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Act As If (medium.com/design-startups)
192 points by michaelbuckbee on Sept 11, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 69 comments

Seriously, WTF.

I hate this "fake it til you make it attitude" and I see it both in the startup industry and the one we work in (photography). This works for Conan and actors because the worst-case is he has a bad show. It can work in an investor pitch meeting because the worst-case is you bomb and they don't invest. But once you're providing a professional service to someone else (consulting, wedding photography, training) or leading employees at a company, you have no effing business pretending to be something you're not.

- If you've never at least attempted to start a business, you have no business coaching people in lean startup methodologies and taking their money.

- If you've never assisted at a wedding and learned your camera, you have no business buying an SLR at Costco and taking money to photograph someone's wedding.

- If you don't know anything about basic web app security, you have no business taking someone's money and building them an ecommerce site.

Yes, at a certain point you can learn new things as you go. But IMO too many people are straight-up lying about what they are and what they know.

I feel the concepts of humility, apprenticeship, and a desire for learning/mastery are being lost in favor of "act as if" and "get big fast".


EDIT: I get now that this article is addressed to those with impostor syndrome and not actual impostors. Personally I think actual impostors are more endemic and just as likely to latch onto advice like this.

The first paragraph qualifies the rest of the article:

> People suffering from and trying to overcome Impostor Syndrome are somewhat endemic to startup and tech circles.

I don't think this article was written for the person with more confidence than ability but vice versa.

Fair enough ... but ... I feel like actual impostors are way more endemic in startup/tech than those with imposter syndrome. Plus, actual impostors are just as likely to latch onto advice like this.

Totally agree, I've lost track of the number of people I've had to deal with who try to mask their lack of competence in an area with bluster, bravado, and bullshit. I've seen companies flush millions of dollars down the drain because the people who ran it were too worried about looking like they might not have all the answers, and would rather temporarily save face than actually try to make it work.

Unfortunately, the more you know, the more you realize there is that you don't know.

Imposter syndrome is not about "fake it till you make it". Overcoming imposter syndrome is realizing that you have made it. "Acting" as if you have is just a cognitive hack to convince your brain of something that is already true.

If you haven't made it yet, you don't have imposter syndrome.

Though true for a certain subset, otherwise this is not entirely accurate. Impostor syndrome is common among those with extraordinarily high IQs: the highly gifted (3-4 standard deviations from the mean), exceptionally gifted (more so; 5-6 SD's from the mean), and profoundly gifted (in particular; more than 6 SD's from the mean). This is true even for children, who obviously can't be considered to have "made it" or not.

Impostor syndrome is insidious. You know what you know/are extremely fast to spot patterns others don't seem to notice, especially others of your age/experience. But you're just you, like you've always been; and you realize that at any time, someone could call you out for being just like anyone else, because how do you know how everyone else's thought process works? After all, you're just spotting patterns, accumulating data, and winging it. Little do you realize that that proficient/effective pattern-spotting is intelligence (or at least, one measure; measurement tools don't really count creativity, for example, which may be core to true genius, along with a host of other characteristics).

It's also about the humanization of others. Many who feel this come to realize that they have built up fantasy Übermensch and that the people who still qualify as geniuses and greats are fallible and carry with them many of the foibles that come with the human condition.

> Imposter syndrome is not about "fake it till you make it". Overcoming imposter syndrome is realizing that you have made it.

I'd have to disagree here. Impostor syndrome is an emotion. People overcome them in different ways. Mike's and yours suggestions are just two different solutions. The way I overcome it is by mentally preparing myself for the emotion and having a plan on how I can overcome it (ie - writing tests, working on a smaller problem, etc).

Actual impostors already know/don't need this advice. And the actual impostors will always be there. If we want to increase the percentage of effective non-impostors, we need the experts to learn to accept their expert status.

I also think that you are misinterpreting what the advice is. It is not that you should mislead other people about your skill. It's that when someone wants to pay you to do something and they are aware of your expertise, you should take them up on it.

