Three Successful Artists on How They've Struggled with–and Leveraged–Self-Doubt

John Steinbeck, one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, once wrote in a journal entry, “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” He’s not the only successful creative to feel that way. Self-doubt or lack of confidence–sometimes called imposter syndrome–is something we can all relate to.

But dealing with self-doubt in a way that doesn’t derail your creative process takes practice. We spoke to three visual artists about their experiences with these negative feelings and–more importantly–how they use these emotions in a productive way to reconnect with their confidence and passion. 

Jocelyn Tsaih, Illustrator

How have you experienced self-doubt in your career? 

To me, one aspect of self-doubt comes from questioning the value I bring as an artist. Sometimes I’ll draw something and post it and I start wondering whether the world really needed that image. It’s like, “Does it even make a difference that I made this? Is this thing that I made impactful in any way at all?” Being an artist isn’t like being a doctor. We’re not saving lives! 

I also experience the feeling of not being “enough” sometimes–good enough, creative enough, doing enough. It comes in waves but I think it’s especially easy to get sucked into this mindset with the presence of social media and constantly seeing what everyone else is up to. 

Have you ever let doubt get the better of you?

I’ve had moments where my doubt turns into extreme frustration. When I was preparing for a show a few years back, I was stressed out and feeling like the things I made weren’t good enough. One night I was making these little sculpey figures and I was having a hard time making them the way I had envisioned, so out of frustration I threw them against the wall. Looking back it seems so silly, but I remember that feeling so well.

Do you think doubt can be productive for you? 

Yeah! I think self-doubt helps me push myself to make better work or to think about it in different ways. I hate the feeling of being stagnant and self-doubt is necessary for me to avoid that feeling. I think it’s important to question the intentions, motivations, and emotions behind my work.

Jordan Sondler, Illustrator

What’s your definition of self-doubt and what kind of experiences have you had with the feeling in your career? 

I think of it as letting my nerves getting the best of me. If I think back to something I did last week or two months ago that I felt proud of, the only difference is that I just kept going and did the thing and didn’t let myself get in my own way. 

I’ve been trying to be better about letting compliments and positive feedback sink in. It’s my nature to awkwardly shrug something like that off or just say “No you are!” and I don’t think that is what anyone wants to hear when they put themselves out there to validate you. Listen to people when they tell you that you have an impact or a talent, and try to believe it. 

Has anyone ever given you particularly helpful advice when it comes to feeling inadequate or comparing yourself to others?

I can’t pinpoint where I first heard this, but knowing that someone else’s success has no bearing on my own has been really important. IOnce I started to [believe that] my confidence shifted greatly. My peers feel less like “competition” and more like friends to cheer on who can relate to what I’m going through. I get excited to see friends achieving things that I wouldn't have ever thought of. It's motivation to put my head down and work, and I like that I can genuinely celebrate their success.

Did going to art school help you develop a sense of creative self, or is that something you had to learn independently?

Going to art school taught me that I was a creative! I didn’t even know what that meant. I grew up feeling kind of worthless. Creativity wasn’t really celebrated in my community. Art school was definitely a rollercoaster of self discovery and self acceptance. I wasn’t confident of my abilities as an artist until my last year in school, but most importantly I finally had some real insight into my self worth.

You're putting out a book soon, which can be a very solo endeavor. Did you struggle with self-doubt at all in the process? 

Oh yeah I’d say for the entirety of it! Working on the book felt very isolating—I couldn’t share what I was working on, I didn’t have time to go out with friends, and I created all the content by myself. 

Once I threw myself into the project...I started to ramp up my confidence...and everything flowed out. Eight months later and we are almost done! 

Do you believe that doubt can be helpful to one’s art? 

For sure, it keeps you humble, and it keeps things interesting. And when someone you admire takes the opportunity to build you up and help you see your success or potential, it just makes you want to pay it forward and help others in the same way.

Jordan Russo, Photographer

What have you learned from self-doubt throughout your career?

Imposter syndrome has been a constant for me. It took me so long to feel comfortable even calling myself a photographer because for years I wasn't getting paid to do it, even though I was constantly taking and editing photos! That's like a person who runs several miles a day saying they aren't a runner. I think capitalism can make it hard to separate our identity from whatever pays the bills, and so it's easy to feel like an imposter when you're pursuing a craft that doesn't sustain you financially (or at least not yet!). 

Was there an aha moment that led you to leave your day job and pursue photography as your career?

There wasn't one specific moment, really. Eventually my passion for photography just became stronger than my self-doubt as an artist.

You are largely self-taught, does that ever contribute to feelings of doubt? 

Absolutely. That has caused me to feel like a fraud often. I hope to someday conquer that feeling, but truthfully the most I've been able to do is learn to keep it in check. When those feelings come up, I make a conscious effort to remind myself of how all I've managed to do without formal training or "fancy" equipment is actually a testament to my abilities, and an accomplishment in its own right.

I also appreciate successful artists who are willing to be transparent about their lack of formal training. It's a good reminder that you don't need those things in order to create. Devin Allen is a great example. He's self-taught and very open about it, and his work has been in the Smithsonian and the cover of Time Magazine.

Did having doubt force you to create in a more rigorous way?

Absolutely. My self-doubt has made me extremely critical of my own work, and while that can certainly feel paralyzing at times, I think it has driven me to work harder at pursuing and perfecting my craft. I'm never fully satisfied with the work I create, but that is why I am constantly experimenting with new ways of doing things. 

Do you have any advice to offer others?

Give yourself permission to fail. It's a lot easier said than done, but without constant trial and error I would have never developed as an artist. I think it's easy to feel like you're the only one making mistakes, especially with social media. I try to remind myself that people share their best work online, not their only work. 


Cover image by Skillshare student Franziska B. for Temi Coker’s Skillshare Originals class, Digital Poster Design: Combining Images & Type for Powerful Visuals.