We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be
It’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that I think about often. And I mostly thought about it in the negative. I spent my childhood pretending to be more hurt than anyone else, I spent my teens pretending to be a tragedy of limitless potential, I spent my 20s pretending to be a barfly, all the while thinking I was something deeper and truer than my behaviour. Meanwhile I saw a lot of people pretending to be hardcore, pretending to loved drugs, pretending to be little criminals for the teenage social carte blanche and now they’re mostly in jail and some are dead.
But it can work in the positive too. Think about bravery: if you can pretend to be brave when you’re afraid then that’s what bravery actually is. If you can act tough when you’re endurance is waning then that’s what toughness is.
It’s works well with a quote from Jocko Willink that I like, he says if you want to be tougher, be tougher.
This ideas builds character rather than building you into a character, which is what a lot of people do with their aspirations. They try to act like what they want to be, without going through what it takes to actually be what they want to be.
To paraphrase Jocko – if you want to be smarter, be smarter – but you can’t just pretend to be smart. That’s make you look stupid. If you want to be smarter you have to get smarter. You can’t, to use a phrase which disgusts me, fake til you make it; and in fact, faking it will ensure you never make it.
So if your ideal self is smart you can’t think of yourself as smart, you have to think of yourself as learning.
I read about a study with children who received good grades on a test. Half of them were praised for being smart and half were praised for having studied hard. The grades of the children in the smart group went down in the future. They expected to know things without studying, they got scared to admit when they didn’t know things, the persona of smart had expectations they couldn’t meet because smart isn’t actually a thing.
I get told a lot that I’m smart and I reminded myself that I’m not smart, I’m insightful, I’m curious, I’m patient about exploring ideas. Those things are all processes to go through not just a label.
Time for a squash analogy: If I play against someone and beat them easily because it’s there second game I get labelled good at squash, if I then play Karim Gawad and get crushed I’m not a good squash player. Therefore that ‘good’ label meant nothing. It doesn’t quantify my ability in any way.
And so it is with people who want to be smart, who think they can intuit any situation. Even if they’re right it’s only a coincidence because it isn’t built on anything.
They live behind a one-way mirror in their own lives, seeing through their own persona and hoping you don’t see the real them behind it. They’re trying to superimpose an ideal personality onto themselves and it doesn’t quite work because it’s apparent when they don’t have the foundation.
These people are highly susceptible to advertising. They want to be connoisseurs and they have no palette so they buy whatever they’ve been given the impression is fancy. They want to have educated opinions so they mimic the strongest sounding opinions they’ve heard.
With that said I think there is still a place for pretending-as-growth.
I sometimes wear bright colours, or colours at all for that matter, and it changes how I know people see me. And rather than telling myself this isn’t me because I naturally love dressing in solid black I tell myself that it’s okay to be playful, that it’s okay to be slightly someone else.
I think there’s a terrible danger in thinking you’ve found your true self because it limits your own behaviour. If you think I’m not a sports person then you won’t play sports even on the day you get invited and think yeah, you know what, something inside me does want to go throw a football around.
We’re under no obligation to be the same person internally or ex on any given day. Sometimes just some anonymity can tell you who you wish you were. As a meditation go to a bar where no one knows you are and ask yourself – what do you want them to be seeing when they look at you? What story unfolds in your head when you’re free from being the character you’ve been?