Fake It Til You Make It

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Valerie Young is the author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.  Among her lessons for (mostly) women who suffer from Impostor Syndrome is “learn to fake it.”

Young spends considerable time on the subject of why men suffer less often and less deeply from feeling like impostors. One skill men develop early, she writes, is the ability to – well – let’s call it a business-like pseudonym: “Bluffing Strategically,” or B.S.

For her purposes, Young defines B.S. as “giving the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.” Men start the behavior early as they play games. “Boys grow up learning how to exaggerate. More happened in the backseat of the car with the girl than really did. The fish was “this big.” When you grow up playing sports, you learn that bluffing and exaggerating are part of the game. You learn to fake a pass, to fool the other team by changing up your play, and to use bravado to psych out your opponent and “get inside his head.”

Girls don’t have an equivalent to this behavior, Young writes. In fact, they’ll renegotiate the rules if one player struggles in a game – they value relationships over rules. Boys almost never change the rules  – weaker players just have to learn to keep up. In my experience, that’s why boys learn to bluff early – you’ll never get invited to play with the bigger, better athletes if you doubt your ability. Bluff your way in and hope you get lucky. Meanwhile, you learn and improve by mixing it up with guys who are better than you.

Girls, on the other hand, tend to watch wistfully from the sidelines, thinking “I wish I could do that.”

Young writes, “Even in the animal kingdom, survival of the fittest often means that the male of the species has to appear bigger than he really is. “Display behavior,” as it is known, is used to attract females and ward off rival males. Two-legged males also recognize the value of such behavior.”

She says that the whole B.S. phenomenon became clear to her while watching Ted Koppel one night.

A guest asked him: ““Do you ever feel you don’t know enough about a subject to ask the tough questions?” Koppel’s answer forever changed how I looked at the world. He said: “No. When I can, I’d rather go into a program knowing as much as possible about the subject, but I don’t consider it a handicap [when] I know next to nothing.”

But, Young writes, it was the next sentence that changed her feeling about the subject forever. “I figure I can] pick up enough information in a short period of time to be able to b****hit my way with the best of them.” Unapologetic. I’ll fake it if I have to.  Sure, I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am, and it’s pretty great that I can pull it off!

Most women, Young says, tend to recoil from that attitude. It feels dishonest, inauthentic.  So, she challenges us:

“Okay, then what are some ways of describing what Koppel meant that you would feel more comfortable with? What about winging it … holding your own … rolling with the conversation … being in the moment … trusting your instincts … improvising? What you call it doesn’t matter. What is important is recognizing that there are times in life when you have to be able to fly by the seat of your pants—and that this kind of going with the flow can be very freeing.”

She encourages women to act as if they were the capable, talented, deserving woman everyone seems to think they are. Say yes first, get in there and try it. You might get lucky. Or you might be really good. You’ll never know unless you try.

How do you feel about faking it ‘til you make it? Leave a comment and let me know.

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