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How to become a great impostor (theconversation.com)
169 points by onemind 60 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

I've heard it said that the art of being a great consultant is knowing which book to read just before a meeting with the client

The manual...

An old engineering manager (mechanical not software) I used to work with always used to say "a consultant is someone 4 pages ahead in the manual".

This reminds me of a classroom debate from school:

If you, the day before a major surgery, saw your doctor reading through a medical textbook on the topic of your surgery, would you be more or less confident in their abilities?

Some said they wouldn’t trust the doctor, as they held some notion that the doctor should just know these by virtue of their being a doctor. That if they don’t it is a sign of their ill preparedness and lack of ability.

Others had no such issues, that it is legitimate and good that a doctor would be adequately preparing for the surgery by studying.

If you think of things more towards the former, and you end up as a “last minute, read a book” type, as I tend to be, you might wind up feeling like an imposter.

Or you might think that a doctor who does a surgery like this every day, has done so for years, and for whom brushing up would thus be redundant is the doctor you want.

Granted, that requires that it be a reasonably common surgery and that you trust that the doctor gives sufficient consideration to non-surgical treatments instead of pushing patients towards surgery.

Perhaps a decent analogy would be a dentist capping a cavity or doing a root canal. They’ll do tens of thousands of these in a career. You don’t really want to be the first or even the hundredth patient s/he does this work on. And by the time they’ve done a thousand, looking it up would be silly.

I knew someone that worked in a Dental school (though not actually a dentist themselves) and when looking for their own new dentist looked for someone young and recently out of school because the techniques had moved on so quickly, but the people who had graduated earlier were unlikely to update what they were taught.

I guess they'd see consulting a textbook in a better light than most.

You’re inserting things into the question that weren’t there and tearing it down. Nothing was said about a “routine performance” which is certainly common enough today to that it is worth asking but is not always the case and not always common through time.

Regardless, it is never a bad thing to be overly cautious and redundant. I once heard it said that if necessity is the mother of invention, redundancy is the mother of victory. That is how I view the question.

They’re exploring an ambiguity in the question. No need to tear them down.

I feel similarly. If I’m getting a common heart surgery, I’d like to go with someone who does it every day. Reading a textbook is a negative signal that they do this frequently. (A checklist, on the other hand, is not and I’d be happy to see it used).

If I’m getting some rare surgery or there’s a complication, then seeing the doctor read a textbook makes sense. They can be very experienced overall, but not in this exact case.

One argument in favor could be that it is helpful in the same way as a checklist.

This is an excellent way of looking at it. Frankly it's not necessarily a bad thing either if the content of the book is valuable and you put it into practice effectively. Then it has the added bonus of really cementing itself in your experience banks.

I like to look at good knowledgable books like having a personal mentor who sits down and patiently monologues about their experience. In reality its hugely useful.

Plus, it's not like it's any different when you're a full-time employee somewhere. No job that you want to bet your career on consists of nothing but stuff you already know how to do.

Some companies understand this and attempt to keep their engineers ahead of the curve -- so you're asked to do something with the understanding that you'll have to figure out how to do it first. Some companies don't do that, and it's up to the engineers to make that happen on their own -- so you often end up reading the book first, then telling whoever is in charge that you can do it. Either way, your regularly end up having to get a few pages ahead in the manual :-).

"Relying on textbooks and Horchin, Demara successfully treated all three – even completing the amputation of one man’s leg."

At first I thought: there are quite a few impostors at the time, it must have been very easy to fool others without access to more information like what the internet provides today.

Then I got to the part where the author talks about the use of the “six ways to influence people”, and I realized those tricks are still used very effectively today. Some success “formulas” come to mind.

It’d be great if the same author could write an article about another fascinating character that I got to learn about from someone that met him in person right before the Japanese poisoned him: Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln

Ah, the story of Demara. I read about him in the book "The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It... Every Time" by Maria Konnikova [1]. Recommended read.

My interest isn't so much becoming a great imposter; it is rather how to defend myself and my loved ones against cons. Ie. how to recognize them.

A fiction series about con men which I appreciated is Sneaky Pete [2] and the Spanish series La Casa De Papel (Money Heist) [3]

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25387895-the-confidence-...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sneaky_Pete

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_Heist

In Spain it's a fun meme how most foreign movie titles were translated into spanish, totally changing the meaning or simply destroying the original intent of the name.

You could argue some clever titles are not easy to translate, but God knows there was no need to translate "Die Hard" to "Jungla de cristal" (glass jungle). That practice was more prevalent 10-20 years ago, though.

The thing is that now, for one, it happened the other way around with ehm... "Money Heist" what a boring and uninspired name! :-)

Yeah, that happens all the time. I'm Dutch native (hence familiar with Dutch title getting translated), and I refer in my own language to La Casa De Papel with the Spanish title. I only used the English title because people here might recognize or use that term in applications such as Netflix. I understand enough Spanish to understand the Spanish title and I very much prefer native titles over translations but I do like it when behind it an understandable translation is added (even if it isn't perfect).

