Ego, Imposter Syndrome, & Building True Confidence as a Filmmaker

Ego, Imposter Syndrome, & Building True Confidence as a Filmmaker

Quick question for you... Where do you fall on the "Confidence Spectrum?"

That question probably doesn't make much sense to you yet. So first, a little context.

As I was brainstorming topics for this season of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast, I was contemplating doing an episode on both imposter syndrome and ego, both of which are super prevalent in the world of film.

But then I had a realization. Imposter syndrome and ego are really just two sides of the same coin. They're both confidence issues that end up manifesting in different ways.

And that's when the idea of the Confidence Spectrum was born. Think of it like this...

Imagine a line. This line represents the various ways that confidence can show up in our lives. On the far left side, you've got imposter syndrome. This is a lack of confidence, where you feel like a fraud. On the far right, you've got ego, or more precisely, toxic ego, where you're overconfident and arrogant. Then, in the middle, you've got real, healthy confidence. And that's where we want to be. That's the point on the spectrum where we can thrive, do our best work, and live good fulfilling lives.

Yet it's not easy to build real confidence, and it's far too easy to end up on either extreme of the spectrum.

So that's what we're going to tackle today. First, some strategies for breaking out of both imposter syndrome and toxic ego, and for staying out of them. Then we'll talk about how to build a real unshakeable sense of confidence that helps you move towards your goals in film and life.

Now let's get into the episode, which features snippets from my conversations with Alex Ferrari from Indie Film Hustle and Zack Arnold from Optimize Yourself.

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Practical Takeaways from Today's Episode

Alright, so let's identify some of the key ways that being on either extreme of the confidence spectrum can hurt your work, your career, and your relationships.

And we'll start with imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

In a nutshell, imposter syndrome is a nagging fear that you're a fraud, or that you're unqualified and people will find out.

This is something that affects both newcomers and successful high achievers alike.

For beginners, it might show up as self talk like: "I'm not a real filmmaker." Or "I'm just not good enough to make something worth sharing."

For more experienced and successful folks, it's this feeling that you don't deserve whatever success you've achieved, that you've somehow conned your way to where you are.

Like I mentioned before, I experience imposter syndrome a lot. In fact, I'm experiencing it big time with this season of the podcast. Because I'm still actively dealing with all of these psychological issues myself, I feel like a total fraud for making content about them. And since some of these topics are heavy and deeply intertwined with the quality of our lives and the trajectory of our careers, I'm terrified that I'm going to give bad advice that doesn't help.

Not surprisingly, these feelings (mixed with some depression, which we'll talk about next episode) led to a bunch of procrastination, which is why this season took about two months longer than I had originally planned.

Anyhoo... that's enough airing of dirty laundry for now.

From what I can gather, imposter syndrome is a growing problem these days. We live in a world where we're constantly seeing everyone's highlight reels on the internet, especially social media.

And when you see enough of that stuff, it's hard not to judge yourself and your work by those artificial standards.

This can create this underlying sense that everyone else is better than you and happier than you and more successful than you.

But I think we all know at this point that most of what we see on social media is severely lacking in context at best, and total BS at worst.

Why is imposter syndrome a problem?

Imposter syndrome can show up in all sorts of negative ways in our ives.

For starters, imposter syndrome can blunt the positive feelings that come along with achieving things and reaching your goals. It can make you feel like you don't deserve whatever success you have. If you think this way long enough, it will become a belief, and once it's a belief, it will reinforce itself in your actions and you'll find yourself not achieving those higher levels of success.

Next up, imposter syndrome and perfectionism often go hand in hand. It's easy to get bogged down in the inconsequential details of a project because you're afraid people will judge you if you don't put in that extra work.

This can also show up as massive amounts of procrastination, second guessing every little decision, and being overly critical of everything.

Trust me, that's been the story of my life the last few months as I've worked on this podcast.

Last, but certainly not least, imposter syndrome can stop you from ever doing anything. You'll sit around waiting for permission to go out and do something creative. You sit around telling yourself a story about how you're not good enough. And the root of that, of course, is fear. Specifically, fear of failure.

What is ego?

When I was talking to my guests this season about it, I think my favorite analogy of it came from Alex Ferrari. Here's what he said.

Here's a great analogy for what ego is. Let's say you just sat down to a beautiful dinner with a bunch of friends, and you eat this amazing dinner and you're stuffed.

