I'm Not a Phony

Confidence is kind of a dirty word these days. Talking about our strengths and abilities makes us feel like impostors. We’re all insecure, and I’m sick of it.

Over the weekend, I read an old post from Scott Hanselman about feeling like a phony. It reminded me of another post by Nate Green on the same subject.

The sentiment behind both of these articles is summed up pretty well in this quote from Nate (for context, he’s talking about how he got a book deal at 23 with no formal education):

Who the hell did I think I was?

It was only a matter of time, I thought. Only a matter of time before everyone realizes I have no business doing any of this.

At any moment, I would be exposed as a fraud. On a large scale. And it scared the shit out of me.

We Get Trained to Feel Like Phonies

This is a pretty widespread sentiment among the people I know who are successful. Far too many things are working against them.

There’s the slow build, which pretty much guarantees that you never really notice your success.1 Lots of things have improved for me since I was a broke freelancer working 16-hour days in an apartment that I’m pretty sure had black mold — but I don’t really feel different than that younger, less experienced version of myself.2

There’s the realization that knowing almost everything about Thing A only leads to the further realization that — in order to truly understand the “big picture” — a complete knowledge of Things B, C, and D is required.

And, most importantly, we get told that feeling competent and self-assured is socially unacceptable.

Apologize for Your Progress

Somewhere along the lines, it became unacceptable to feel proud of our success.

Saying out loud that you’re skilled is met with derision. “You sound arrogant.” “You’re acting like you’re better than everyone else.”

Now, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about bragging, here. There’s a world of difference between, “I’m making a lot of progress at work right now; all that hard work is finally paying off,” and, “I am killing it right now — who wants to touch me?”

It feels, though, that the pursuit of political correctness has made it a faux pas to talk about what you’re capable of in most situations.

As a result, I find myself actively try to steer conversations away from what I’m doing because I’m worried that I’ll come off like an asshole if I talk about the things I’m working on.

I Am NOT a Phony

I am not the smartest person in the world. I don’t know the most things about anything. There are much smarter people, much more experienced people, much better-looking people, much funnier people.

Yet I still represent myself as an expert on certain topics, and I still think I’m pretty good at a few things.

Just because someone else is better doesn’t mean I’m not good.

And, on top of that, I have a very unique blend of strengths that make me extremely valuable in certain situations.

When people ask for my services, I don’t look around like who, me? — I take the compliment and get to work.

It’s Okay to Be Confident

I hate that when I compliment someone, the expected response is, “Oh, I’m not any good. I just got lucky.” Or, “I’m surrounded by a great team.”

We deflect the praise because it just feels too icky to admit we’re good at things.

I hear myself say shit like this all the time. I don’t want to be branded a cocky prick, so I give all the credit to other people, or hide behind some self-deprecating wisecrack.

Part of this is humility, which is a good thing. But it’s been taken to the extreme where accepting any praise is somehow uncouth.

But, here’s the thing: I have been fortunate, and I do have an incredible team, but I’m also really fucking good at what I do. I’ve put in tens of thousands of hours learning this craft, and every year I put in thousands more continuing my education.

I’m not a phony. I belong here.

This Guy’s a Dick

This post sounds like bragging. Like I’m trying to tell everyone how great I am.

I’m not.3

What I’m trying to say here is that it’s okay to be proud of your accomplishments.

If you’re being honest with yourself, talking about your accomplishments is perfectly acceptable.

However, I’m not advocating constant self-adulation. It requires a little tact.

How to Own Your Success Without Being a Dick

If you know my friends, you’ll know that I still struggle with “the line” sometimes. But I’m working on a system of rules to keep myself from being a dick in conversation.

  1. Never bring up your own success. You can’t avoid sounding self-serving if you insert praise for yourself into a conversation; let someone else ask first.
  2. Don’t exaggerate. Hyperbole is great for a cute anecdote, but if it turns out you’re telling a success story that’s been embellished, you’ll look like a liar. If anything, play down the details a bit.4
  3. Stop at one. If you end up telling a success story, don’t let yourself get sucked into telling another one. This is hard, because once you start talking about yourself it’s hard to stop. But, seriously. Stop.
  4. Spend more time asking questions and listening than talking. This is huge. Unless you’ve been asked to speak, spend more time seeing what you can learn from everyone else at the table.

It’s not a complete list, but it (usually) keeps me from coming off like a douchebag.

You’re Not a Phony, Either

Can we make a deal?

Going forward, let’s try to own our successes. We’ve worked hard for them.

Let’s recognize that we’re not the best or the smartest, but we’re pretty damn good, and we’re pretty damn smart.

We are NOT impostors. We are NOT frauds.

We are fucking awesome.


  1. This is called creeping normalcy, which is the idea that we don’t notice changes if they happen in small increments over a long period of time. Usually this is used to describe negative changes, but the same effects seem to be present with the positive as well.
  2. Except for the whole “not dying of black mold-related illness” thing.
  3. I am. I’m awesome.
  4. For example, if you launched a successful company, don’t talk about the press or awards you’re getting. Instead, talk about what you’re doing, and let someone else talk about how much everyone else likes you.

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