I’ve spent most of my life regressing to the mean. I don’t mean that I’ve actually been getting worse at what I do, or getting any less intelligent, but every big transition in my life has been into a larger pond. I started my life in Paducah, Kentucky, a small town that – for all its faults – was a good place to grow up. I had some nurturing, positive influences from family and teachers, and I finished high school near the top of my class. From where I stood in 2006, it looked like I could do anything. The world was mine for conquering. I was headed to Georgia Tech, where I intended to double major in Computer Engineering and Mathematics before earning a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. My real journey was a little different than the one I had charted.
Shortly after arriving at Tech, I had a frightening realization: I was surrounded by smart people. Like, really smart. Everywhere I looked there were better mathematicians, better programmers, better writers and better scientists. For the first time in my life, I felt average. I rarely had the feeling that I was at the bottom, but every day I found myself struggling where I never expected to struggle, fighting for grades I could’ve phoned-in in High School. My first Calculus II exam was more than a test: it was a road sign letting me know I had passed the last exit to Easy Street.
So I studied much harder, and got only slightly better results. The academic challenges also gave me insight into some talents I didn’t know I had – I discovered an ability to connect with people and a set of didactic skills that made me a pretty effective communicator. As I spent five years discovering and nurturing my talents, I began to realize that the academic plan I’d naïvely laid out in twelfth grade was just not for me. I discovered exciting new things like Human-Computer Interaction, project management, and public speaking. I left Georgia Tech a better and more well-rounded person, but I was also keenly aware that I wasn’t on the far right of the bell curve.
After getting out, I made the move to Seattle to start a job with Microsoft as a Program Manager in the Office organization. During my first week, I spent a lot of time tagging along to meetings with other PMs, and I quickly found myself back in August 2006: I was sitting in a room packed full of people who were clearly more intelligent, more experienced, better leaders than I was. On my third day I remember sliding down in my chair, slumping my shoulders, and hoping no one would ask me for my silly, immature opinion. I had a lot of public speaking experience in college, but this was different. These people knew things. So for a few weeks, I just listened, desperately trying to take in whatever slivers of knowledge I could wrap my brain around. I was an impostor. I’d fallen into a job I was in no way qualified for, and it was only a matter of time before I’d be found out. Early in my second month of work my boss invited me into her office for a chat. I sat there timidly on the edge of the bright red couch, hoping she wasn’t going to grill me on the many three-letter-acronyms I didn’t know, and she gave me what turned out to be some of the most important advice I’ve received in my career so far.
“Ryan, do you know why we hired you to do this job?” She asked, sitting on a chair across from me.
“Uh, because you thought I might be good at it?”
“That’s exactly right! We hired you because we believe that you’re smart, and that you have leadership capability. We didn’t hire you because you have all the answers, we hired you because we believe that you can help us find them.” She stood up and walked to the whiteboard and drew a horizontal line.
“New PMs usually fall to either end of a spectrum of confidence,” she continued, drawing a notch on the right end of the line, “On the one hand, we have PMs made of steel – rigid and inflexible. They come in so confident they’re right that there’s no convincing them otherwise. They always state their opinion loud and clear, and believe that everyone with a different one is simply incorrect.”
She drew a notch on the left end of the line, “On the other end, we have PMs that are more like puddles. They don’t hold any particular shape, and they tend to slosh around wherever they’re pushed. They avoid having an opinion because they’re afraid to be wrong. They’re afraid that there’s nothing of value they can add to the discussion, so they sit back quietly. So far, it seems like you are somewhere around here.” She drew a dot just a bit to the right of the “puddle” notch.
I nodded my head. I could see where this was going. They had hired a puddle to do the job of steel! I wondered what job I could take after I was inevitably fired in the next few months for being made of sludge.
“The truth is, neither of those extremes make for a very good colleague,” she said, “what we really want – what we really need – are people made of clay,” she drew a star somewhere near the middle of the line, “They do have a firmness about them, and they can become firmer in their positions after they’re fired in a kiln, but all along the way they’re influenced by the hands that shape them. We need PMs with the confidence to lead the way, but the flexibility and openness to change in the wake of new information.”
I sat quietly for a moment, trying to figure out how to tell her that I had never been very crafty I didn’t know much about construction materials, so I was wholly unsure what to do with this information.
She sat down in her chair. “The good news is you’re not stuck in any place on that spectrum. You’ve shown that you are a good listener, and if you didn’t have a brain you wouldn’t be here. With some effort, you can always move in either direction.”
“How?” I spoke up.
She laughed a little, clearly in recognition that what she was about to say would sound silly to me, and said “you kind of have to fake it.”
I wasn’t so sure about this advice.
After talking with her, I also spoke with her boss who gave me similar advice, minus the Materials Science. He explained that faking it didn’t mean making stuff up, pretending to know what you’re talking about, being the loudest person in the room, or sticking to your guns in the face of evidence to the contrary. It was about realizing the value you bring to the table, and then bringing it. He said that on the inside, everyone already has something to contribute, but it will never get out if you don’t let it.
He described finding confidence as wearing a costume: the first steps were kind of cosmetic. It started with things like sitting up straight and being engaged in the conversation. Then sharing those ideas when you have them. “Even if you’re scared that you’re wrong, or that nobody cares what you have to say, going through the motions builds you up,” he said. “You’ve got to fake it till you make it.”
This isn’t new advice by any means. Hundreds of years earlier, Shakespeare’s Hamlet said “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” It was, however, precisely what I needed to hear at the time. Over the next few months, I approached work with this mantra: “They hired me for a reason. There’s value in my opinions, and engaging is the only way to understand.” Saying it to myself made me feel a bit silly, like I was Annette Bening in American Beauty, but I kept at it. I asked a lot of questions, including my share of “stupid” ones, and I tried to stay engaged in every discussion. At my mid-year review, my manager asked me to compare myself to the puddle that had oozed on the couch five months earlier. I realized that while I still had a ways to go, I had found my mojo. Wearing a confident person’s costume had instilled some genuine confidence inside.
I’m still rarely the smartest person in the room. I’m not the most eloquent speaker, and I never have all the answers. But I have discovered that the combination of what I do know, a knack for connecting with people, a willingness to ask questions, and a belief in myself can go a long way. I am not exactly where I want to be in life – I have a lot to learn, tons to experience, and many things left I’d like to accomplish – but I have begun to find my place, and I think I’m on my way to making a difference in the world around me. It takes confidence in yourself to get to where you want to be in life, and when there’s none to be found, sometimes you just have to put on the confident person’s facade, and fake it until you find your “real” confidence.