“Fake it till we make it” and the downside of humility

“When does self promotion cross the line between reporting the facts and inventing them?” Carter (I’m so meta!) Gillies

I came across this amazing article that discusses an interesting issue of a person’s behavior relating to changes in self perception. Its the idea that we can “dress for success” and this will make us feel and behave more like we actually are successful. Its the idea that we sometimes have to “fake it till we make it”. We need Cyrano de Bergerac writing our love letters to break the ice. We primp and preen to make a stellar first impression. We put on masks, not because we already are superheroes, but in order to become one. We sing in a band, not because we already are a rock star, but because this is the only way we know how. Its what it looks like from the outside…. And when it works, the payoff is that we actually get to be those things we pretended. Sort of.

And some of us live to regret those first awkward steps of fakery. The stubborn persistence in feelings of fraud can remain a side effect long after the need for ‘faking’ has passed. And annoyingly they can even endure in circumstances where we actually eventually DO have mastery and/or recognition and acclaim for what we now do. Sometimes misgivings of having acted less than ‘honestly’ can linger. As if our entanglement with subterfuge remains indelible far after the deed itself was performed and we are only living a lie in its aftermath…. A guilty conscience…. The wake of an illegitimate first cause…. As if our ancient deception leaves a character stain so deep that it cannot easily be got rid of…. And we are not independent of our original sins…..

Sometimes even the most successful of professionals will look at themselves and still feel like the worst sort of impostor…. Like an otherwise honest politician having once lied about his past, toked but not inhaled…. Or a business professional fudging credentials for her resume (can’t get the job without experience, can’t get experience without the job, loop)…. Or just a person whose native self deprecation inevitably questions their own unmerited and unearned good fortune…. Sometimes we feel we are simply not entitled. Others are more deserving. We earned it less….

We all have irrational and more or less easily provoked guilts, perhaps. Only the sociopath is immune to this sort of self-reflection.

And the self-perception of somehow being a fraud doesn’t have an exact cut off point. The susceptible mind will always find it difficult to shake. And, if its something we care about, the question of ‘just deserts’ is always murky at best….

In a sense, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

It has been recognized since the time of early Greek Philosophers that habituation is the grounds for self identity. We become gardeners by gardening. We become painters by painting, etc. The issue is that the transition between not being a thing and being it is often unclear. Which sometimes leads us to the uncomfortable position where we act as if we were these things without really believing we were. We feel like impostors. We feel as though we were somehow still only faking it, pretending…. Maybe that’s an experience many of us can relate to. Posing as if we were tougher than we are, smarter than we are, funnier than we are, kinder than we are, etc, all the while secretly questioning whether our pose had more substance to it than our doubt. Bravado rather than bravery. Mere eagerness rather than competence….

Sometimes we look at ourselves and at others in our field or in our lives and believe that we don’t really measure up. We say, “Ron Meyers is a potter. I’m neither as talented nor as hardworking as he is. Clearly I’m not really a ‘potter’.” We compare ourselves with what we take to be the standards of our field and our lives and come up short. We feel inadequate. And this miscasting extends throughout our whole self-perception: We are not as good looking as George Clooney. We are not as smart as Wittgenstein, etc…. And we can cower in embarrassed shame, learn to live with coming up short, or simply find peace with being who we are, no judgment or comparisons necessary.

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Or we can jump off the cliff of delusion, sometimes (perplexingly) with no ill effect…. We can embrace our fakery. We can pretend various things with every fibre of our being and simply not let ‘the facts’ discourage us. “I am more handsome than George Clooney. I’m smarter than Wittgenstein. More humble than Mother Theresa. A better athlete than Lebron James……”

I suppose its rare to make those types of outrageous claims, but perhaps fairly common to aim a bit closer to home. Its a bit easier to see one’s self as “prettier than my sister, smarter than that jack ass in class, a better soccer player than most of the other people on the field, and at least as humble as the next person….”

Essentially, it is an issue of confidence, if not always the powers of our credulity. If we behave like professionals, in a sense we are professionals. If we act the part well enough, then we can convince others and even ourselves (when we need it). We accept our own pretense. If our self belief is strong enough it doesn’t really even matter how well we act the part. In our own minds at least. And the profound truth is that this display of self-confidence has a further reach than our own minds….. In a sense, we really are what we do. (Read this fascinating post in Psychology Today for insight into ‘Self-Perception Theory’)

We might like to think there is normally a symmetry to mastery and confidence, that the two grow side by side, hand in hand. But what this “fake it…” observation reveals is that there is a disconnect at a very basic level. We might have even been inclined to think that mastery comes first and our confidence is a later reflection…. It turns out that quite often the complete opposite is true. But what is the difference? And where is the boundary?

