For a couple of summers in the early ’90s, if you were vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland, and had any interest in deep sea fishing, you might have come across my name as one of the local experts in the field. I wrote a weekly bylined column for one of the papers, supplied daily fishing reports to one of the radio stations, and I was quoted regularly by the “outdoor writers” (a thing back then, not sure if it still is) for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post.
At that time, I had never been deep sea fishing (or any other kind) in my life. And since then, nothing has changed. I have still never been fishing. I know absolutely nothing about it.
My brief “expertise” in angling was bought and paid for by the owners of the marina where I had landed my first job after graduating from college, managing marketing and promotions.
The actual information came from a dockhand named Sam, a high schooler with an interest in journalism, who provided me with daily reports that I fashioned into columns, radio segments, and press releases. If you spoke to me in person at the time and asked me what was “running,” I could have told you, and even used all the right jargon (none of which I remember now). (Thanks, Sam, wherever you are!)
I didn’t get that job because I knew anything about marketing or promotions. No, they hired me because I was cheap, due to the fact that, well, I didn’t know anything about marketing or promotions. (Up until that point my young life had been focused on writing of the creative, and secondarily academic, kind.)
What I learned during those summers set me on a path for a reasonably successful career in pretending to know what I was talking about. I learned that if I spoke (wrote) with authority, people assumed I had authority; if I worked for a marina, and talked about fishing as if I were an expert, then as far as anybody else was concerned, I was an expert. The same thing applied later in my career to various other industries like trucking and construction.
As I climbed the ladder, such as it was, into management and executive roles, I discovered that what I had learned about “speaking (writing) with authority” applied equally well to “acting with authority.” I made decisions, because that is what leaders do, ergo I was a leader. I acted with confidence, ergo I was confident.
Note that I didn’t necessarily feel confident, and I never believed that I deserved whatever actual authority had accrued to me. My life for many years felt very constrained by the need to fake strength and hide weakness. Impostor syndrome is real, especially if you happen to be an impostor.
Back before the Internet, discovering that one could be an expert just by declaring oneself an expert felt like discovering a hitherto unknown superpower, one that was actually available to all, but most people didn’t know about it. Of course, the world is very different now, and “thanks” to social media, it’s a given: we all have a take to share, we all have an opinion (about anything) that carries the weight of validity because it is our opinion.
We’re all experts now; all we need to work on is our brands.
(Isn’t it exhausting to have to be right all the time? To worry that you might be found out, that maybe you’ll say the wrong thing, or the right thing taken in the wrong way?)
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, which led to the usual sort of life re-evaluations one might expect. Everything that had defined “success” for me up until that point no longer meant much of anything. I’ve been trying ever since to deal with the truth of life (and truth beyond life, truth bigger than myself, bigger than all of us), which means I must try and stop pretending. I have been wrestling with how to stop “acting with authority” and start “acting with humility.”
I fail at this effort, a lot. One builds habits and routines that are hard to break. One has knee-jerk reactions that seem impossible to curtail. One wrestles with definitions (what does it really mean to, for example, write with humility?). One sometimes finds it easier to act without thinking, and sometimes easier to think than to act.
One sometimes refers to oneself as “one” to distance oneself from one’s own weaknesses.
And one often acts like a selfish asshole, because we are all, to quote Sarah Condon from a recent episode of The Mockingcast, selfish assholes.
The point of this blog/newsletter is to give myself a space to explore faith and life and culture without always pretending to know what I’m talking about. I chose the name of this blog for a reason. I’m coming out (again): I’m not always right. In fact, at any given moment, I’m probably wrong. It’s a much less exhausting way to live.
Here I will try to learn how to give up the false air of authority that is the default mode in our society for white men such as myself, and to fail at it publicly, not just privately. To admit that I am probably wrong, and will probably be wrong, about what I think and do and write, just as I was probably wrong on many occasions in my life about the things I did and said so confidently.
You (yes, you) are probably wrong, too. It’s okay. Maybe we are wrong about different things. Maybe we can even learn from each other.