Fake It 'til You Make It

It's hard to be confident right now. Sometimes when the topic of confidence comes up, people say to fake it 'til you make it. I never found that advice to be especially helpful or that it clarified the problem at all. This week, I want to deconstruct the idea and trying to personalize it in a useful way.

Sometimes the advice is that you need to realize that you have nothing to lose when you take those risks. Talk to the most attractive person at the bar. Ask for the promotion at work. Learn a new skill. What that approach fails to take into account is the emotional pain of failure. Taken literally, no, you do have something to lose, like your sense of comfort. Risking and failing makes you confront who you are, what the limits of your abilities are, how your reputation will be affected, etc.

Perhaps what the advice really means is that the risk is still worth taking even if you fail because of the return on your investment. What you sacrifice in comfort you make up for in personal growth. These big scary risks that hold us in fear, maybe all we have to fear is fear itself. If you wait until you're ready, you're already too late. These could all be on motivational posters. They oversimplify a complex issue.

What I have found to be helpful is that sometimes it's easier knowing that you're probably going to fail and that taking the risk allows you to be surprised if you don't. Set the bar really low. Re-author the perception of risk. Another approach is all you need is courage. Half the battle is showing up. Display some intestinal fortitude. This perspective is more helpful to me because it acknowledges that you have a finite amount of Calories that you can budget for a given task. It can help to wrap your head around a problem, but for the tough stuff, there's no replacement for heart. One hundred perecent heart all day, every day. Believe that.

Perhaps faking confidence also goes to mean that success you find in others is fake. There's only room for a few at the top in any given field, so everyone who isn't #1 has to fake their confidence. Confident people are fooling themselves, and so should you. There's a popular TED Talk about not only faking it until you make it but until you become it.

I think there is value in having a reason to be confident. Practise martial arts. Take up a musical instrument. Find a topic that interests you and become an expert in it. That's the slow and painful, legitimate way. But what if you don't have an area to be confident in? Well, I don't know. I played piano for 13 years, some people liked when I played drums, I can dance, I'm a kind person, I'm moderately funny, some people like when I write, I'm a self-starter that can navigate difficult technological waters to create products, I'm lifting some moderately heavy weights at the gym, I can provide for myself and others in an adult way, and I still don't feel great about myself even with these good external factors. If it helps you to feel confident about yourself by being good at something, then do it. If it never makes you feel confident by having somewhere to hang your hat, then maybe there's a deeper problem.

The roots of my identity are firmly planted in a negative place. It's not enough to simply tell myself I'm cool or good enough or other positive things. At least, maybe I just need to say it more. The way I feel about myself is harder to change. Negative and toxic messages have been repeated to me, some by others and some I internalized, and those lies have been told enough that they've become the truth, self-fulfilling prophecies. Logically, of course the negative messages are silliness, but emotionally, it's harder to change.

Job hunting is the worst. People like to problem-solve for me by suggesting places for me to apply for work, telling me that I'm a great candidate no matter what anyone else says, that it doesn't hurt to apply for something you're not qualified for. Maybe from where you're standing, it feels fine. It's different to watch a roller coaster from a distance and say that it's not scary versus someone with vertigo riding that roller coaster with a fear of heights and a distrust for machinery. Unless you've been on that ride before and know what it feels like, you don't have much grounds to comment. Plenty of people die from actual roller coasters failing, and how many of us have played the game Rollercoaster Tycoon and designed rides that intentionally killed the computer people? The pain of the rejection from applying to a lot of these jobs takes a toll. Being told I was approved for regular EI and then being told I needed a note that didn't exist was hard to deal with. Corporate jobs all have their own Taleo website where you need to recreate your profile every time, so while LinkedIn as a social network is super cheesy and gross, it helps as an online resume so I don't have to both upload my resume file and then manually fill in each field again. (Why do I have to do both?!)

I had two interviews this week. I think I passed the interview at the Apple Store, but now it's a matter of waiting for an opening to come up. I might have to wait a few weeks, but this is good news. I feel like I should be happier and I don't want to jinx it, but I also don't have any income still. Eventually, I could work super hard by bouncing between two jobs, but maybe I can settle for just the one for now. I'm so tired. I timed a counselling appointment for later in March, hoping that I would be employed by then. That's a lot of changes to adjust to in a short time, but we'll see when I actually have a start date and a paycheque.