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Which leads to the interesting consequences of over-inflation. Only the deeply deluded lets absurd fakery become as ‘real’ as what it pretends to be (There was a hilarious riff on this in a series of commercials where someone with no training arrives on a scene and takes over, because they “did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night”). But the truth is also that we often don’t see our pretenses as ‘absurd’. And the greater absudity is that quite often somehow we still get away with it…. As long as no one (or the world) challenges or contradicts us. And sometimes even then….. The strength of our delusions, or beliefs, or our convictions is always measured by what it takes for the contradictions and inconsistencies to get to us….

The simple reality is we can often be seduced to believing our own abilities and hype for no otherwise discernible or rational reason than this is what we believe. A self reinforcing loop. Seeing is believing, and we simply choose to see ourselves this way. We are acting out our beliefs, and believe in our actions…. Its not a perspective that is necessarily open to interpretation….. We have our minds made up. “I’ll show you angry!”….

We make all the right moves to fit our self-perception. But rather than being descriptive of who we are these expressions themselves are the justification. In other words, we sell ourselves as something and that’s all that matters. Rather than simply letting what we do do do the talking…. Its the difference between gardening to become a gardener, and telling people you are a gardener to become a gardener. Its poserdom at an all new level….

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But how did we get here? When did we go from substance to message in our list of priorities and ranking of values? When did we decide that we convince the public less by our actions than what we say about them, that success derives more from what we say about what we do than what we do….?

And it turns out that our culture experienced a shift at some point from being motivated by character to being motivated by personality….. Susan Cain has looked into this as an aspect of research for her fantastic book “Quiet“. Here’s something she said in an interview at NPR:

“We moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking. Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character, and people celebrated him back then for being a man who did not offend by superiority. But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic.”

This shift seems like the story of our society’s rampant celebrity worship laid bare, and our own secret desires to move up the glory ladder. It can be summed up in that dreadful advertising slogan tennis star Andre Agassi foisted on us to sell cameras: “Image is everything“. We get sold on appearances. Our heads are turned less by what people do than by what gets said about them. Its the creepy fascination with the spectacle. (Anyone old enough to remember our culture’s morbid obsession with the OJ trial?)

And we have found that the limelight is not just an occasion for scrutiny, but an opportunity for branding, for adding our reputations to the mix, to the discussions around water coolers, bars, news stories, etc. Its as if our new ambition was to be recognized, and what we did to get there is either less important, unimportant, or entirely irrelevant. (Paris Hilton, anyone?)

“It’s better to be talked about than not talked about at all.” Oscar Wilde

Successful athletes are another case in point. Part of their mystique is that they know how to ‘act as if they belong there’. Score a touchdown? Celebrate as though it was your due, and not an absurdly unlikely outcome. Hit a home run? Have the arrogance to swagger around the bases and point to the bleachers. Deliver the winning goal? Point to your name on the back of your jersey as if only your own contribution were necessary.

Humility and self deprecation are often the least virtues of the celebrated professional (according to a certain culturally dominant way of looking at one’s self). Rather, folks of this persuasion narcissistically proclaim at any and every opportunity that they are “leaders in the field”, that their work is “iconic”, that their “signature” itself carries weight, that their opinions are gold dust, or that whatever they are doing is more important or worthy than anything that anyone else is doing. (Reality TV with “Nick and Jessica”? Reality TV?…..)

By talking a good game they play a good game. Feeding the cycle of self-importance even occasionally (and sometimes often) becomes more important than the work itself…. Do what it takes to maintain the prestige, and the work itself becomes secondary. And the scary thing is that its not really only self delusion anymore. Its our cultural state of mind…..

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Prestige.       Its not an obscure truth that underpricing your work undervalues it in the minds of many customers. There are people buying our work who care about things like status more than the work itself. A higher price tag actually increases the confidence of these buyers in the value of the work. What didn’t sell at $5 gets sold for $200. The perception of worth is now so tied up in the message by which things get sold. And of course there are bargain shoppers who would have jumped at the $5 price. But its also true that they might have bitten if you sold the $200 as a bargain….. Its not the price necessarily. Its not the work. Its sometimes all about perception, but rarely about perceiving the work itself…..

Which ties into the discussion of my last post, wherein I ruminated some on the idea that we have moved to a commerce of experience. Selling our wares isn’t simply a transaction of goods, but sometimes an exchange of the experience of prestige for dollars. Not always this particular experience, but clearly sometimes…. Certain members of our audience feel they can ‘buy’ status with buying art. Status itself has become a commodity…… Collecting the ‘big names’ and the ‘big reputations’ becomes not only a financial investment but a slice of the prestigious pie…. (See how neatly that fits?)

This is simply one of the side effects of our commercial situation as professionals in the arts field.