Then they bring out the dessert tray, and you know you're stuffed, but they're like, "oh do you want a piece of cheesecake?" And your ego whispers in your mind. "Go ahead. Go ahead. We'll work it off later at the gym. It's all good."

So you eat the cheesecake. Then later that night when you get home and take your clothes off, and you're looking at yourself in the mirror, that same voice goes, "You fat piece of shit."

In other words, your ego is that part of you that's never satisfied, that's overly concerned with what people think of you, and that's insanely self-critical and self flagellating.

In many ways, it's the exact same problem as imposter syndrome, but the outward behaviors are completely different. And as you'll discover later in the episode, the solutions are also a bit different as well, even though the underlying causes are fairly similar.

Why is ego a problem?

There are all sorts of ways that your ego can sabotage you, but here are a few of the big ones.

  • It leads you into situations where you're not prepared because you've overestimated your abilities. Don't get me wrong, faking it til you make it works for a lot of things in life, but in film, where there's often a lot of money on the line, and lots of people counting on you to deliver a result, overestimating your abilities can have disastrous consequences for your reputation.
  • It damages your relationships. Relationships and collaboration are at the core of filmmaking, and acting egotistically pushes people away and makes them not want to work with you. Even if you're talented, even if you're accomplished, people will stay away, they won't refer you for jobs, etc.
  • It leads to poor quality work. Here's Zack Arnold again to explain how this can happen.
  • It creates blind spots. People who are egotistical believe so highly in their competence that they often miss opportunities, they make mistakes, and they're rigid in their thinking.
  • It prevents meaningful growth from occurring. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that constant growth is one of the key ways that we can be content and fulfilled in our lives. Egotistical people close themselves off from that growth
  • For all of the reasons above, egotistical people are often deeply unhappy beneath the façade they present to society. Their relationships aren't strong, their insecurities run the show, the work they do isn't nearly as good as it could be, which leads to a feeling of not living up to one's potential. And they're not growing and becoming better. They're static, and deeply unsatisfied with life.

Ok, so that's all I've got for you in terms of living too far to one side of the confidence spectrum. Pretty depressing stuff, huh?

Don't worry though. The next half of the episode is jam-packed with solutions.

What is confidence, and how can we build it?

At its core, confidence is simply a belief about your ability to succeed. I repeat, confidence is a belief. And if you remember back to our episode on beliefs, that's not really something you can fake your way into.

At the end of the day, the only way to build and sustain empowering beliefs is to consistently take action in the real world.

In other words, I don't know of any mental tricks or hacks or secrets for helping you build real confidence. It has to stem from action.

We're going to talk more about this in a bit, but first I want to talk about specific fixes for when you're feeling imposter syndrome or dealing with toxic ego.

Because what I've found is that until you can break out of those negative states of mind, it's hard to think about building real confidence.

So let's start with imposter syndrome and how to overcome those feelings.

How can we solve imposter syndrome

First off, if you're feeling like a fraud or an imposter, it's a good thing. It means you care. It means you've got high standards for yourself and others, which, as long as they don't devolve into perfectionist behavior, is a good thing.

In the words of Steven Pressfield, “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

Next, realize that you don't need more credentials, more schooling, or anything along those lines. Many of the greatest filmmakers throughout history had fewer official credentials than you likely already do.

What you need is experience that validates that you're not an imposter, and the only way to do that is showing up and doing the work consistently. And you need to celebrate the wins and lessons you learn from that experience.

That's why my biggest recommendation is to go back to the perfectionism and turning pro episodes this season, because if you follow those prescriptions, your imposter syndrome doesn't stand a chance of holding you back.

Here's a quick recap though, if you're short on time.

First, you have to give up the "all or nothing" mindset. No single project is going to make or break your career or life. Play the long game.

Next, you have to embrace failure as part of the process of succeeding. The quicker you are to take risks, fall down, then get back up again, the quicker you'll succeed. Remember, the consequences of failure you create in your mind are far scarier than anything you'll experience in real life. But you have to go out and take those risks in order to learn that lesson.

Then, as we talked about in the turning pro episode, you must commit to showing up and doing work that makes you slightly uncomfortable every single day, no matter whether you're afraid, no matter whether you're feeling unqualified, no matter what.

The upside of this is that once you start doing these few core things, not only will the negative voices in your head start to quiet down, but you'll also be engaging in the same process required to build real, true confidence. More about that later.

