YOU FOOL!

And so the cycle continues.

I think that’s how it works for pretty much everyone.

So, it’s early days for my storytelling business plans. A few of them are paying my bills, and paid for a short break in Barcelona. I’m having fun, and I have faith in what comes next – everything on my planners, in my notebooks and inside my head.

And if I feel like a total and utter fraud right now, minutes away from being “found out” and carted away to the local job-centre – well, I’m taking it as a good sign.

Images: Mike Sowden.
  • Fantastic and inspiring read. If I’m ever having doubts I’ll just think of Gaudi.

  • bethkujawski

    Yes, yes, yes. A hundred-eleventymillion times to the 10th power yes. This. This. This. Bless your heart, Mike.

  • Pam Mandel

    I also think there are external things telling us it can’t work as well. Some of them are interpretation — THAT guy’s successful but he did XYZ and no way I’m doing that. And some of them are actual critics, seemingly well meaning people will critique you, uninvited, undermining your confidence. We’re also hammered with a very consumerist definition of success almost daily, and if we don’t have that STUFF, then we can’t possibly be, you know, MAKING IT.

    But you know what? I’d much rather be surrounded by imposter syndrome folks than those who are convinced they have nothing to learn and are already All That. Genuine creatives are on a constant struggle to improve their output. And they’re constantly questioning their own work. The result of that lack of confidence in what they’re doing is that, oh, HEY! LOOK! THEY GET BETTER. There’s a very real upside to all that insecurity and it shows in the work.

    Also, guilty as charged. Big time.

  • Tasha Hacker

    This is amazing and so very true. The insecurities – augh! They make you doubt but they also make you work harder to be good, I think. Because you always believe someone else out there is doing it better. And that church, man. That place blows the mind, doesn’t it?!