Impostor Syndrome and the Director

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In one of the comments to my recent post on becoming a director, Lynne alluded to that sense of 'not feeling like a proper director'. I am sure lots of other people will sympathise with her - either feeling like that now, or having felt like that in the past - and I thought it was worth spending a little time to reflect on that experience, why it happens, and what we can do about it.

The feeling that you're in a position that is not entirely deserved, that you are winging it by the seat of your pants, and the fear that you will be found out has a name. It is called 'Impostor Syndrome', and it is quite well documented in all kinds of professional scenarios. It helps, I feel, simply to know this is normal.

And it is a feeling that can occur in any situation that represents a significant challenge. Whenever we take on a new role, there are elements that we can do from prior experience, and there are elements that we need to learn on the job. Often, we can't even identify some of the latter until we get into it. So, it can happen to any of us at many points in our lives.

I am interested in, though, in why it afflicts us in some circumstances more than others, and some people more than others. I think this is to do with the narratives we carry with us as undertake new challenges. Do we self-identify as 'talented'? Do we frame the moment of stepping into the new role as the culmination of process, or as a sudden elevation to a level we're not ready for?

There are two variables I would like to consider in particular: the conductor's identity, and gender.

It strikes me that the role of the conductor is particularly hedged around with mythologies of genius and charisma. The cultural stereotype casts conductors as special people, set apart from ordinary humanity, with special powers not vouchsafed to ordinary mortals. Even conducting manuals that are intended to offer practical guidance on the craft will say, well I can teach you the stick technique, but I can't teach you the spark.

This represents a significant barrier to entry for pretty much everyone. After all, most human beings are normal mortals. So, we either need some kind of narrative push that allows us to assume the mantle of this identity (in my case being told on my first attempt, 'She's a natural,' - which in retrospect I contest as a concept, but was helpful and empowering at the time), or we go around with this dread in our heart that we are an impostor.

And I do think the Maestro Myth does exacerbate the situation beyond the normal 'new challenge' issues. I compare it with my first stand-up comedy gig, where I turned up ready to feel like an impostor, and was greeted by someone who said, 'Are you an act?' Having admitted I was, I felt an instant inclusion into the club. All it took to be accepted as a legitimate performer was to turn up and do it. Of course, there are significant hierarchies of experience and success within that club (and I am still fairly low in the food chain, if into the Improvers rather than Beginners class now), but there was no question about the entitlement to the label.

The other question is gender. Impostor Syndrome was first documented among women, but of course men experience it too. But, and I'm going to stick my neck out here, I would contend that women are encouraged to feel it more because we spend more of our youth being condescended to.

Not just our youth, I regret to report, but the levels of condescension do moderate over time as (a) you acquire a level of professional status that (mostly) inhibits more junior males talking down to you, and (b) you get more adept at finding strategies to get them to stop it. Again, it has been interesting to start at the bottom of the ladder in a new arena and rediscover the joys of being patronised, but now often by men much younger than me. Juniority is a matter of contextual status, not age.

Now, I can hear the howls from my male readers. I know, I know. There are lots of men who don't go around mansplaining things all the time, and I honour the example you set. And I am sure you occasionally get condescended to as well. And you don't like it, do you? It makes you feel miserable: if you take it to heart, you lose confidence; if you recognise that it is unwarranted, you feel undermined and excluded. This, alas, is still part of the regular fabric of the female condition.

And when people are forever questioning your judgement, qualifications and competence, it doesn't exactly help you overcome your own, realistic, assessment of the skills and experience gap you face taking on a new role. The natural, normal level of impostor syndrome that anyone might feel taking a leap into the unknown is amplified when your social environment also questions your capacities on completely irrelevant grounds such as gender (or indeed race or sexuality or anything else that is immaterial when it comes to musicianship).

So, what do we do? Well, just knowing that these dynamics exist can help override their effects. Our hearts may feel daunted, but our heads can say, 'No, this is normal, it's just new; do it a few times, and it will be fine.' If - to go back to the scenario that started this discussion - you are the director because there was nobody else to do it, that makes you the director. There is no measure of 'proper' better than the fact that you are doing it, and thereby allowing a choir to continue that otherwise could not. You are infinitely more a director than someone who is not doing it.

Sure, there will be things you need to get better at, but that is always going to be the case. If being a 'proper' director required a complete set of skills with no room for improvement, nobody will ever be one. If you are doing the job, you have earned the job title.

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