Truth #6: No One Knows What They’re Doing
Don't let the literal and figurative sequins of success fool you.
When we want something and don’t know if it’s going to happen, we tend to default to the “I’m not good enough”s.
We circle around the idea that if we get it they are gonna find out we’re a total sham.
For example, they will discover that we’re an American Greed level fraudster who’s grossly inflated our understanding of SEO. Then, we’ll be exposed as the cheap-suited convict we are. Upon being revealed, we’ll be discarded harshly and publicly, bringing shame upon our parents and ancestors.
Note: Men typically do not share in the “I’m not good enough” problem. Most men think—to the point of diagnosable delusion—that without the general skill or know-how, they’ll somehow knock it out of the park.
But for many of us, at the junction of our level-up, we sabotage with self-doubt.
Can I write a book? Why would anyone care? What if I’m actually not good?Could I become a C-suite bitch and implement the first unlimited vacation policy that means something? Should I just try to become the next “thing” in child entertainment, like the Wiggles—only less pedo, more grungy singer/songwriter?
CAN I EVEN DO THIS?
If we temporarily suspend our self-doubt, and take a page from literally any man’s book, the answer is: yeah, we probably can do it. If we care enough and are angling toward something we’re good at (or are willing to try hard for), there’s no reason we can’t.
Fortunately, self-confidence can be gained when we come to terms with one game-changing truth: no one knows what they’re doing.
At least, not all of the time. And certainly not at first.
When we compare ourselves to the success of others, we prop up the person behind success. We also make justifications like, “they were probably rich before”, “their parent’s got them there” or “they’re just really good looking”.
And while some of these things may be true, it doesn’t account for everything. It’s also
a narrow view an excuse. But it’s not our fault.
When the accomplishments of another are substantial, there’s admiration and intimidation. In this process, the person behind the success becomes dehumanized.
Great leaders, famous celebrities, celebrated musicians, and other people who are exceptional, get categorized as ‘superhuman’. And in this process, their long, meandering paths and shameless moments get erased.
The final destination becomes the only story.
We don’t hear as much about the come up. It’s not as shiny and clean. And when we do hear about someone’s rise, it’s told as an abbreviated cartoony tale of a “girl with big city dreams who knocked on doors, but had to take work as a cocktail waitress (stripper) until she met a music exec (predator) who saw something in her, and ‘welp, the rest is history”.
In these nicely packaged, curly ribboned tales, we omit the part where she felt like an imposter, questioned her very existence, endlessly sought validation from those around her until they had to “distance themselves”, and enrolled in night-school to become a phlebotomist “just in case”.
But most harmfully, in these retellings of success, the replicable path gets covered up.
Success stories focus on the one pivotal moment, and not the countless micro-moves that got them to the tipping point. We glaze over the interesting part: when they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing and had to struggle past it.
Although I’ve made the promise that this book is a quote-free zone (and that it shall remain), I often think about what Ira Glass, producer of This American Life, describes as the “gap in creative work”.
To paraphrase, before we get really good at something, there’s a gap between our standards and the quality of work we’re actually skilled enough to produce. We’re disappointed by our work because we have a vision and good taste, but we don’t yet have the ability to execute on it. Only through repetition and sifting through our own sub-par shit, can we develop the skill to play the music, tell the story, create the thing, or Beautiful Mind the math.
When we assume that successful people arrive “better than”, we ignore the fact that there was a point where they didn’t know what they were doing—where they legitimately sucked. We dismiss the unsexy grunt work and assume that they never had employers, collaborators, or straight-up family members who also thought they sucked.
We leave out the sacrifice and shamelessness to “other” them. To make it feel like they have something we don’t. Or to let ourselves off the hook with the “if it hasn’t clicked by now, it’s probably never gonna! Back to phlebotomy school!”.
In truth, we just weren’t around for most successful people’s pre-click era. We arrived after the glow-up. But without a doubt, at one point–or many points—successful people didn’t know what they were doing. They just kept fakin’ it until they were makin’ it.
Of course, there are horrible viral stars, trust funders, nepo babies, and people who instantly got it, but this isn’t the focus. Nor is it the majority—at least not outside of Hollywood.
Individual success—the real kind—seems to be some concoction of: trial and erroring, not knowing what the fuck we’re doing, getting better, imposter syndrome, risk, luck, an emerging thing, a tipping point, and then maybe (finally) feeling like we’ve found something and we know what’s happening.
All to say, most success stories aren’t that different from ours. Especially, if we’re plugging away at something in a focused direction.
Successful people have just moved further away from their tipping point.
The version of them that feels regular has been buffered by distance and the displays of success.
With success comes a level of production that separates the person from the people. The production of success hides vulnerabilities, sameness, and is reinforced by the human desire to blow thic smoke up the thic ass of people who already have too much. This allows the wedge to get bigger and the thic legs on the pedestal to grow.
This phenomenon becomes more exaggerated with the level of perceived greatness. It fuels the idea that these people are “different” or have a “magic” that we don’t possess.
So, remember: Rihanna’s breath has stunk, Jason Mamoa’s wept in a fastfood restaurant, and Oprah’s admitted to smoking crack (google it).
When we can see through the veil of success, we understand that there’s no real difference between “us” and “them”. Celebs, artists, tech lords, and even our own bosses, inhabit a system that rewards a certain portrayal of success. This same system discourages self-deprecation, transparency, humanity, humility, forehead wrinkles, and any admissions of averageness.
Note: Anyone who lived through the pandemic and watched TV talk shows transition to Zoom in 2020, should: a) have a newfound respect for make-up artists because *woof* to the eyeshadow these TV hosts painted on themselves in quarantine and b) know that they’ve witnessed the production of success.
Remember how bad the quality of talk shows became when *production* got stripped away? The View, The Ellen Degeneres Show, and late-night shows were reduced to the host sitting in front of a cam struggling to deliver a monologue. Without the audience “ooo’s and awe’s”, canned laughter, gimmicks, free-giveaways, or leggy celebrity guests in cocktail dresses, we got to see the person behind the success.
And it was a lot less grand, and a hell of a lot more average than we’re EVER permitted to see. Without the literal production of success, we caught a real-life glimpse at how those at the top have been propped up.
In other words, *it* might not exist in the way that we’ve been led to believe.
When we peer behind the spectacle of success and get to see the person, we gain perspective. When we understand that self-doubt is something to train ourselves out of, and that successful people have just lived out their suck, it all becomes more tangible.
So, if your goal feels lofty, it probably is. If you’re not good enough, you’ll get better along the way. Or if you’re not sure what your success looks like, follow your envy.
And trust in the truths that success, by design, buries: no one knows what they’re doing; anyone without a personality disorder has self-doubt; and a lot of it is just production (and good lighting).
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