Kamal Sinclair: Impostor Syndrome, Anyone? Oh, Everyone?

New Frontier at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. © Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

Kamal Sinclair

A few months ago, I was standing in the middle of the New Frontier exhibition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with people swirling around me, clamoring to get into the virtual worlds our storytellers had created inside the various headsets offered in the space. The artists and technologists curated by Shari Frilot (co-director and curator, New Frontier) for this exhibition are some of the most exciting innovators of our time with intimate knowledge of the software and hardware that will shape our lives in ways we can hardly imagine today.

I was giving tours of the space from the moment the doors opened, until the moment they shut to artists, curators and producers; technology, gaming, and film executives; venture capitalists, major foundation and non-profits heads; even Ferguson activists…repeating my self-authored talking points over and over again.

Standing in the eye of that hurricane of excitement about the future of film, gaming, and technology, I thought: “What the heck am I doing here? I’m a freakin’ dancer!” and laughed out loud. Of course, there are many good reasons why I was there, not least of which is the fact that I have an eclectic background that includes practice in multiple creative disciplines, expertise in various fields of knowledge, and experience in experimental processes. But I share this moment of doubt to highlight a very common feeling that people have when stepping out of their comfort zone to do something new or inventive—impostor syndrome.

Back in the fall, I was invited to participate in a convening by MIT’s Open Documentary Lab about the future of journalism and documentary. As I walked through the famed Media Lab with a group of the world’s leading journalists, technologists, and researchers, I mentioned how humbled I was to be with a group of geniuses in a building that housed nothing but geniuses. MIT researcher Sean Flynn said, “Welcome to the club. One of the most common emotions people have when they first come to MIT is impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome! He gave me language to describe an emotion I had battled many times in my career.

I’m explicitly writing about this syndrome to encourage storytellers to overcome this kind of doubt, so they are not intimidated from jumping into the innovation sandbox—to play, fail, explore, succeed and contribute the thing that only they can contribute. Especially if you are a woman, person of color, or a member of other under-represented groups!

It has been confirmed by study after study that the majority of people working in film, gaming, and technology are predominantly white and male. This was never clearer to me than September 2014, when I walked into the ballroom of the Loews Hotel in Hollywood for the Oculus Connect developers’ conference. I was wearing ethnic looking pants, black knee high leather boots, a black top, with my big curly hair expanding on my head (as it fought against the gel). I was stopped in my tracks when I walked in the room to find a sea of white men (almost wearing the same button down shirt and pants). I felt so out of place that I almost snuck away to the Starbuck’s next door to hide out until it was time for the panel I was moderating on 360-degree filmmaking.

But I battled my discomfort and told myself, “I’m supposed to be here, in fact, it’s critical that I be here or representation of the various groups I embody will be absent.” So I stayed, walked up to random people and introduced myself and found them very welcoming. The men I spoke with were actually excited to learn about my perspective on the emergence of VR.

Even Werner Herzog attended my panel and invited me, along with a few filmmakers, to his suite for a conversation about the possibilities and promises of this new medium for story. It was an amazing experience. The kinetic energy and excitement among the 1,000 conference participants was almost tangible. I kept thinking, this is what it must have felt like to be in the room when Steve Jobs first introduced the Apple II, or even later when he revealed the iPod. It truly felt historic.

On a side note, I must say, I was super relieved to bump into Ikrima Elhassan at the buffet table, wearing flip flops, shorts, a t-shirt and 1980s headband over his locks. I thought, this dude is one of the leading creative technologists in the room and feels 100% comfortable looking and being very different from everyone else.

I was also super excited to see the EleVR ladies and Ryan Pulliam, the female CMO of Specular Theory, and enjoyed sharing a laugh about the fact that the line to the men’s restrooms was going out the door and down the hall, while ours was completely empty. But I also want to acknowledge that most the white men at the conference probably felt impostor syndrome too—we’re all vulnerable when trying something new.

Okay, this may have been a little “TMI” and a bit preachy, but I’m feeling pretty passionate these days about wanting to see a diverse array of storytellers be part of these early days of defining new mediums, in terms of demographics, but also in terms of diversity of thought. This is an amazing time to be a storyteller. Storytellers actually get to shape the form of interactive media, digital literature, virtual reality, augmented reality, story enabled by bio-responsive technology, connected immersion (i.e. Internet-of-Things).

They get to shape the future of film, gaming, literature, journalism, theater, music, art and dance. We need diverse insights to expose the current blind spots; challenge assumptions and insert tensions that may just save us from extremes in any one direction; to insure human-centered thinking, to give us a chance at using these tools in just ways; all while dreaming up things others would never have imagined.

Now, there are other factors besides impostor syndrome that make the barrier to entry high for those wanting to enter certain areas of the innovation space, such as money, access and exposure. Factors that Sundance Institute is working diligently to lower for independent artists of all backgrounds. But, no matter who you are, if you are a storyteller, don’t let impostor syndrome be one of the factors that keeps you out of this exciting time of innovation.

One final note: I use the term storyteller for easy communication, but I acknowledge that in some story designs the artist doesn’t “tell” a story, as much as make a storyworld for the audience to discover story or establish a process for participants to co-create story.

Kamal Sinclair is the co-director of New Frontier at Sundance Institute, which supports artists working at the convergence of film, art, media and technology. New Frontier offers programing at the Sundance Film Festival; an annual immersive Story Lab; year-round alumni support; artist residencies; and day labs. Prior to Sundance Institute, she was an artist and producer on the art project Question Bridge: Black Males, which exhibited at over 30 prestigious museums and festivals.

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