Every filmmaker I know wrestles with self doubt or imposter syndrome. It’s a natural, but frustrating part of the process.
In some ways, doubt can actually be helpful – especially on a micro level.
Imagine never second guessing your creative choices. Your work would be filled with problem areas that could have been fixed if you cared enough to scrutinize it.
But on a macro level, self doubt is incredibly harmful.
In my estimation it’s the single biggest factor that leads filmmakers to call it quits on their career.
This topic often comes up with filmmakers during discussions in person or on Twitter (@noamkroll), so I thought I would write a dedicated piece on it here today.
Let me start with some good news: I genuinely believe self doubt is something you can keep at bay. But it doesn’t happen without your active participation.
With that in mind, below are 5 principles that I believe can help you beat self doubt over the long term.
1. Stop telling people you want to make a film
The single best way to build your confidence as a director is to consistently make films, and witness your skills develop in front of you.
But so often filmmakers talk themselves out of making new work, and never give themselves the chance to see what they are capable of.
And it always seems to be on the heels of a conversation with a friend / blocked creative person who plants seeds of doubt.
Unfortunately, this is all too common when sharing your ideas too early on with the wrong people. Their insecurities become yours, and subconsciously you begin to doubt your project too.
These doubts grow so big over time that you might just pull the plug on the project, no longer having the enthusiasm you once did.
A better option would be to tell no one (outside of your team) until it’s done. The finished product will give you all the validation you need.
You reach that finish line by taking action, not by convincing people who aren’t involved with your project that it is worthy of their attention.
2. Stop giving yourself “5 years to make it” scenarios
I always hear filmmakers, actors, or other creatives say something along the lines of:
“I’ve given myself 5 years break into the industry, otherwise I’m going back to my day job…”
Personally, I think this line of thinking sets you up for failure, and creates a ton of self doubt along the way.
By setting a deadline for “making it” (whatever that means), you have no choice but to think about your career from a success/failure perspective at all times. And that only intensifies as the years pass and you inch closer toward that looming deadline.
With each year you feel more desperate to make your mark, but that only leads to worse (and shorter term) decision making.
This of course only makes you doubt yourself even more, since you’ve set the bar so impossibly high that no one could ever reach it.
So remember to avoid giving yourself ultimatums that are antithetical to the creative process. They will only increase your self doubt.
3. Stop believing failure is a bad thing
Great filmmakers understand that failure is a natural part of the creative process. Amateur filmmakers think it’s a death sentence, and something they can avoid if they are careful enough.
This distinction in mindset is what makes all the difference.
Even for the most talented filmmaker out there – failure exists. Festivals reject films. Financiers say no to investment proposals. Reviewers tear apart a finished work, and so on.
But when you’re first starting out, you don’t know how normal (and even important) it is to fail. Everything just feels catastrophic.
It may even seem like everyone is getting ahead but you. But in reality, those who are getting ahead aren’t always any better or more talented than you. They’ve just developed a thick enough skin to keep going in the face of “failure”, rather than turning setbacks into more self doubt.
4. Stop being upset with your critics
No matter what you do as a filmmaker, someone will criticize you for it.
And I’m not talking about professional film criticism here, which has a unique value. I’m talking about your uncle or friend or neighbor who hears about your micro-budget film and rolls their eyes.
The reality is, a huge amount of people are walking around on this earth as blocked creatives. When they see a filmmaker like you going out on a limb to create art, it triggers their own insecurities surrounding their unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.
When they discourage you or diminish your work, it’s never really about you. It’s about them trying to reinforce their own decision not to explore their own creativity. And by tearing you down, they feel justified in the decisions they’ve made – that probably keep them up at night.
Unfortunately these type of interactions can lead to genuine self-doubt in filmmakers. But if you understand where they originate, they’re a hell of a lot less powerful.
5. Stop ignoring your progress
Film projects can take years to complete, which makes it very difficult to see all of the progress you are making as a filmmaker.
You may very well become a far better director/DP/editor/writer over the course of making a feature film, but be completely unaware of it. Largely because filmmaking skill is not something that can be objectively measured – and this creates a major challenge.
If you don’t know that you’re getting better something, why would you continue?
One of the reasons I love playing guitar is that I can easily measure my progress. I’m motivated to play every day, since I can objectively measure the increases in my speed and accuracy. Even if I improve .01% a day, I can sense it.
This leaves me with zero self doubt that I can play anything I choose if I just give myself enough time to learn it.
Filmmaking is much harder to quantify than guitar, but it can still be measured qualitatively.
For instance, making a series of 1 minute short films is a fast way to prove to yourself that you’re growing, as film #10 will inevitably be stronger than film #1.
However you do it, find a way to measure your progress.
So long as you believe you are improving and moving in the right direction, the self doubt tends to melt away.