Destroying impostor syndrome as a music producer
You’re not alone
As a music producer, and as a creative person in general, I could bet a million dollars that at least once, you’ve listened to your previous projects and thought “well... this is crap! wtf am I even doing’”.
Let me tell you, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s even a name for how you feel! The term “impostor syndrome” was first coined in 1978 in Dr. Pauline Clance’s psychological research.
As artists, we can be our own worst critic. And this critic is hardly ever constructive or thoughtful. It just exists to make you feel bad about your work.
What is impostor syndrome?
It’s the feeling of being a fake, a fraud, someone who is not qualified or good enough or anything for a certain activity or not deserving of a certain accomplishment. It's feeling like you don't really have the skills needed to be a music producer (even if you do!).
Music producers who experience this are unable to accept their success and often explain their success with factors outside of their control, like luck, instead of actual ability. As a consequence of this, they expect to be exposed as frauds, or impostors, at any time. Music producers and creatives of all fields are particularly prone to developing impostor syndrome, often being a harsh critic of their own work.
Don’t confuse it with low self esteem, lack of confidence or even actual incompetence. It’s not a condition of any kind, although if it gets out of control it might lead to depression and anxiety.
The creative cycle for most producers usually goes like this:
- You make some beats
- Your ears and taste are better than your skills
- Now you hate your work
- Your skills catch up
- You like your beats
- You get better as a producer and your ear advances
- You go back to not liking your beats
- Repeat forever.
Those few stages where you don’t like your beats are were impostor syndrome thrives. Recognizing what needs to improve on the work you are working on now, and figuring out what skills you need to improve to grow in your craft are vital to the process of actually getting better at making music. However the line between recognizing what needs improvement and flat out hating what you’ve done so far is blurry and many of us can’t tell the difference at all.
But I have good news. The only difference between “impostors” and “non impostors” is just thoughts. And that is great because it means all we have to do is learn to think like a non-impostor, and break the cycle of what usually happens:
- You open your DAW
- You have no clue where to start, or maybe drop some random sounds that make no sense to you.
- You get anxious and manage this by procrastinating (avoidance) or over preparation (like watching -yet another- tutorial on a new production tool/skill/tip/whatever or trying to find the perfect free samples)
- You finish your beat and get some relief.
- You post it and get a few comments and likes, but the positive feedback is disregarded since success is not seen as a reflection of ability. It was rather related to luck or hard work, and if you needed to work that hard you can’t be that competent in the first place, right?
- The feeling of being an impostor increases, as does anxiety and possible depressive symptoms, as well as a decline in joy for the music making experience.
Not accepting this success will undermine you to take on your next challenge. By not acknowledging your success, you cannot become the artist you want to be.
Oftentimes, the impostor syndrome can express as extreme perfectionism that doesn’t allow us to do ANYTHING because nothing will be good enough, or feeling like everything else is been done and you don't have any worthy beats to put out to the world. If you’ve ever had creative block, there is a chance that the impostor crept in and blocked your ability to experiment and have fun on your DAW regardless of the outcome.
It can definetly hinder your perspective and slow down your carrer!
Depending on your personality, personal experiences and different triggers, impostor syndrome can present in different patterns. Valery Young, an expert on the subject, has identified five impostor types, that reflect music producers and people from all careers:
1. The Perfectionist
The Problem: Your high standards get in the way of your creativity and ability to collaborate. Maladaptive perfectionism prevents us from being able to cope with changing expectations and sets unattainable standards for you and everyone else.
Your beats must be perfect, no one can do it better than you and yet all you produce sucks.
A Solution: Redefine success. Achieving perfection everytime is impossible and will keep you in a dissatisfied, unpleasant state. In fact, the fear of making a mistake can create paralysis leading to procrastination.
2. The Natural Genius
The Problem: “If it doesn’t come naturally, leave it” – The most common manifestation of impostor syndrome is beatblock. Thinking that if you are not inspired you can’t get to work is the single most impactful thing you can do (or rather, not do) to hinder your carreer.
You didn't start at 1 year old and now it's too late. You can only sit to work when you are inspired with some bangers already in your head, otherwise is not worth it.
Skill, knowledge, qualification and capacity do not happen overnight. They take time and effort.
In fact, early bloomers can hit a wall and fall by the wayside mid-career. Barbra Oakley notes this in her book “How to Learn” when discussing chess prodigies. If you encounter no resistance in your early stages of learning any skill, eventually you will lack the tools to cope with them as you advance and they, inevitably, arise.
