Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Faking It Til' You Make It

During these intense couple of months I've consulted a good dozen self help and personal management books in an effort to manage my life more efficiently and more 'professionally'. You get all kinds of tips and advice, and most books tend to echo each other: manage your time wisely, presentation is key, optimize your body and mind so you can focus on work, it's all about how you say it....the stuff managers feed to their underlings to sound inspirational. 

It's good stuff, don't get me wrong. If you want to survive in the world of business, you have to play by their rules....or that's what they want you to think.

My best advice I've gotten so far? Well, it comes from one of the best cliches in the book:

Fake it 'til you make it.

It's the cure all in the quest of chasing success. You don't need prior experience. You can do it at any age or at any place in your life. It doesn't require any kind of skill set or tools, just a ton of drive and a bit of an "I'll show you!" attitude. While being smart is valuable, it's the guy who just doesn't know how to quit that ends up making it in the end.

Still not convinced? Me neither. Heck, I'm faking this blog as I go along. Here's some stuff that helps my argument, however. I picked alot of it up over the past 2 years I've been abroad.

1. Nobody really knows what they are doing...and if you're unsure, just ask them.

I've met countless people in bars and fancy shindigs with Singaporean Ambassadors. I like to gossip and talk. My favorite hobby is mining people for 'life hacks'. I want to know your secrets. How did you get here? Where are you going? What's the secret to your success? Where did you get that awesome hat? 

Usually, I can strike gold with the one guy or gal that likes to take the spotlight and talk about all the awesome stuff they've done. They dish out advice like it's candy on Halloween night. I know, because I like standing on the soapbox from time to time myself (seriously, have you read this blog?). 

What I've learned is the person who seems to have his or her stuff together really doesn't...and the guy who doesn't have his stuff together also doesn't. The guy in between? Also has no idea what's going on. That's the big joke, everyone. Nobody knows what the heck is going on, and we're so obsessed with pretending that we do. 

If I've learned anything, it's that admitting that you don't know is the hardest conversation you'll ever have with yourself. Which brings me to my next point...

2. Knowing what you don't know is way more valuable than knowing what you know.

Think about your resume for a second. What's on it? Skills, work experience, education, stuff you're good at: it's all stuff that will be valuable to an employer in selecting a candidate for the job. We use that to weed out 'under-qualified candidates' to give people who show the most promise the job. Experience is everything.

That resume is everything that you know you know. You are broadcasting to the world "Hey, I'm good at this stuff because I've done it before. Hire me."

Check out this cool diagram that I could have drawn in Illustrator in 5 minutes, but I instead took 30 minutes to find on some old 1999 website:

Your resume hangs out in that bottom left quadrant of the Diagram O' Knowledge. When I write my resume, I say "Yes, I know that I know this stuff. I want you to know that I know what I know, so I wrote it down for you."

The upper left quadrant is that stuff that pops up after years of not knowing that you knew it. A fine example would be that Backstreet Boys song your sister blared nonstop for 3 years, and it popped up on the local radio and you started singing along. You didn't know you knew it...otherwise you'd be ashamed. Or you'd rock at Karaoke Fridays.

The upper right is the scary uncharted territory of the Diagram O' Knowledge. That's all the stuff in the world that you have no clue it even exists, and so you can't worry about not knowing it because you don't even know what it is. This is where travelers love to tread. It's the thrill of finding someplace new and having no idea beforehand that something this cool existed. I have countless examples of places and experiences that started in that upper right quadrant. Most of them I documented in this blog.

The one I want to focus on is that bottom right quadrant. It's the second step of that circulation of knowledge illustrated by the arrows. This is an interesting step that most people in the professional world hate to admit it even exists because its the only quadrant that really challenges you and exposes you as a person.

To know something you don't know and make it something you know that you know, you have to practice and get good at it. 10,000 hours, 10 years, immerse yourself in it...whatever school of thought you come from, it takes effort to move on to the next quadrant. People often do it quietly. They study or they gain experience behind close doors. They rarely reveal that they are residing in that quadrant because they are afraid to admit that they don't know. Nobody likes to look like a fool.

Faking it requires you to accept that, hey, you don't know everything. There's a ton of stuff in that 'things you don't know you don't know' category, and as you discover them they eventually pile up in the 'things you know you don't know'. To get out of it, you need to fake it. Sometimes, that requires help, which brings me to my next point.

3. Admitting you don't know is professional, and validates you 'faking it' so you can get the experience.

This one hits even harder in Korea, where 'saving face' is not just a business practice, it's doctrine. I'm pretty vocal and open, and when I see something wrong...I say it's wrong. I learned this after high school, and it helped break me out of my social shell that inhibited me from being the guy I wanted to be.

In my work, this kind of approach is harsh and is heavily scrutinized. And, more often than not, I'll get bruised up until someone finds something that I don't know about. Those moments become critical in th work world.

I often rely on my primal travel instinct to survive, and that's when I I'm faking it...that I don't know how to do a certain thing. Let me rephrase that to be more clear: I fake it while simultaneously admitting I don't know what I'm doing. How the heck does that work?

Well, it came from traveling and learning that it wasn't the end of the world to put all your chips on the table. My first trip out of the country was Fiji, a 3rd world nation that had just recently went through a military coup. I was a frightened 19 year old with alot of pride on the line. I had spent 3 months telling my friends and family how awesome this whole study abroad thing would be. I put all this effort into faking this "it's no big deal" attitude, and when I realized I was 6000 miles from home it because real that I had no idea what the heck I was doing.

So what did I do? I made friends. Quickly. I tagged along and was up front with people: this is my first time away from home, and I don't know what this traveling thing is all about. More often than not, I would be brought under someone's wing and taken along for an adventure. Slowly but surely, my adventurous side started taking shape. And that whole time I was faking a laid back attitude while being scared.

Korea's been a test of that character because I paint myself as a huge target. Korean culture encourages people to 'save face' and not admit that they don't know what's going on. Feigning success is just as, if not more, important than success itself. It has bit them in the butt a couple times, like a nuclear reactor that was built on forged security certificates.

When I'm out there and I'm expected to have a plan for everything, I make an effort to be up front and say that I just don't know. That doesn't set well sometimes, and either I'm forced to go back to the drawing board and teach myself how to do something or my supervisors have to accept that, sometimes, the insane (yet insanely awesome) task they assigned me to complete is just that: insane. There will be bumps, and we ultimately have to fake our way through this together. We are all on the same team, which brings me to my last point:

4. We all end the race together, so don't fret too much if you feel like you're falling behind, and don't gloat when you're ahead.

During these years of trying to 'make it', I've been especially conscious of the elderly people I meet along the way. These are my grandfathers and grandmothers, or elders that lend me their stories from time to time. These are people who have lived their lives, and are on that final stretch in the rat race that is life.

When I talk to them, I realize how petty 'getting ahead' is, and that in the end all the profits and success we have in our younger years just don't matter. Our legacy comes with family and friends, not fortune and fame. As long as you maintain relationships with a good heart and make an effort to live a morally sound life, you'll get to the end wholly satisfied. All my grandparents got to that point, and I haven't met very many elderly who feel like their life was a waste or who regret making decisions in their 20's (cept for smoking and breaking the law. Don't do that, kids).

It brings me back to the rat race, and too often it feels like a scramble to the top. It's cutthroat competition followed by intense periods of critically comparing lives like they fall on some kind of grading scale. As I get older, I start to notice the people who are figuring it out and finding that happiness we all long to have. They don't run in that race. They don't climb on top of people to reach a goal. They don't just fake the game...they play by their own rules, and when you do that you win every time.

That's comforting to know, right? We can all win together.