As I walked by myself through the streets of San Francisco on my way to a startup tech conference a few summers ago, my confidence levels were running on empty. I was a student interning at a think tank in Oakland for the summer, and as a small-town girl from the conservative Midwest who shied away from some of Silicon Valley’s bold-yet-blinkered attitudes, this conference was well out of my comfort zone. I repeated a well-worn little phrase in my head to make myself feel better: Fake it til you make it. Fake it til you make it.
I walked into the imposing hotel where the conference was held, got my nametag, and ended up sitting next to a young entrepreneur for the first talk. The speaker cheerfully mentioned that the building was "420-friendly," and I had to ask my neighbor what that meant. He looked at me like I was from a different planet as he explained it meant you could use marijuana there. As I absorbed this information, I began to feel even more out of place. The "fake it til you make it" plan was not working. Was I supposed to pretend I had the same casual attitude toward marijuana as the people around me? As the conference went on, I had a great time and met some amazing people, but that lingering feeling of unease remained. Silicon Valley was cool in some ways, but many people there acted casually toward things that I held sacred. That "fake it til you make it" attitude was not helpful for me then, and it didn’t seem to be helping many of the people around me, either.
That summer, I began to tire of all the facades, and started to ask myself an important question. Why do I have to fake it til I make it, when I can be genuine and still make it? It took a couple years to really build up an attitude of genuine self-presentation, but my frustration in San Francisco has developed into a new and better approach to confidence. Now, whenever I'm nervous about entering a new situation with confidence, instead of trying to fake an attitude of self-assurance I tell myself, "Act like you live here."
This powerful little phrase indicates a subtle shift in thinking. "Fake it til you make it" implies that you are an outsider who must resort to fraud in order to feel accepted, while "Act like you live here" assumes that you belong where you are, and you get to act like it. The first phrase is a criticism of your identity, but the second is a confirmation of it. Now, whenever I have to enter a new situation, I imagine myself as a gracious hostess welcoming friends into my home—then I can bring that genuine feeling of open, welcoming friendship with me into a new or unfamiliar situation. What a great way to walk in! Even if you are the one being welcomed, you are setting yourself up to feel much more peaceful and confident than if you have to uphold a false front.
"Act like you live here" reminds me to feel at home wherever I am. I believe this secure feeling is as much a conscious choice as a result of the environment around us. Just like we want to create lovely, comfortable spaces in our homes, I am inspired by the phrase "Act like you live here" to create lovely, comfortable moments in my new surroundings, whether a PTA meeting or a cocktail bar, an unfamiliar town or an unexpected project. For example, if you’re going out for drinks with a group of accomplished young professionals, try applying this approach by focusing on others. Instead of listing your own achievements to show everyone that you're equal to such company, ask about everyone's favorite childhood book or TV show. Nostalgia is a powerful equalizer, and you will help others lower their walls as well. This creative approach to confidence stands in stark contrast to the performance-driven charade so common in the modern social scene.
Sometimes, the environment we are about to enter may not be secure, lovely, or comfortable. Many times during that summer in San Francisco, I struggled with confidence because my views often put me in the minority. No matter how classy, friendly, or confident I was, some people judged me negatively because of what I believed. This is a powerful incentive to "fake" an image or persona in order to be accepted by those around us. When I tell myself to "act like you live here," I remind myself of the right that I have to reveal my genuine identity, the one that manifests when I am feeling comfortable at home or among good friends. That honesty about who I am has carried me through several dark valleys while still giving me the flexibility to evaluate my own beliefs.
So how can we cultivate genuine, honest confidence? Here are a few quick tips to try today to get you started.
01. When possible, do your research before you head into the new situation—but don’t overdo it.
You don't need to become an expert overnight—you just need to have enough information to ask good questions. For example, before my tech conference, twenty minutes spent googling the attending startups would have helped me turn my nervousness into eagerness and start conversations with the people there. The same principle applies to almost any situation. If you can ask good questions, you can both be honest about your limitations and still get people excited about having you around! Especially in my international travels, this practice has never failed to settle my nerves and help me make friends.
02. Focus on general attitude over specific etiquette.
Because women are particularly sensitive to social interactions, we often feel pressure to act correctly according to the unspoken rules of whatever "room" we are in. If you are switching "rooms" often and trying to "fake" the right behavior for each one, this can be very stressful. Instead, I encourage you to take a step back and develop personal habits and actions that are welcome in every “room.” Where to sit, what clothes to wear, or at which point in the joke to laugh are less important than whether you are courteous, attentive, eager to learn (remember to ask those questions!) and willing to try new things. At the tech conference, I focused too much on how to navigate the elements of Bay Area culture that made me uncomfortable instead of using my naturally outgoing personality to engage with the incredible entrepreneurs there.
03. Finally, in Emerson’s words, “The ornament of a house is the friends that frequent it.”
Genuine, comfortable confidence grows when we let ourselves trust the words of good people around us. If your friends are saying positive things about you, either they're all a bunch of liars or (more likely) they're telling you the truth. Let their encouragement matter to you. I have several people in my life whom I trust to give me confidence. When I'm out in a strange place and need some help, I remember their words and think, "Well, if she said I can do this, then I probably can." Your loved ones are welcome in your home; don't be afraid to take them with you when you need to act like you live somewhere else.
Wherever you go and whatever you do in life, healthy confidence will always be an asset. "Act like you live here" is a challenging little phrase, but while it asks us to be honest with the world, it also frees us to be creative and genuine. No more faking our place in the world—today, let's start acting like we live here.