A Solution: Just as with the Perfectionist, you need to accept that making music is a process. The final performance is a product but 99% of the time you are in preparation to get there. 99% of the time you are a work in progress. 99% of the time you start a beat without “inspiration” or a clear idea in your head and eventually something great shows up with the mere act of doing.
Try and shift your mindset from perfect product to progressive process.
3. The Expert
The Problem: Starting out as a producer, one of the hardest things is to know where to start or how much information you need. Excesive reseach can hidden procrastination.
Procrastination covers for fear of failure. So not starting for not knowing enough to get started is just another way of avoiding failure.
You need to learn e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g before you can even begin to think about being succesfull.
A Solution: Fix your mindset and learn as you go. Find a self-taught role model. Many successful musicians worked it out as they went along and built their expertise through effort, trial and error.
4. Mr. or Ms. Solo
The Problem: The feeling “I have to do it all – or at least know how to do it or I am not the real deal” is very common. “Delegation is for sissies!”
We are a social species after all, and there are very few things that can be accomplished alone.
Would you have started to learn music if you had not heard a piece of music that resonated with you? Of course not. That initial influence shows us we are never alone. We are always influenced by one another.
You must do everything yourself, learn all the steps, all the skills, everything because otherwise it won't work.
A Solution: Identify the people who can complement you. Learn to collaborate. And surround yourself (wheather live or online) with people who have the skills you lack.
5. The Hero
The Problem: Trying to be the hero, being all things to all people, all the time, and doing it all at the same time won’t end well. The power of multitasking is a myth. So much research has debunked it. Do one thing at a time well and then move on when you have finished. That’s how successful producers manage multitasking.
You must do everything yourself, learn all the steps, all the skills, everything because otherwise it won't work. AND it must be all at once.
A solution: Research the career of a producer you admire. How do they manage all the things their success requires of them? How do they juggle those roles without dropping the ball?.
I know earlier I wrote that “simply think different” and that might sound simple and borderline pointless but let me explain.
I firmly believe you become what you think about, so to get over impostor syndrome is taking notice of the “impostor thoughts” so you can recognize that they are just that, and begin to see patterns and triggers for when you’re feeling like you’re a fake.
Here’s 10 things you can do to break this cycle of destructive thoughts, based on Valery Young’s TED talk on the subject and a few personal tips.
- Break the silence. Seriously, realizing almost everyone has felt like this at some point is extremely liberating. A quick google search will also show you that many producers and musicians who you admire also have a battle with impostor syndrome. This really puts things in perspective huh?
- Recognize your feelings and separate them from the facts.
- Recognize that experiments usually bring this feeling out because you’re pioneering into uncomfortable, unkown terrain. Like when you're learning a new effect or tool on your DAW.
- Accentuate the positive. Focus on what you like about your past projects.
- Develop a healthy response to failure. Remember that failures and beats that aren’t your best work are only a step in the ladder of becoming a great producer.
- Fix your rules. If you have auto imposed rules such as “a beat must sound great on the first try” or “I’ll only post when it’s perfect”, remember you’re the one who makes the rules! make new ones that serve your path better.
Rewrite the script. Become aware of your internal monologue, and realize you can change it. This is very difficult, not going to lie. But I’ll share something very personal, my special tip for beating the impostor: Develop an external character for the impostor thoughts, like it’s someone else. BUT make sure it represents someone who you don’t respect at all, and who’s opinion you wouln’t value. Then, when it creeps up on you, just tell this character to stfu.
My despicable character guy is called Gerard, he's around 55 and has had two divorces, smokes all day while he trolls on facebook. He's the one I blame when these thoughts come creeping in.
- Visualize. Pick a role model and imagine what they do, how they do it. I’m sure it’s not by beating themselves up.
- Reward yourself. Identify even the smallest victories and pat yourself on the back to build a habit of recognizing your own succes. Not accepting this success will undermine you to take on your next challenge. By not acknowledging your success, you cannot become the artist you want to be.
- “Fake it ‘till you make it”. This old saying means that you need to push past your discomfort and eventually you’ll build the confidence to stand where you want to be.
- Reframe success. Remember that even if you see someone as an “overnight success”, probably there’s a lot of failures behind that “overnight”. Everything is a build up process. And tiny steps that are part of the big picture are also wins.
So that’s it. Start implementing these techniques even with the smallest things and build from there. We have a ton of free resources to get your creative juices going and destroy beat block. Forget about what will come out, open your DAW and start playing around.