So now let's shift into the land of ego and talk about some ways to recognize and overcome egotistic behavior.

How to overcome toxic ego

First, you must recognize you have an ego problem

I've dealt with ego a little bit in my own life (mostly in film school, which is ironic because I knew so little and had basically no experience during those years), and the big thing I've realized is that I never knew I was being an egotistical jackass until months or years later. I was oblivious while it was happening.

And from all the filmmakers I've worked with since then, I've noticed the same thing. Imposter syndrome is almost immediately obvious, but ego likes to live in the background, running the show from the shadows.

That's why we often need to learn how to spot egotistical behavior, so that we can diagnose ourselves and fix the problems ego might be creating in our lives without us knowing it. So here are some patterns of behavior associated with toxic egos.

  • You find yourself yearning for awards and recognition, instead of focusing on doing your best work.
  • You feel jealous of other filmmakers when they succeed and are recognized for their work. Oftentimes this is underpinned by a belief that you're more talented than they are, and that you're more deserving of the recognition they're getting.
  • You always have to be right in every situation. In other words, you close yourself off to true collaboration in the filmmaking process, and act more as a dictator than anything else.
  • You find yourself feeling superior to other filmmakers and really enjoying that feeling.
  • You find yourself feeling inferior to other filmmakers, and then using egotistical behavior to mask that inferiority. It takes quite a bit of self awareness to recognize this, but once you do, it's glaringly obvious every time it happens.
  • When meeting new people, you talk incessantly about yourself, all the while thinking that the conversation is going great.
  • When things don't go well, or a project isn't as good as you know it could be, instead of taking responsibility, you reflexively blame others.

Honestly, there are plenty more indicators of toxic ego than just these. That's why it's always good practice to keep developing your self awareness and introspection and keep examining the motivation for the things you do. But for the sake of keeping this podcast relatively short, this is a good place to start in terms of identifying whether your ego is a problem.

So if you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, chances are your ego is running the show in a way that's not helping you, and might actually be holding you back.

So now let's talk about how to overcome ego and get out of your own way.

Techniques for overcoming toxic ego

Keep in mind, these are great practices to adopt regardless of whether you struggle with egotism.

  • Have the self awareness to know your strengths and weaknesses. And always know that no matter how good, how masterful, you become at any part of the craft, there will always be someone better than you.
  • Don't compare your work and your success in life to other people. You don't know anything really about their history. Whatever you're seeing with their success, that's just the tip of the iceberg of their story. Use only one simple scorecard: Am I better today than I was yesterday?
  • Become a lifelong student. Coincidentally, the more you learn, the more you end up realizing just how little you know, which is a great ego killer.
  • Do your best to surround yourself with people who are better than you at various things. On your films, work with the absolute best people you can find (even if you feel intimidated by them). And in your life more generally, connect with and build relationships with people who have gotten great results in areas of life you'd like to improve.
  • Stop making things for yourself, and focus on the audience. When you have a purpose beyond yourself, your ego can't help but take a backseat because you're no longer the center of the universe.
  • Don't believe your own press clippings. As you make more films and get them out into the world, people will begin to talk about you. They'll tell a story that you're a talented filmmaker who does great work. If you buy into that, it'll fuel your ego. Instead, your belief, your story, needs to be that you're simply someone who does what they love, tells stories that matter, and works hard. You are not your films. You are not your press clippings. You're a human on a mission to work hard, constantly improve, make films you're proud of, and then let them go out into the world.

The art of building true confidence

Ok, we've covered a lot already, but we're not done yet.

Now we're going to dig into the process for building real, unshakeable confidence that helps you reach your goals.

If you're not feeling confident in regards to your filmmaking, it probably comes down to one of two things.

One, you've got low self esteem, which in many ways is an analogue of imposter syndrome. It's about forming an identity around not having intrinsic value and talent.

Luckily, as someone who's dealt with low self esteem his entire life, I can tell you that the steps laid out for imposter syndrome work equally well here. If you can show up consistently, doing the uncomfortable work and improving, you can build a belief in your ability to accomplish whatever you want, which in turn raises self esteem.

The other reason you might not feel confidence is that you've got big goals, but you're not confident in the specific actions you're taking. In other words, you're afraid you're wasting your time. So you get all wishy washy and procrastinate and exhibit all the symptoms of someone with

There's a very good reason this happens so much in the context of filmmaking. There are no straight lines towards success in the world of film.

