This I Believe

Theodore - Takoma Park, Maryland
Entered on February 17, 2008

I believe everyone is pretending to know what they’re doing. I really believe this, and you should think about it too the next time you see a rock star singing to 30,000 people or a newscaster staring into the camera making profound statements about the state of our nation. Everyone is thinking Why are people letting me do this? There are so many people more qualified, more talented.

I came to DC right out of college armed with my Political Science degree and awed by the city’s monuments and pinstriped suits. I landed a job where I was given actual responsibility. Feeling overwhelmed, I confided in my dad, a Nobel-nominated scientist, that I had no idea what I was doing. “Todd,” he said, “Either do I. I’ve just gotten really good at pretending I do.”

A few years later, I got a degree in Writing. Upon graduating, an instructor gave my class this advice: “Everyone waits for someone to tell them they’re a real writer. I’m telling you now. You’re a writer. Go write something.”

So, I’m a writing something. A novel actually if you must know. Isn’t that impressive? You might even give me the romantic title of “novelist.” I’m sure that there are many more qualified people writing novels. But, isn’t it possible Hemingway began with a realization that he was actually a writer? Maybe Hemingway is a stretch. But writers keep filling those bookstores with books, and I’m confident some of those writers have less of an idea about what they’re doing than I do.

A friend from elementary school had a film at Sundance. My college roommate played major league baseball. My wife may soon become “Dr. Carter.” Where are the gatekeepers for these prestigious accomplishments? What could possible account for these successes other than the fact that no one actually knows what they are doing? I mean, I can tell you truly ridiculous things that each of these people have done. Really stupid stuff. Some of this stuff I wouldn’t even think of doing, and I’m not nearly as famous or accomplished. I’m not even the author of a mediocre novel.

This idea, that no one has a clue, can be frightening, particularly when applied to world leaders. If you’re going to be taken in by this essay, you’ve got to be ready to embrace the chaos of it. At the same time, though, this idea is empowering. Really, you’ve got just as much right to succeed as anyone. So, I’m telling you, just as I was told, “you’re a writer…or an astronaut… or the next president, or whatever else you want to do that seems too daunting or impressive for plain little old you to do. Have at it.