If you've read a lot and written about lean start up methodologies, but have not yet tried to start a business yourself, and someone come to you, aware of your level of experience, and asks to pay you to come and look at their business model and take them through your reactions and feedback, you shouldn't refuse just because you have no direct experience. They know what they're getting, and they want to pay you for it? Do it.

If you've never assisted at a wedding, but have posted some nice pictures from your phone on Instagram, and someone wants to pay you to take photos at their wedding, you should do it. You should make it completely clear to them what your experience level is, and that they probably should hire a professional, but if they still say they want to hire you, do it.

But of course the e-commerce site is a different story. If you actually don't know anything about basic web app security, and somehow you know that you don't know anything about it and that it's important (we are talking about approximately four people worldwide), then no, you shouldn't build an e-commerce site without insisting that they also hire someone with security expertise.

>But IMO too many people are straight-up lying about what they are and what they know.

There are a fair number of those yes, but I suspect that the majority of people who seem to be doing that are really just completely ignorant of their ignorance.

> If we want to increase the percentage of effective non-impostors, we need the experts to learn to accept their expert status.

I'd argue that a good part of what helps some of these people achieve the expert status is their impostor syndrome. It pushes them to continue to be better all the time and never be satisfied with themselves (to a fault). Challenging them to "accept their status" is like telling them to change a core part of who they are.

I completely disagree. In my experience, the most knowledgeable people are the ones who are genuinely interested and curious and crave more knowledge, no matter what. You could convince them that they were the most knowledgeable person in the world, and that wouldn't prevent them from learning more.

> You could convince them that they were the most knowledgeable person in the world

I agree. I'm just saying that the challenging part (especially for those with impostor syndrome) is actually being able to convince them they are the most knowledgeable person in the world.

I agree with your point, but I don't think that's what the article meant. I don't think it meant pretending to be something you're not, but instead pretending to be something you feel like you're not when you actually are but haven't internalized it due to impostor syndrome. It's for people that feel like they have no idea what they're doing, but they really do.

"and the one we work in (photography)"

The reason the strategy works is that generally the people you are selling to know far less than you do. So you are the "expert". And you are providing value.

I've done no less than 3 businesses in things I knew zero about when I started. One of those was photography which I did in high school and college and made money to start my first real business (I had a darkroom). Never had a problem being taken seriously. And the photos I took were good enough that people paid me for them (many clients were lawyers by the way). At the time I didn't even know the expression "fake it till you make it".

The bottom line really is whether you are able to deliver to the expectations of the people who are going to pay you money. If so, to me that's fine.

By the way in none of the things I ever did did anyone ever ask me (even on day one) how long I had been doing what I was selling them on. Had they asked I would have told them but it never happened. In fact the opposite in another (not the photo business) I went cold calling on day one and a business owner handed me some marketing materials and said "you're the expert".

I read your edit and I have to say this is a pretty naive way to go about your business. I'm certainly not advocating deception, but I've seen plenty of very inexperienced people accomplish things and sell things that anybody could objectively say they had no business selling. Everybody, that is, except the customer they sold to.

One of my best friends runs a fairly successful design and marketing business. She had previously worked as a financial adviser and had never even heard of Adobe InDesign or Photoshop or Joomla. Nowadays she charges in the thousands for marketing consulting despite never having held any position in the field of any kind. Yet she makes good money and her clients are very happy with her work.

If you wait for universal acceptance for what you are doing, you're going to wait a long time. Again, I am not advocating lying, but I also don't think there is anything wrong with acting as if you are a pro when you are just starting out. Confidence is a very strong force.

>> I also don't think there is anything wrong with acting as if you are a pro when you are just starting out

Then why do tech startups do coding interviews and look at GitHub profiles when hiring engineers? Why do they have a problem hiring people who are "just starting out"? I don't see how hiring a photographer/consultant/coach is any different.

I think your design/marketing friend is just an example of specific tools. She didn't know Adobe tools but she may still have had design or marketing expertise.

It's akin to hiring a programmer to work on your Python project. If you're smart, you'll consider someone who only knows Ruby or C but is an experienced programmer/problem solver. They'll figure out Python quickly. But you're not going to hire someone who knows nothing about programming.