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I saw its evidence first hand in how graduate school in the arts gets conducted. There you have to defend yourself with obstinate resilience and immunity to contradiction. Its sometimes more important to have this diamond hard self-belief than that the actual work itself warrant our unabashed confidence and congenital optimism. Branding and reputation take the place in our motivations of doing the work itself. Marketing and messaging easily become half our jobs as professionals. Keeping the business alive supplants keeping the art and freedom of expression in our work alive. We end up in the position where we make our particular signature art in order only to reinforce our brand and the status it has acquired. Crafting the right message takes the place of crafting the work…..

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And this may be how the world works (to a large extent), but it doesn’t have to be all that we do. We can use some of these tools without selling ourselves irredeemably to the polluted waters of hype justifying the work rather than the work justifying the hype. Deep down below this shallow confusion real artists are working with real ambitions to make real work that is really good. Not the appearance of substance, but substance. Not the appearance of quality, but quality……

(Every time I hear someone tell me they are a “leader” in my field, I just wonder if they are ‘driving a big car’ to make up for other deficiencies. Did they perchance sleep at a Holiday Inn Express….?)

And if I may shake my head sometimes and wish folks would more often put their money where their mouths are, their character where their souls are, I’m not condemning. Everyone’s gotta make it work the best they can. Their choice.

But its also a question of understanding the system and understanding our own place within it. And so, while I personally may feel like an impostor sometimes, its not a surprise that others often feel like the next best thing since sliced bread….. In a world so fascinated by personality its not surprising that character values get such short shrift. Humility is simply not a virtue of ‘personality’. Humility doesn’t sell…. Except, perhaps, in a contest of humility. And what would it take to win that, I wonder? (And the ‘Pandora’s Box’ of personality burps more of its contents into the world….)

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So we face more pressures than we are likely aware of, and abusing our need to first ‘fake it’ can lead to bigger consequences down the road. We can game the system whole heartedly or not at all. Or anywhere in between. Its up to us to decide. The system only has a particular set of rules. Its rules for their game. Are they the rules for the game we wish to play? Do we not have a choice? To get sucked into our culture’s personality spectacle or to engineer a life filled with and based on character? And navigating from fakery to competence is the story that will decide where we end up…..

Something to think about, at least….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

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About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to “Fake it till we make it” and the downside of humility

  1. A question for potters and other artists: Are we more concerned with the character of what we do or its personality?

    Let me put it another way: If we could only do one thing would we make good pots or pots of a certain style? Which is more important to us? Which are we most active in exploring?……………..

    Of course we almost always try to do both, but that’s not necessarily the point. If we look closely we will often see that the only good pots we feel we are allowed to make are pots of a certain style. And that means that ‘good’ is subservient to ‘style’. We don’t, for instance, try to make ‘good pots’ of other styles, though we readily admit that there are more good possibilities than are exemplified in this particular style. Although we try to do both good and stylish in practice, we are usually aiming at style and hoping for good…..

    • zygote says:

      I really wish we could have a beer once a week. I need to press my beliefs against yours for a spell. I just know it’d push me to grow in the ways I need to bloom.

      • Hey Joel! I would like to be able to get that beer with you too! And I’m honored you feel this way. Of course its a two way street. Being challenged by your thoughts would help me grow at least as much. Thanks for being out there and for doing what you do!

  2. Pingback: The difference and similarity between Philosophers and Artists | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  3. Philosopher Julian Baggini:

    “It is possible to see a crowd of adoring faces and realise that one is not worthy. But I suspect the more usual reason why people claim to be humbled when they are lauded is that we live in a society in which we are all officially equal. The worst thing anyone can do is appear to set themselves up as superior to others. So what can you say if you are surrounded by adoring fans or loyal subjects? You must show that despite their protestations, you do not think you are any better than they are. You proclaim that you are humbled, bringing yourself down to earth just as others raise you above it.

    This is the deal: we are happy to single out people as superior just as long as they don’t accept the description themselves. We want heroes and idols but we also want egalitarianism and that requires proclamations of humility from our Gods. What both types of humility have in common is that they are both ways of presenting ourselves as grounded, without ideas above our station. Of course, we cannot know in an given case whether this is sincere or merely a rhetorical ploy. Still, it is right and proper that we should challenge the illusion that we are better than we really are, at times of triumph and disaster.

    Nonetheless, like modesty, humility is something that, if professed, is self-refuting. True humility is expressed in deeds, not words. The humble are those who truly walk the same ground as everyone else, not necessarily with grovelling, hunched backs but certainly not lording it over others either. What we need is more such genuine humility in public life, and hear less of it in extremis. The truly humble feel the ground beneath their feet every day and do not only become aware of it when held aloft or pushed down to their knees.”

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