I keep a log (plain text file, using Vim to edit it) of all movies and series I've seen in my life. The way my log works:

Dutch -> remains Dutch as it is my primary native language.

English -> remains English as I understand it well enough.

All other -> Orig. title (English translation, regardless of how well I speak or understand the language).

If I were to start over I'd do it properly with a CSV database or Excel but yeah I didn't and merging 1500 lines I CBA.

I'm pretty sure someone at Netflix did this intentionally while doing Denver's laugh.

Have you read "Cheats, Charlatans, and Chicanery: More Outrageous Tales of Skulduggery" by Andreas Schroeder?

I don't know how well that book has stood the test of time. But I really liked it back when it came out.


I guess the only way is doing your due diligence on new important people. Check out their references. Lots of work and potentially embarrassing if you’re found out though..

Demara reminds me of the 90s show The Pretender, I'm going to assume Demara was the inspiration. That show was lots of fun.

And there was an episode of M.A.S.H clearly inspired by Demara. Someone impersonating a surgeon, getting caught then changing identities to a chaplain.

I think the real revelation here is the absurdity of credentialism, and how shallow it is in the end.

How does this story feel like to people who are suffering from impostor syndrome?

“Since his aim was to do good, anything he did to do it was justified. With Demara the end always justifies the means.”

How many times in my life have I done such moral licensing?

As the old saying goes "Fake it til you make it". Its always seemed like a dubious idiom to me but when reading stories like this one, there obviously has to be some truth in the efficacy of the proposition.

I switched fields between BS and PhD, and a major component was learning the jargon. Perspective, conceptualizations, terminology, idioms, etc. Plus lots of facts, of course.

I've changed fields a few more times, over the years. As my interests and circumstances changed. Most recently, I worked as a ghostwriter and consultant. I used to joke that, given a couple months, I could pose as just about any sort of expert. And given the Internet, that's far easier than it was a couple decades ago.

Anyway, it strikes me that learning how to learn is the main thing that you get out of doing a PhD. Plus the credentials and professional network, of course.

> given a couple months, I could pose as just about any sort of expert.

Intriguing, and I wonder whether it's true. Probably in social settings for a while, but hopefully not eg through a job interview.

(related xkcd, "Impostor": https://www.xkcd.com/451/ )

No, not job interviews. But I did ghostwrite parts of medical reviews, and of briefs and expert reports in litigation.


I just read the article on Deconstruction and... either I am a complete philosophy/humanitary idiot or that entire area is full of con artists who just spit smart words out their mouth to bring their bread at the table. Regardless of that, I never respected anyone who doesn’t use formal definitions in serious analysis. I hated (disrespected) philosophy at school and I do it now even more, seeing how they chew the same crap for decades instead of just doing something better. Even politics is better than that.

“in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand": signified over signifier; intelligible over sensible; speech over writing; activity over passivity, etc. The first task of deconstruction would be to find and overturn these oppositions inside a text or a corpus of texts; but the final objective of deconstruction is not to surpass all oppositions, because it is assumed they are structurally necessary to produce sense. The oppositions simply cannot be suspended once and for all. The hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. Deconstruction only points to the necessity of an unending analysis that can make explicit the decisions and arbitrary violence intrinsic to all texts”

“To be effective, deconstruction needs to create new terms, not to synthesize the concepts in opposition, but to mark their difference and eternal interplay. This explains why Derrida always proposes new terms in his deconstruction, not as a free play but as a pure necessity of analysis, to better mark the intervals. Derrida called undecidables—that is, unities of simulacrum—"false" verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical oppositions—resisting and organizing it—without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of Hegelian dialectics (e.g., différance, archi-writing, pharmakon, supplement, hymen, gram, spacing)”

I mean: words instead blanket a low-pitch synthesis and require most priorities in it to shift from a detailed to an increasingly informal scene which wraps by itself to form an atopological plane of understanding of the undecidables. Are you think so?

> I never respected anyone who doesn’t use formal definitions in serious analysis.

Read Popper for a hint at how misguided this is outside hard science.

Isn't Popper required reading material at every decent university?

You’d hope.

Which particular book do you recommend, regarding my quote?

I also read what another commenter linked below, but cannot say what all that really means. To formulate clearly, I understand what the text says piece by piece, but fail to get the “correct” sense it was supposed to deliver. Maybe I need some decomposition (sorry if it turns to be a silly joke, couldn’t resist ;)

Sorry, just saw this. The Open Society and its Enemies is the big winner for Popper imo.

Short answer: it’s impossible.

Medium answer: the attempt itself is counterproductive and misunderstands how we use language.