I'm not asking for people to seek universal acceptance. I just think there is a threshold (which, of course, varies by domain) and I see a lot of people on the wrong side of it.

I don't think that's what this article is getting at. My interpretation was that if you get put into an intimidating situation, you should act like you belong even if you don't feel like you do.

This has nothing to do with impersonation, but rather moving up a level in something you already do.

Aescetic Narcissism takes many forms, but once you start to recognize it for what it is (empty), creating value as a means of life becomes some sort of Art. From nothing, something.

I don't think Conan gets the point here, much. This is all about 'how to overcome ones weakness', but the question is still left lacking: to what end does it matter?

What matters, is: The User

If you don't have someone else agreeing with you that the widget is a widget and can be used to do blah, whether that widget is a meme, a joke, something electronic, physical, or whatever, then there isn't any chance for the Ideation to Perpetuate.

Without another human being agreeing that you are the value you assign to something, or that the value 'is', there isn't any value. Everything that leads up to that point in time in the universe is merely a shadow, reflection, or bump towards what has to happen: at least one other person has to agree with you, what is, is.

It may be true that one has to push hard to overcome the more base and banal afflictions upon the entrepreneurial spirit, but it simply does not matter if you have at least found one, then another, then many, to agree with you on subject 'x'.

I think that there is much to be said of the cult of the entrepreneur, but the word itself is merely an introduction to economy, at and of scale. If you really consider yourself an entrepreneur, but don't have a single user of something you have created, I don't think it matters who, or what you think you are.

This isn't faking it until you make it, this is faking it after you've made it. When you're interviewing Obama and you're like, oh my show is good enough that Obama wants to be on it, that's normal. That's not faking anything! You already do interviews on your show, it's not like you're doing anything new. But it feels weird. It's hard to believe that you're really "that good."

This is a rather hard line against what I would consider pretty good advice. Seemingly, unlike much of the HN crowd, I wasn't born with the immediate abilities I require for my work, as OP seems to allege having. Otherwise, how is it that you are able to do anything unless you took a swing at it while under qualified?

In my own experience, I've watch millions of dollars trade hands, after an advertising company remodelled a restaurant into a pub for their pitch to a large beer distribution brewery. They made their client feel comfortable about their abilities to create anything. They definitely were not masters of pub interior decoration, but act as if is what they did.

I think this misses the point of the article. The author says something like "even though you're successful you feel like you're not" (on my phone so sorry for paraphrasing). I think the idea of rhe article is that if you're already making it, act as if you're making it. It's not like Conan doesn't put in hours and hours of hard work offstage to make his show happen. Acting "as if" is just a way to psychologically get himself in tune with his success and project an air of confidence.

I see this all the time. people harp on about 'fake it until you make it' when I think the bigger unspoken problem is the tendency to overvalue confidence over competence. I would much rather work with someone who values both confidence and competence.

Agreed, but note that in business you tend to die due to confidence issues well before competence ones.

A mistake due to incompetence can almost always be fixed later, especially if you can look critically at it and learn from it--this is how engineering works.

A lack of confidence, though, means that your skillfully laid-out system never makes it into production because you can't bring yourself to flip the switch.

In business, in a startup, the winner is clear.

> Personally I think actual impostors are more endemic and just as likely to latch onto advice like this.

This is completely true. Except true impostors are likely to half-ass the second step.

Yeah, for what it's worth I do agree with you. To my way of thinking this is something that's aimed much more at easing the social interactions surrounding a startup than the hard work of actually delivering the value. But, I think to really be successful you need both.

I think you are taking the advice to the extreme, well past what is intended.

This isn't really about "fake it 'til you make it", it's about committing to what you're actually doing.

Most people assume the term "expert" applies to someone who knows [pretty much] everything there is to know about a given subject.

I've learned that "expert" really applies to someone who knows more about the subject than anyone else involved or available...and that knowledge may very well be next to nothing. I'd been coming to this conclusion, which finally sunk in when my wife, working at a top consulting company, was told "If you can spell 'Cognos' you're an expert" (with implication said "expert" would be on the next plane and billed out at several hundred dollars an hour).