Unlike doctors and lawyers and engineers, you can't go to school for a couple years, go to the next level of school, start an internship, move your way up

That's precisely why filmmakers need to build the skill of setting goals and chasing them relentlessly.

Goals, when they're done right, give you an inherent structure to live by, a structure that can create confidence as a byproduct of sticking to the process.

So how do we as filmmakers start to develop this type of goal-centric confidence when our career path is anything but certain?

Zack Arnold says it all starts with getting crystal clear on your destination first, before you take any action or do any planning. You need figure out exactly where you want to be going, because goals with a vague destination turn into vague action.

During our call, Zack asked me for an example of a goal someone in my audience sent to me. I told him about a guy who emailed me saying he wanted his next film to be acquired by A24, (the raddest distribution company of them all), and he wanted that film to win an Oscar.

I thought Zack would scoff at that and tell me to give him a smaller goal, a smaller vision. Instead, he took it and ran with it, showing how a filmmaker could generate the same level of confidence as medical students that what they're doing is keeping them on track with their goals.

"With a goal like that, you can't really say, "I'm going to be an Oscar-winning Hollywood film director by January 2nd of 2019." That's not going to work because there are so many outside forces that have to be in play for that to happen. So [a goal like that] is really setting yourself up for failure.

However, what you can do instead is you can build a system around your goals, and you can say, "If I want to direct a feature film that is going to win me an Oscar, what does that require?"

Well, it requires me researching Oscar-winning directors and learning more about their path to success. Okay. Once I've done that, I realized that on average other than some of the anomalies, most of these directors probably have about 15 to 20 years of experience. So that means I probably need to be directing for the next 15 years. Well, that's a pretty lofty goal. And that's really overwhelming.

Well, I need to direct my first film first. So what is it going to take to direct my first film? Well, I don't really have a lot of contacts yet. And I'm gonna have to find some way to meet the right producers or the right executive producers or the right distribution companies that are going to hire me to direct my first film.

Okay. Well, how do I do that? Well, what I'm going to have to do is spend 5 hours a week for the next three months compiling a database of all the possible distribution companies that I could direct a film for and then I need to network with them and I need to build a minimum of five relationships per month.

Well now I'm starting to get more confident that these little tiny actions that I'm taking every single day are going to lead me to this giant lofty goal that I have that's 15 years from now. I'm going to win my Oscar.

Well, guess what? To win your Oscar in 15 years what you need to do from 8 pm to 10 pm tonight is go online, research 10 distribution companies, and email one of them to set up a lunch. That's it. That's all it takes.

So if you break down this giant concept into these tiny little micro goals, every single one of these things you're confident that you're taking the right action, even though you know that that goal is really really far off. You don't feel like you're wasting your time."

This is a process that I've always referred to as backwards planning, and it's essential for making goals work.

Key takeaways for building confidence in your big film goals

You can be confident with whatever career path, or whatever major project you're chasing. All that's required is that you work the process.

First, define your goal as specifically as you can, know your 10,000 foot view so that you can start planning your route.

Next, work through the process of backwards planning from the place you want to be. Figure out every little thing that needs to happen for your goal to be reached, and set lots of smaller micro goals that act as road markers on your way to the bigger picture.

Last, design a daily process that slowly and surely moves you toward the next micro goal. Turn pro, show up every day. Keep learning and growing, checking in to make sure your daily actions are helping with your bigger picture goal.

And as you start moving in the right direction, taking consistent action and making real progress, your confidence will grow. And the more your confidence grows, the more likely you'll be to keep on pushing and showing up.

And if you keep on going, your big goals that might have seemed unrealistic will slowly and surely become a reality.

Further Reading & Resources

Book: Ego Is The Enemy - Ryan Holiday

This book isn't super practical, but it's full of wonderful historical examples of how our egos can undermine us, as well as counter-examples of people who overcame their strong egos. Super inspiring stuff.

Book: Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals - Heidi Grant Halvorson PhD

There are a lot of books on how to set goals. But this one is grounded in a bunch of scientific research and is super useful and practical. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Article: What’s Your 20 Mile March? - The Art of Manliness

When it comes to making consistent progress on your most important goals, this metaphor of the 20-Mile March is among the most powerful you can use. And even though this is an "Art of Manliness" article, it's the best, most thoroughly researched article about the 20-Mile March you can read without digging into the original Jim Collins book.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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