Being an engineer also has an effect on how people view my struggles right now. "You'll make good money eventually, so all these present troubles shall pass. You're a really smart person that can juggle a lot." Personally, I've never really chased wealth for its own sake. Even through the times when a barrel of oil was over $100, I didn't want to sell out and work for an oil company. There were people my age pretty much doubling my salary for working across the street downtown. At this age for most people, they don't pay you to enjoy your job. I also took a pretty big pay cut when I moved to TELUS. It was closer to technology, which I found more interesting, but compared to the world outside of engineering in Alberta, I was still pulling in good money. People also assume that I'm really smart and can do a lot like work two jobs, and while that's normally true, I'm buckling under all the weight. I can handle a lot, and this mindset of logically breaking down problems to their essential element is very useful, but it really glosses over the complexities of what I'm experiencing. It's like in Breaking Bad where Walter White could just fix any problem with science.

Looking at the entirety of my identity; growing up poor as a second-generation immigrant/refugee; in an abusive home; being sexually assaulted at a young age; learning to be single when married to a grad student; having a bunch of close friends move away; suffering from a mental illness without a proper diagnosis; having a few family crises in the last year; job hunting in a bad economy; there are some legitimate reasons why I'm having a rough go at the moment. I often write these great big lists of how sad my life is because I easily lose sight of why things aren't going my way. I blame myself, but I don't think that's advisable. I recently discussed with Carrie the difference between being an immigrant versus a refugee. My dad was the only true refugee in my family, jumping onto a boat on April 30, 1975 (or was it the next day?), whereas my mom's family moved to the US a little after the war was over. Then my parents came to Canada of their own will. I'm oversimplifying the whole issue of immigration, citizenship, and political asylum, but it really underlines the difference in experience between me and my peers. Some were immigrants and people of colour that grew up rich. For me to go to school for engineering doesn't simply mean I'll be okay because I'll make good money or that I can just handle all this stress.

Empathy is key here. I don't usually need ideas from people on what to do, but I don't have the strength to get through my responsibilities. This past Friday, my body just kinda shut down. I slept well, but I really couldn't get it together. Felt like throwing up. Nothing helped me feel better or more like myself. Could be that I'm just sick, but I hadn't felt that way in either recent or distant memory. It was very unnerving. I got through about half my to-do list for the day. It's okay, it was Friday, sometimes nothing really gets done at the end of the week. I'm too tired to carry on with this paragraph.

Well, my Thursday was kinda crazy. I woke up before my alarm and decided to take the car to the gym for a change. Afterwards, I drove Carrie to work, something I rarely ever do, and then on the way home the transmission stopped shifting. A light started flashing on my dashboard, and I had to manually shift the car to keep going through rush hour downtown. Somehow I made it to the mechanic's shop. Additionally, the battery had been failing for the past week or two, even though it's barely a year old, so I was worried that if I pulled over, I wouldn't be able to start the car again. I bought an expensive battery with warranty last time, but maybe it's stupid to buy insurance from someone when they sell you inferior products. Sigh. Well, that threw off my day because I had to take transit home, but I hadn't showered or eaten after my workout, meaning I was sticky, hungry, and cold. Of course, it was leg day, so it hurt to walk all the way to the train station. I had to pee too. The mechanic doesn't know what's wrong with the car, so there's that. Things have gotten to a point now where I don't even get bothered when shit hits the fan. It's comical now, so I just laugh and deal with it. Of course I had recently reached some semblance of positivity and stability, so naturally the car started acting up. If it weren't the car, it would have been something else. Maybe the electricity would have failed in the home, or the heat, or maybe someone would have started a fight with me in the street. I kind of just expect things to go wrong now anyway so that I don't waste as much time or strength feeling upset. Thursday afternoon, I also went to my first support group. I wanted help with a relationship problem, and while it was helpful, it was really hard going through that experience. Then I met up with a friend for dinner. I was meaning to go to a local 3D printing group that night through Meetup.com, but by that point in the day, I was just totally wiped. That was my Thursday, so maybe that's why Friday wasn't clicking for me.

I'm in a state of hypo-arousal. I'm not responding fast enough to problems. I was flying so high for so long, getting anxious about almost everything, that eventually something shut down inside of me. I see threats, breakdowns, disconnects, and I don't really care anymore. I know I need to do something about it, but it'll get done when it gets done. Car troubles, finances, social support network, health, appearance, family crisis, they're all important, but instead of getting ahead of everything, I'm gonna start taking the approach of catching up to whatever's the biggest fire at the time.

I know I'm just pushing too hard, trying to run before I can walk. Everything will be okay, especially if it isn't. If I keep faking that I'm happy, confident, successful, well-adjusted, not struggling, not crumbling, then eventually I will become it.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le