"Impostor Syndrome" kicks in when you do know more about the subject than anyone else involved or available, and you know that knowledge is next to nothing.

>"Impostor Syndrome" kicks in when you do know more about the subject than anyone else involved or available, and you know that knowledge is next to nothing.

I think that is a pretty good analysis. I would add that there are two other components, which are the Dunning-Kruger effect, and a variation of the typical mind fallacy. Impostor syndrome happens when you:

1. Are knowledgeable enough about a subject that you understand how little you know, compared to how much there is to know,

2. Are treated as an expert because of this knowledge, and

3. Assume that other people treated as experts would have a similar experience, and would only act confident if they really did know a large proportion of what there was to know.

#3 is of course incorrect; impostor syndrome becomes worse as your knowledge gets deeper and more specialized. Instead of seeing your knowledge meter fill up, you see the meter expand as you realize how much more there is to know. And you see new, empty meters popping up next to it, which you feel should be at least partially full to consider yourself an expert. These meters reveal themselves because you have the learned basis to understand that the field they represent even exists.

So when you mostly encounter experts who project confidence, you assume that it is because their knowledge meters are full. In reality, it is most commonly because they really have very little knowledge, and so to them the meter seems almost full. For the rest of them who are actually knowledgeable, it is because they have learned to project confidence with practice, and/or learned to keep things in perspective.

And of course most experts aren't very knowledgeable - once you think about it, it would be shocking for the world to look any other way. But if you aren't an expert in their specific field, they will still know more than you do. And since your knowledge meter for that field is short, you will feel like the knowledge they demonstrate is close to filling it up.

Finally, it doesn't help that most of the experts we "encounter" are either in fiction, or are being presented in formats where any lack of confidence would be completely obscured. You can account for that rationally all you like, but your monkey brain is still going to integrate it into your emotional concept of an expert.

Almost every recruiter I talk to says they need an expert on some technology, and every time I says I'm not really an expert, and explain in minute detail everything I don't know about it. They're invariably impressed.

In my experience recruiters are always impressed and push you forward. It takes very little of their time to put someone forward (relative to your time and the company's time), and if you happen to impress, they get their commission. If they don't put you forward, it's guaranteed they don't get that additional chance. Every time I've come to the conclusion a certain opportunity wasn't right for me, they've always argued that I should try for it anyway. We (talking developers here) are their product and we are a scarce resource. They're not going to turn anyone away.

Yeah, I always need to remind myself that recruiters are irrelevant. It's the client that matters, and the recruiter is just in the way. I wish they weren't part of the process, but I'm not sure how to get around them.

I think this is great advice. Knowing what you don't know about something is the first step in the journey toward learning more about the topic.

The ability to apply the knowledge you do have, and efficiently learn what it takes to appropriately complete a task is often more valuable than the academic exercise of research without application. I've found that during that time however, there is hesitation which makes people feel less confident, not only in the task at hand, but in their career in general, as some feel their current work and position is the sum of their accomplishments.

I try to resist the feelings of self-doubt by getting energized about learning something new and having a supportive team around me that has witnessed me overcome similar challenges to achieve success. However, some learning and application is done in a bubble, isolated from others' support either by working independently, not having a support system, or failing to sincerely communicate the existential crisis that one feels.

The catch 22 seems that many people that are feeling like an imposture further isolate themselves as they think that communication about their feelings are an insincere attempt at gaining flattery from their support network, potentially perpetuating their feelings of inadequacy. Creative professionals often go through periods of self-doubt, but it's the mature understanding that it's common and occasionally difficult to articulate, that prepares one to overcome those feelings to accomplish the feat.

Ok, so now we need a new word for people that actually know stuff.

That wouldn't help, I think. The problem is that the more you know, the less you feel like you know. A high school student with an A in his honor's physics class probably feels like he knows more of what there is to know about physics than Michio Kaku feels like he knows.

More interactions between novices, intermediates and experts make it possible to identify experts. The physics student can only believe in their false expertise until "shown up" by someone who knows and/or does physics for a living; likewise those people need to interact with students to realize that they do know something.

