Fake It Till You Make It
Western societies place an extraordinary value on self-confidence. Many self-help books even decry that “a life lived without confidence is not a worthy life”. Rosemary Moss Kanter, internationally respected professor at the Harvard Business School and the author or co-author of eighteen business books about business management, change, and innovation, claimed in her book “Confidence” that “confidence shapes the outcomes of many contests of life – from simple ball games to complex enterprises, from individual performance to national culture.” Fortunately for those of us who lack confidence from time to time, it can be faked, a technique also mentioned by Susan Cain in her book about introversion.
Dr. Brian R. Little, a popular professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and a noted introvert, claims that personality traits are not fixed, but free so that individuals can choose to express or inhibit their inborn tendencies when engaged in tasks associated with their deepest values. “ Out of love for our wives or kids or professions, we enjoin ourselves to act ‘out of character,’” Little says. “For example, even though I’m a classic introvert, when I give a lecture for my students I perform with great passion. Introverts, when they are ‘on,’ become pseudo-extraverts. Can you tell the difference between a born extravert and a pseudo-extravert? Usually you cannot.”
In fact, Little notes introverts who act out of character are exhibiting courage; he claims these people are more courageous than extraverts who respond without thinking or self-analysis. In a 2003 Harvard Magazine article, Little relates an example of an introverted kid in a soccer game who is kicked hard in the shin, shows her pain, and hears someone say, “Don’t be a wuss.” Who is more a hero – the introvert who hobbles back onto the field with a tear in an eye or the extravert with the higher pain threshold? The introvert is acting out of character for the sake of the team.
A natural introvert, I learned as a teenager how to don the cloak of extraversion to protect myself physically and emotionally. Playing a role – envisioning myself as a character in a play – enabled me to be more aggressive and appear more confident than I really felt, whether with young women or a group of hostile men. Over time, I developed many of the habits of extraversion, often surfacing when in groups of people without conscious effort on my part. As the character in Alex Flinn’s “Breathing Underwater” said, “It’s easier to fake it. When you fake it for sixteen years, it becomes part of you, something you don’t think about.”
In hindsight, learning the mannerisms and eventually adopting the psychology of an extrovert was more than worthwhile, particularly in the hyper-competition of business and the need to successfully navigate the complex stratagems of big company politics. At the same time, I discovered I needed regular breaks from the intensity of being on stage and constantly on call. I regularly sought out down-time where I could be alone or with a few trusted friends or family members and decompress.
If you want to change your life, especially if it involves career, working with other people, or new experiences, extraversion is a nice, if not essential, trait or tool to have. Best of all, the feedback from other people as you pretend to be extroverted and confident, unless you stray too far past extraversion to arrogance, is invariably positive and reinforces self-value. And so the cycle continues.