Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of cringe worthy crap under the guise of career advice that sounds a lot like this:
1. Fake it till you make it
2. How to feign executive presence
3. How to appear confident when you don’t know your subject matter
4. The art of winging it
5. Pretend you know what you’re doing till you actually do
All of these contrived nuggets of supposed wisdom seem to encourage self confidence in the face of ignorance. I’m all for strutting your stuff when you’ve learned your craft. But when you haven’t yet and it’s clear you’re covering it up, it’s just plain annoying, and I think it makes you look even less credible.
Nothing makes my eyes want to roll out of my head more than when I’m sitting in a meeting and someone who clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about acts like they do. Add to that, tooting their own horn and name dropping, and I immediately want to leap across the table, smack them silly, and force feed them humble pie. Yet I continually see people like this rise quickly. But on the flip side, I’ve also seen them fall quickly when there is a company restructuring, or they have to switch to a different firm, and their weaknesses get exposed.
Have we learned nothing from the 08 financial crisis? Isn’t extreme braggadocio the reason why we got into that mess to begin with. You know who I’m talking about – all those overpaid hairy suit and tie wearing big bank and treasury buffoons walking around talking about credit default swaps and collateralized loan obligations. Come on, I know you’ve seen the Big Short and didn’t know what those terms meant till Selena Gomez explained them.
I remember when I first started working at a big bank just before the meltdown and being embarrassed about not knowing what “accounting for failed true sale on a total return swap on senior bank debt” meant. Well it seems no one else really knew either because not one single person I asked could explain it to me. Furthermore, the project went on for months because no one wanted to admit that they didn’t really understand what we were trying to achieve, and that it probably wasn’t really worth the effort.
I can certainly wing it when I need to and have in the past, but it doesn’t make me feel good and I just don’t wanna anymore. I’d rather openly admit that I don’t feel confident with the material, and that no I didn’t really understand what was said in the meeting. And perhaps if those buffoons had a bit of humility to begin with and adopted this type of mentality, we would have avoided that crisis and future crises.
It’s not that I’m condoning ignorance, I just think we’d all be better employees and human beings if we did the opposite of winging it and simply admitted that we don’t know. Isn’t admitting a weakness the first step in ensuring we work our butts off to acquire the knowledge and experience we need to overcome it, make better decisions, and become stronger leaders?
Self doubt, for lack of a better word, is good. It makes you wonder whether you handled that project the right way and consider how you can improve next time. It makes you question whether you are treating your colleagues and direct reports properly, and if you were too hard on that developer. Self doubt makes you double and triple check your work to make sure it’s accurate. Self doubt clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit (ok fine I stole the first and last sentence from Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech for irony).
You know what I’d like to see? More workplaces that encourage you to question yourself and acknowledge the inherent necessity of it as a means to growth. And places that stop telling you silly things like to have more executive presence and appear more confident. Rather, they should be acknowledging the root problem which is that they need to invest in equipping you with the tools and knowledge in the first place so that the confidence comes naturally.