Learning How To Fake Expertise

 My Uncle Bobby, borrowing a page from George Burns and only half-jokingly, would often give me this sage piece of advice:  “Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”  It was another way of saying, “Fake it till you make it.”  To me, the underlying drift of Uncle Bobby’s and George Burns’ advice was an acknowledgment that pretending we feel some way that we don’t or that we know more than we do is universal. 

I was thinking of Uncle Bobby and his advice recently as I watched my 11-month-old daughter throw her breakfast on the floor.  Gravity is a new discovery for her, and she is quite taken by it.  After eating about half a slice of pear, she dropped the rest over the side of her chair and stared at it on the ground.  My wife picked it up for her, only to have her drop it again.  “All gone,” I heard myself declare with confidence and somewhat to my surprise.  My wife offered her another slice of pear, still on her tray, which my daughter swiftly grabbed and dropped.  “All gone,” my wife said.  When my daughter gave a whimper of protest, we commiserated with her.  “It is disappointing when your pear is all gone,” we said as she continued to peer over the edge of her chair in astonishment.  Eventually, we all moved on.  We cleaned up breakfast, and my wife and I ate the pear slices from the floor. 

Afterwards, I thought about my reaction – my confident assertion that the pear was “all gone” when clearly it wasn’t.  It was a way of saying that breakfast was for eating and not for gravity experiments – a sound philosophy, I think – but by saying it so quickly I appeared decidedly more expert than I felt.  In truth, I did not know the right thing to do, but I had guessed and done so in a way that seemed to belie my uncertainty.

Our daughter is our first child – and so every developmental milestone she approaches will be a first for all of us.  I have never been so much on the learning edge than I am now as a parent.  I am so acutely aware, all the time, of the many things I do not know.  The prospect of so much not knowing feels intimidating to me until I think of my own parents and especially my father. 

Like my daughter, I was a firstborn.  My mother had done some de facto parenting before – she was the oldest daughter in a family of 10 children (Uncle Bobby was number 5) – but my father was the youngest of two.  My first milestones as a child were his first milestones as a parent, and when my mother died when I was 10 he was left to figure out a lot of it on his own.  Like me in these early months of parenthood, he must have had many moments of deep wonder and deep uncertainty, moments when he just had to do the best he could, moments when he had to take a deep breath and fake it.

And here’s why I feel so optimistic about my own parenting:  as a child and an adolescent, I never once thought my father was faking it.  Sure, he made some mistakes along the way, but looking back I remember him as someone who seemed generally to know what he was doing.  My father died in 2010, and so I cannot now ask him about what he knew or did not know or how he felt.  But I know he loved me, and so I think to myself what an act of love learning is – to face down your fears and your uncertainty, to take your best guess even when you know you could be wrong.

Realizing this, I am comforted to think that my best guesses are good enough.  More than that, they are an act of profound love.  If my daughter learns one day that I did not know what I was doing, I will tell her that life is often humbling, but that if you can learn how to fake it – how to overcome your not knowing how by knowing that you have to do the best you can – then you’ve got it made.