This is a guest article written by Ariel Gross, Audio Director of game development studio Volition Inc, which produces such PC and console titles as the Saint’s Row and Red Faction series. You can view Ariel’s introduction post here.
I Feel Like a Fraud and So Can You!
Every now and then I feel like a fraud. Every now and then I feel like I’m merely masquerading as a professional. Every now then I feel a little bit terrified, and then I see the look in your eyes. Wait, wait. Sorry. That last one was from a Bonnie Tyler song. But here’s the thing. The more I open up about this feeling to others, the more I realize that lots of other people feel this way, and it can be really comforting to know that we’re not alone. And actually, it might just be okay that we feel like frauds. Good, even!
How is it “okay” to be a fraud?
Well, hold your horses there, header. I never said that I am a fraud. I said that I feel like a fraud, and there’s a big difference. I’ve never claimed credit for something that I didn’t actually do. That would make me an actual fraud. If I have done that, it would have been unintentionally, and I would be mortified to find out. I would shout from the tallest mountain that there was an error.
It’s more like a sense of disbelief that I occasionally accomplish things that are actual things. To be clear, actual things are what I’ve always endeavored to do, and I believe that anyone that sets out to do actual things will likely become more capable of doing an actual thing. And that is just fine… for other people.
The problem is that I have this extremely personal perspective of myself. I have experienced every moment right there next to myself, including that time when I was trying to be really quiet in the dead of the night and I stepped in a trash can, fell over, and pulled a television down with me. I know me too well to take myself very seriously, and it can be disorienting to discover that others are taking me, or my work, even remotely seriously. It can make me feel a little dizzy when someone looks to me for answers. Me, the guy who accidentally spits out his gum into his lap while trying to make a point way more often than anyone I’ve ever known. More often than humanly possible.
What made you even think about this?
Perhaps a more relevant question would be, why do I always seem to write headers in my blogs as if I’m interviewing myself? I think if we dug a little deeper there, we may expose some truly dark and suspicious aspects of my personality.
But since you asked! The feeling came on really strong at GDC 2012. I had given a presentation about a few lessons that I’d learned while working in voice on Saints Row: The Third. What baffled me was that people, actual people, wanted to talk to me afterwards. They had listened to what I said in my speech and had questions. A couple of them even had questions about other stuff because they had read my blogs or because they were fans of a game I worked on. This can be perplexing for a guy who was present to witness the time that I chipped my front tooth on a beer glass at my bachelor party at Magic Mountain. Why the hell would anyone want to pick this ridiculous brain?
The problem is that I know I’m just some doofus that still puts my shirt on backwards and won’t notice until halfway through the work day. So, when people look to me for answers or guidance, even though I bask in every moment of it, I sometimes feel weird and guilty. I feel like I’m hiding the fact that I’m just some schmuck that unintentionally farts when I laugh really hard. But you see, other people don’t know these things. They don’t see me how I see myself.
It sounds like you just have a low self-esteem.
I actually don’t think it’s that, Dr. Header, Psy.D. I am okay with myself. I’d even go as far as to say that I like me. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that I’m a klutz. Also, I fish for compliments at a break-neck pace and, by and large, people seem willing to feed my ego with nods and eye-rolls. I’ll get my ego filled by brute force if I have to. I will threaten to kill someone if they don’t laugh at my jokes, etc.
I’ve also applied myself to the things that I love, and work is one of those things that I love. I think that people deserve what they earn, and that applies to me, too. I’m really not the self-loathing type, and I don’t think that’s where this comes from. Generally speaking, my opinion of myself isn’t poor.
Are you done?
Right, sorry. Geez!
I think it’s important to say all of these things because I think some people may start feeling like we have something in common. I know there are people that feel the same way I do, and feeling this way can destroy you if you’re not careful. It’s a fine line between feeling like a fraud and believing that you’re a fraud. If you believe that you’re a fraud, and you’re actually not, then who knows what kinds of screwed up stuff could happen?
I’ve started talking about this out loud. I’ve confessed to a pretty wide assortment of peers that sometimes I feel like a fraud. Because, really, I’m just some dude with spinach in his teeth. Not everyone identifies with me, but many people do. And for those that feel the same way, after we mutually feed our egos and validate each other profusely, it seems like we will both feel a sense of relief that we’re not the only ones.
Then we start building little soapboxes to regale the benefits of feeling like a fraud. We say things like, if we don’t feel like frauds, then our egos will spin out of control and we’ll be hated by everyone! And, people who don’t feel like frauds are actually frauds, because they’re all just normal people failing their way through their lives just like us, but they pretend like they’re not!
I also listen to what is said by people who don’t feel like frauds. They make some interesting points, those others. They say things like, we’ve worked together and I don’t think you should feel like a fraud. And, you have a strange definition of fraud that includes people that aren’t frauds i.e. yourself. And, who are you calling a fraud? (Because they think everything is about them, those egomaniacs.) I’m just kidding about that last one. No one has ever responded like that.
So, two things. First, I’m not alone in feeling this way. Second, most people don’t actually think I’m a fraud. Those are both really nice things to know.
Why don’t you glorify feelings of fraudulence some more?
I was about to do just that. But you make it sound bad.
When I think about my career, I can’t help but occasionally wonder if these feelings might actually be helping me.
It’s about being honest with myself. When I’m being honest with myself, I don’t fall as hard. It’s not as much of a shock when someone tells me that my great new idea is actually pretty dumb, because what idea could really be that great coming from the guy that drinks from the beer bottle that’s being used as an ashtray after grabbing the wrong one from the top of the urinal at a wedding service? And when people respond positively to something that I do, it’s a very pleasant surprise.
Also, feeling like a fraud has an effect of forced humility. I am an eye witness to all of the stupid things that I do, and therefore imagining myself as something to be taken seriously would be like taking a clown that doesn’t eat people seriously. In my experience, humility has been an important part of forming real, lasting relationships with people, especially in a workplace where there are power structures. People feel more comfortable around people who realize that they’re just people.
What else? I know you. There’s more.
There is more, and you do know me, header. You are me.
Furthermore! People idolize other people. It happens all the time, and it happens in the game industry, too. I’ve been there myself. I’ll go to an industry event and look at how some of these vets carry themselves. They’re wearing nice clothes and light is glinting off their smiles… It can be hard to remember that they may have chili stains on their underwear and that their teeth wouldn’t be shiny if they didn’t have a mouth full of toothpaste earlier that day.
They are just people, too. I have met a lot of really talented people in this industry, some with killer reputations that have worked on amazing projects. And you know what? Often they are just as perplexed as I am when someone thinks that they know something. Most of the time they have failed their way to whatever measures of success they have achieved, just like the rest of us normal human beings.
Is there a point to all of this?
Regardless of what stage of your career you are at, whether you’re fresh out of school or you’re an established veteran, it’s completely possible that you will feel like a fraud. You are not the only one. Also, if you are taking credit for only your contributions and you are applying yourself to your efforts without pretense, then you are not a fraud. But reading that probably won’t stop you from feeling that way. So, know that it’s not abnormal to feel it, but just don’t start believing it.