Long answer: aside from being impossible, the impulse is related to Platonic essentialism, which is the philosophical spawning ground of authoritarianism and has stifled honest inquiry for circa 2k years.

FWIW, I don't think very formal methods are the crux of the matter (at least for the incipient stages of a scientific field).

Having said that, postmodernism is (in my view) totally misguided. The obfuscated language is intentional, as among its epistemological assumptions is that reason is not only limited, but has only limited access to reality (well, or creates reality), and at any rate is insufficient.

Recommended readings:

* The Sokal Hoax [1]

* Intellectual Impostors by Bricmont and Sokal (Fashionable Nonsense in the US) [2] for an expansion on the Sokal Hoax, and many examples on pretentious and preposterous abuse of scientific terminology by postmodern philosophers

* Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault by Hicks [3] on the history of postmodernism, arising from counter-enlightenment philosophy all the way from Rousseau via the insufferable German idealists, including Hegel with his dialectical reasoning, which supported both fascism and Marxism.

Postmodernists often take specific reasonable criticism of or problems with science or realism, and then blow them up and generalise them unjustifiably. It is worth taking some of the criticism to heart, but the postmodernists aren't even the ones formulating those problems in the most cogent way. So, my advice would be to waste some, but not too much time on postmodernism.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/978-098325...

Well, there is the infamous Sokal paper:[0]

Alan D. Sokal (1996) Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text #46/47, pp. 217-252 (spring/summer 1996).

And then SciGen, of course.[1]

0) https://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgre...

1) https://pdos.csail.mit.edu/archive/scigen/

It is actually kind of funny, I know what deconstruction is, and I would call the two quoted paragraphs pretty clear. They don't do a horrible job of describing what it is.

I think it just takes being steeped in the jargon of the field to read that. But, it is a pretty ok explanation. If you think this is somehow bad, I would argue you should try to read any of the wikipedia pages on homotopy type theory without background knowledge and tell me if those read like gibberish to you as well.

Yeah they do. I almost can read them now (not very confidently, but I was interested in similar topics), because there is always some strict clean concept below the terms. You just go to definitions of, say, surjection or impredicative, and down there is an explanation. You may bury in the details for first times, but with some logging or skipping “for later” it’s still possible.

The same you may find of course for “intelligible over sensible” etc, but then there are 53 schools, 734 works and billions of words to read, before you get that all of them just tossing meanings to claim their right. If something cannot be drawn as a diagram (whatever complex), it is not worth studying, because you cannot spend 50 years to understand something like “well, not sure what that means”. It almost feels like philosophers simply are bad at math/logic and have to use vague words and broad examples to prove their theorems or build axioms. After few iterations of “looking up” everyone is lost in trees forever, since there is no common sense of a forest, whose meaning could be fixed independently of given language or jargon differences. Thought turns into master and thinkers turn into its slaves? Who can prove that they understand this complexity and not simply trained their bio-NNs to claim it to themselves with no inner resistance? Can they reveal an impostor from that xkcd quickly? He-he.

Boring long-running sentences of form “bla bla ... (bla, bla, bla, bla) bla bla bla, bla bla (...) ...” only make it worse. I never seen it in good tech/math docs, but for subj it was a big red flag “never touch it”.

Ed: grammar

Well, he didn’t do anything wrong, and even delivered some good things in many of the roles he was in, which is more than can be said about many authentic persons with all proper credentials. I don’t know why he was blamed and convicted.

I think there are many other pretenders like him everywhere, less prominent, but still more or less successful and well hidden. As long as you are not using your acting talents for crime, this might work.

He committed identity theft, desertion, petty theft, and probably a few more. Those are real crimes with real victims. Not to mention the people that received substandard medical care that could have killed them. Don't gloss over crime just because the guy has a good story.

His explanation about why he did it perfectly shows why he was so likable: “Rascality, pure rascality.”

His main issue was that Instagram was not a thing back then.

It could be argued that Instagram is a benefit for impostors as it allows them to present a fake track record/history using their timeline

Internet and facial recognition made the world a lot smaller and the past a lot harder to erase. And unsurprisingly the fact that you put something in your social media timeline only has value until something casts suspicion over it.

You don't need a trial to decide that the guy who claims this and that is the same guy from an older article being arrested for faking this and that. The suspicion alone is enough to kill the con.

If you see your kid's pediatrician's picture in a police station on the other side of the country, as a con-artist on the run, you will not care that their Instachat account says "world's greatest doctor". And you probably won't even dig too deep before dropping their service.

The reliance on documents is interesting. If you are having to ask for proof that someone has passed an exam or obtained a qualification then you have already gone wrong to some extent. Most people never show school or university result certificates ever during their working lives.

Just a name, accent and visual cues are enough if you are white with English as first language. People might ask for paperwork as a formality but the job is going to be yours if recruitment is difficult and there aren't any other applicants. The more specialist the work then the more likely this is to be. In tech this is particularly apparent.

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