It is easiest if a competent guild, association or governing body can set a permission-to-play standard to govern alongside a peer-review system for publishing and a merit-based system or awards for discoveries -- and all in the field should be encouraged to measure themselves against these systems and be rejected or accepted to learn more about themselves and their field.

>More interactions between novices, intermediates and experts make it possible to identify experts.

Is there evidence for this? It seems unlikely to me.

My experience with non-experts with a little knowledge (including myself) is that they massively discount the difference between what they know and what the experts they encounter know. They know that they know less, but they don't have any foundation to understand how much less.

I don't know if there are any studies.

A low-skill/low-knowledge person can still discern the differences between skills in their region of expertise. So, in the presence of a grandmaster, they might make fools of themselves while the merely accomplished take the opportunity to learn something. However, in discussions with an accomplished person, a novice will more easily see their inadequacies. Thus the ability to teach is the ability to communicate expertise further down the ladder than others, and the ability to rapidly learn is the ability to reach further up the ladder and so waste less time on the intermediate steps. People are usually better at learning from certain mediums and types of people as well.

Along these lines, one goal of an expert teaching a novice is to turn a novice into an effective autodidact. An effective autodidact a) knows they are ignorant, b) knows that the ladder of expertise exists, c) knows how to climb the ladder. It is possible to communicate to a novice signposts that will help them understand their progression despite their not having experienced it yet. Again, these extend further depending on the ability of the novice and the expert, but for anyone they will extend further than the knowledge the novice can actually identify as not being known yet. Even very dull people can grasp something as simple as "Bob really understands this job. Follow his advice, even if it doesn't make sense to you yet. It'll be hard at first but stick with it and you'll know twice as much in a month."

Again, I'm not aware of any studies so am happy for you to directly disagree, but I hope this reminds you of interactions you've observed as I do believe these behaviors are common.

True. When you know very little there's a lot of stuff that you don't even know that you know.

But I was replying to comment that suggests a type of knowledge relativism that many times comes attached with words like "ninja" and "rockstar" and that makes my skin crawl. We live in an age of too much networking, not enough deep thought and deliberate practice. It is symptomatic that "you can be an expert just by faking it" philosophies start to pop up. I suspect this is not good in the long term. I'd bet this is how the Roman empire collapsed :)

The best definition of an expert I've read is someone who knows more and more about less and less. :)

You left out the best part:

... until he knows everything about absolutely nothing.

Haha... I forgot about that! Makes it even better.

"Knowing is delusion" - Zen Phrase

Whenever I see that phrase I think of the scene from "Boiler Room": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BIa1N_wU0k

So awesome. One of the best scenes from that movie.

   Jim Young: There's an important phrase that we use here,
   and think it's time that you all learned it. Act as if.
   You understand what that means? Act as if you are the
   fucking President of this firm. Act as if you got a 9"
   cock. Okay? Act as if.

Ditto... this is the one role that kind of makes me think Affleck might actually be halfway decent as batman. He knocked that "slimy stock broker" role out of the park in that movie.

I think Conan has a good head on his shoulders, he was super classy with the whole Tonight Show thing. Gives good advice


the site linked to (http://html9responsiveboilerstrapjs.com/) is brilliant and I love it. I have no doubt that if web application design continues at this rate, all of those words will refer to a (bleeding edge) .js framework / module within five years.

It works in RubeGoldberg 2.2 but will not autocompile freeway buttmonkey merge svn commitshare javahunk

Telling someone with "Impostor Syndrome" to "act like you've made it, because you have" is like telling someone with severe clinical depression they "just need to cheer up."

Pretty much... but what else can you say?

I'm suffering from Impostor Syndrome pretty bad, after moving across the country alone and going from being a big fish in a small pond, to a small fish in a big pond. Every day I am killing myself over this, and it's not healthy. I know I should accept the fact that I'm doing well, but I haven't yet.

To be fair to Mike he does say "Nothing is a cure all". I agree with your point though. Different people have this condition at different degrees and there is no such thing as a catch all solution. Some people need mantras and some people need medicine or whatever else it takes to help them make it day by day.

Whenever I'm in one of my 'should I really be here?' moments, having someone ask a difficult question (ie. difficult for them) usually tears me back out of it.

