Imposter Syndrome 1/3

Who’s the Imposter? (1/3)


My first job after university was rather unexpected for someone who had recently completed a master’s degree in Contemporary Writing; having tried to set up an arts centre in my then home city of Sheffield and having lost the limited amount of money I had in the process; I became a Labour Market Analyst.  I remember throwing up in the toilets before the interview, afraid that if I didn’t get the role, I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent and would soon run out of options.

I can say with complete certainty that when I started that job, I was an imposter. During the first week I sat with a number of other new starters undertaking time management training. “What is time?” we were asked. My arm shot up, “A linear imposition on reality.” If everyone hadn’t already known I was out of place, they certainly did now.

However unlikely my presence was, working in a former mining and steel town in the mid-nineties was an education for me, which also brought the immense benefit of access to millions of pounds of European funding. I watched with envy as colleagues worked on large-scale projects designed to support local regeneration. After a few months I was invited to join a new project team and gleefully asked what the formula for the project funding was? My colleagues looked at me blankly and shrugged, “Just make it up.” Seeing my face fall they laughed, “just break each element down into its component parts and figure it out – there’s no formula,” they said.

My respect for authority was such that this honest response and workmanlike advice was shocking to me at the time, but it was also a lifeline when a few years later I took up the role of Director of Development at the Natural History Museum, leading the £70m campaign to build the Darwin Centre. As I contemplated the reality of the challenge, I recognised that fear in my belly and couldn’t help but wonder how I would ever sleep again? Breaking the problem down to its component parts was not only the answer to a problem that it took five years to solve, but it also gave me many of the elements that underpin much of our work at Achates today.

Today I hear more people than ever confessing to ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and whilst it certainly isn’t a condition that is exclusive to women, or individuals with protected characteristics, it is disproportionately the case. Yet, despite the evident pervasiveness of this condition, why so many people working in culture feel this way is hardly discussed. This is the first of three short pieces in which I want to try and examine this issue and work out what we can do about it.

In this first piece I want to argue that Imposter Syndrome is particularly pronounced in the cultural sector because of the unresolved tensions around power which pervade it. If we were to create a chart mapping socio-economic characteristics and the jobs individuals have gone on to hold, it is fairly clear that these positions and the choices that inform them would have as much to do with socio-economic context as they would length of service and experience. While the historical imbalances that are inherent within the cultural sector remain, so will Imposter Syndrome and all of the limitations this brings to the sector’s richness and development.


Caroline McCormick

Director, Achates