Muhammed Ali and Imposter Syndrome

A very Merry Bank Holiday Monday, dear reader, and what a gloriously sunny one it is.

Loved writing this blog. I could ramble about Ali all day. Do let me know what you think, share and share alike, and have the most glorious of weeks.

A Tidbit From Me: On Imposter Syndrome

My friend Tom and I went to a full-day workshop the other week.

Tom is a tall, strong, smart, handsome fellow, good with his hands, with a wicked wit and sense of humour, and a strong moral compass to boot.

(Ladies, form an orderly queue.)

All of the course participants took turns to introduce ourselves.

“Hi,” Tom starts, “My name’s Tom, I’m a mechanic…”

We go through the day, working and laughing and presenting and all else.

At the end of the day, both somewhat drained but content, Tom told me he felt socially anxious when introducing himself, feeling his heart beat in his chest, feeling as if he had stammered his words.

He hadn’t. He introduced himself loudly and clearly, like a man. I remember thinking at the time that he imbued a sense of confidence.

In a new environment, feeling unsure of himself, Tom’s appearance was just fine, far better than he himself thought. When I told Tom he had introduced himself loudly and clearly, and I would never have guessed his inner anxiety, he was surprised.

In the evening Tom said, “I feel like I’ve grown.” He had: grown more confident, cast into the confident mould he had already presented in reality, but in which his new self hadn’t set.

I was promoted to a role as MLRO a few years back, at the tender age of 25, taking several board meetings a month, sometimes several a week, facing non-exec directors whose paycheques are justified by the grilling of people in such positions.

For those first few board meetings, my appearance was long-haired, bushy-bearded, sharp suit and whacky tie, using as many words as necessary and no more.

Despite my poker face, like Tom, inner-me was bricking it those first few meetings.

There would be the expected grillings on aspects of my report, which I would prepare for as best as I could. Then there would be the unexpected grillings, the curve-balls, the banana-skin questions.

Imposter syndrome was real: the buck stops with me here, but what the hell do I know? What if I don’t have the answers?

There would be meetings I would be trepidatious for, but would run fine, even enjoyably. For others I came in confident, maybe even cracking a smile or daring smalltalk with the stony-faced board, just to find myself subject to a cross-examination I was ill-prepared for.

In time, I came to recognise my imposter syndrome as indicative of my confidence in taking a challenging role, which morphed from confidence in taking a challenging role to confidence in the role itself.

The appearance throughout remained the same. My face neutral at worst and sanguine at best, my comportment communicating an inner security that at first I wished to have but hadn’t yet developed, trusting that it would come in time.

And it did.

Muhammed Ali, the undisputed king of bombastically confident appearance, faced down the fearsome Ernie Shavers in 1977.

Ali was well past his sell-by date, doughy and sluggish compared to his prime. Some argue he was already displaying symptoms of the Parkinson’s that would eventually render him paralysed.

Shavers was a beast, considered one of the hardest punchers in boxing history, winning a stunning 68 of his 76 bouts by way of knockout, half of them in the first round.

Shavers was oft-ducked, and for good reason.

When Shavers hit you, you stayed hit.

In the second round, one of Shavers’ thudding right hands landed square on Ali’s jaw.

Ali’s legs stiffened at the blow, stumbling back into the ropes, just catching himself, somehow still standing.

With the same glove Ali used to hold himself upright with the rope, he taunts Shavers, beckoning him forward.

If you have ever taken a good punch – a ‘good’ punch – you will know that you are discombobulated, ears ringing, vision blurred, spatial awareness gone.

Watching that clip always makes me a bit emotional.

Past his best, Ali is ready to go, semi-conscious, his legs gone, barely aware of where he is.

Yet his automatic reaction was to laugh in the face of one of history’s hardest punchers, to bluff his man, to dare him to charge.

Shavers hesitated, not daring to charge at Ali, who seemed not only in charge of his faculties, but sharp and mocking. To Shavers, Ali must have appeared invincible, taunting him where 60-odd others had been rendered unconscious.

Ali’s own punches were thrown in bunches, flurrying flashes of brilliance, riling the crowd and catching the eyes of the judges, a consummate display of boxing skill and showmanship. His bravery and bravado did the rest.

Ali won a 15 round unanimous decision.

(Video timestamped to the punch described above.)

You might have read my last blog, in which I mentioned Ali’s confidence in becoming a champion because his mother always believed in him.

Ali’s mother only believed he was going to be champion because he always seemed so confident.

Appearances matter.

Fake it until you make it.

Blag it, then back it.

All great things are born of audacity.

No great thing is born of coasting in the comfort zone.

Dare to fashion a bold mould, position that mould in a situation you want to be in, one outside of your comfort zone, then cast yourself into it.

You will feel an imposter, and so much the better. If you don’t feel an imposter, you haven’t been bold enough.

Protect yourself by fashioning a confident mould, one which can coolly deflect attention and attack like Ali.

That mould will be a mask for the time it takes your new molten self to solidify within it. 

In time, you will find yourself standing in your new position secure and confident, perhaps planning an even bolder mould for the future…

A Quote From Someone Else: On Moulding a Bold Self

“You must practice and develop your boldness. You will often find uses for it… How often we put ourselves down by asking for too little. Understand: If boldness is not natural, neither is timidity. It is an acquired habit, picked up out of a desire to avoid conflict. If timidity has taken hold of you, then root it out. Your fears of the consequences of a bold action are way out of proportion to reality, and in fact the consequences of timidity are worse. Your value is lowered and you create a self-fulfilling cycle of doubt and disaster.”

Robert Greene

A Question For You: Casting Yourself

This week, today even, how can you create a bolder mould for yourself, one you would be happy and proud to be cast into? 

Hope you enjoyed the tidbit, quote and question from me, every other Monday – even bank holidays, apparently.

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