We all have different influence and interests in our lives. You can know more about X than anyone else in the room and not even know that Y existed. The important thing is to make sure you interact with enough Ys to broaden your horizons.

I think Conan's "act as if" advice unknowingly points to a whole field of research that claims that your actions and ideas are reciprocally linked. That is, if your idea of yourself is that you're confident, you'll act like it. Conversely, if you act like you're confident, your mind will develop the belief that you are truly confident. A great book that discusses this topic is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

There is a subtle, but huge difference between thinking less of yourself vs thinking less about yourself.

Just the same, there is a subtle, and huge difference between fake it till you make it, vs being positively unreasonable, relentless, and always moving inward, onward, upward.

The difference is one seeks external validation / approval / reinforcement to overcome insecurities and self-worth issues, and the later is a friend and supporter to themselves.

Which do you want to be? The same person who's getting better every day by cultivating and developing a healthy, realistic, inner dialogue and support, or lying to yourself and everyone around you?

I pick keeping it real because I want real people and real things in my life. I pick not being above solving problems that are beneath so many programmers. I pick seeing the difference a one page script can make in someone's life as much as working out the most intricate and grande architecture as an effigy to myself.

I heard in my 20's that the 20's is the hardest years. Everyone's faking it but feeling alone and trying to figure it out. It's no wonder why some funders like focusing on entrepreneurs in their 20's vs later when they have a more well rounded sense of the world, self and more. The quicker you learn you aren't the first to go though pretty much anything in the world, the quicker you'll be free to truly experiment, be creative, take chances and achieve because there are others who you can connect with.

Don't look to others. Leadership is first about learning to lead yourself, not others. If people like how you lead yourself, they join you for a much longer haul. If you're leading yourself to be a bullshitter, guess what you got around you.

Hang around with shit, or be shit, and you'll end up staying that way.

Edit: Doubt worshipping Downmodderz, be more than invisible, speak up, let's chat, no need to hide behind your mouse :).

I've always told myself, "People do this all the time, and they succeeded."

It's kind of like "act as if".

Also, I've taken, "Agree and escalate" from improv and applied it to my real life, with mixed results.

I've seen this work in all kinds of situation. Especially with people thrown into leadership roles at young ages (e.g. military). First they are scared, but then they adjust and stick to the mantra :-)

I'm surprised no one linked to Amy Cuddy's very relevant TED Talk.. Great watch.


This article and Conan is advising the same sentiment as being discussed at the current #1 post on HN (Fucking Sue Me) --> https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6366912.

TLDR: Just do things even if you are scared about the risks.

"although it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitely inaccurate." - Douglas Adams

This, perversely, has been very helpful to my confidence.

Medium's articles seem really trite.

Vonnegut: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Without impostor syndrome nagging at me constantly, it's likely I would be an insufferable ass. (Well, even MORE so.) It's weird, but I like it.

This reminds me of a book I read 30 years ago called "Winning Through Intimidation"


The book recommends that you dress, act, and basically pretend you are successful. People will then believe you are successful and want to do business with you. You then become a success.

I got a better way stop idolizing these people they're all on this spinning dirt ball. Just do it and don't make a big deal out of it.

I'm the author of the "further reading" article in the post and this is exactly how I deal with my bouts with impostor syndrome. I've been around enough "experts" to know they're just average guys/gals like the rest of us. They breath the same air and have all of the same emotions.

I don't feel like an imposter. Maybe some if you people are full of crap and pretended you knew stuff you don't in order to get a job or funding. Then you really are an imposter and that's why you feel that way.

Huh. That H9RBS.js sounds pretty neat. Can't believe I hadn't heard of it yet. I'll see if I can use it for my next enterprise thing.

Projecting confidence leads to people believing.

Better than that, projecting faked confidence results in you developing real confidence.

Additionally, people tend to revert to doing what is expected of them if not consciously trying to change their behaviour - if people expect you to behave confidently, you will tend to act more confident as a result.

Both true. I think I've read research that acting confident increases your confidence. Unfortunately I can't find it handy, but I thought it was very counterintuitive.

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