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Why 'Acting Like a Success' Can Help You Be a Success

By Dr. Stephen Kraus

You've heard the old question about which came first: the chicken or the egg? You've probably also heard the related question: How do you get a job without experience, and how do you get experience without a job? Here's the question for today: How do you build confidence without success, and how do you become successful without confidence?

I review several proven belief-building strategies in my book, but today I'd like to focus on one in particular. It's no guarantee of instant or lasting success, but research is clear that it can get the ball rolling, and help you build momentum toward real successes. It's often recommended by today's self-help gurus, although they often act like they invented it... in fact, it's a centuries-old idea.

It's simple. To be successful, just act like a success.
For example, people often ask me how they can come to be viewed as a leader by their co-workers. The easiest way to get the ball rolling is to just start acting like a leader: take the lead on projects, speak like a leader, act like a leader, dress like one, etc. It's obviously not the ultimate solution, but it's a start.

Perhaps most importantly, acting like a success begins to change how you think about yourself. One key to successful change is adopting a new identity, particularly a public identity. The process of kicking a drug habit, for example, often begins when addicts begin thinking about themselves differently, abandoning old identities (drug addict, rebel, non-conformist) and adopting new ones (parent, responsible adult).

You can use this process to your enhance your own success and motivation simply by choosing an identity you want, and begin acting accordingly. Soon the expectations of others, and your own internal need for consistency, will get cycles of confidence, motivation, and action spinning in the right direction.

The "emotional expressivity effect"
Just as you can take on outward appearances to shape public perception, you can also take on outward appearances to create internal emotions and build confidence. Psychologists call this idea the "emotional expressivity effect": express an emotion physically, and you will feel that emotion internally.

Today, everyone from sports coaches to popular self-help writers and motivational gurus urge people to exhibit the "physiology" of successful people. Actors routinely take on the facial expressions, poses and postures of their characters, even when off-camera. This not only helps actors create convincing outward appearances, but also helps them better feel the emotions of their characters.

This idea is actually an ancient one. From Homer's Iliad to Shakespeare's Henry V, literature documents how soldiers have long been urged to express anger physically as a way of pumping themselves up for battle. In science, Charles Darwin first explored the idea systematically: "He who gives way to violent gestures will increase his rage; he who does not control the signs of fear will experience fear in a greater degree."

We all know that depressed people are prone to specific postures (head down, shoulders slumped). The postures don't cause their depression, but they can definitely help perpetuate a negative mood. Adopting different postures, wearing new clothes, increasing physical activity, and exercise can all temporarily help enhance motivation and mood. None are magic-bullet cures for depression, but all can be helpful as starting points for creating new habits.

The 'Far Side' Cartoon Study
One well-known study illustrated the emotional expressivity effect in a mild but very clever way... Hold a pen in your mouth using your teeth (not your lips) for a minute or two. Pay close attention to your thoughts and emotions. How do you feel? Don't say "silly!" If you are like many people, you may feel slightly happier because you are adopting the facial pose of smiling, and that facial expression can actually drive a slight increase in mood.

Now try holding it with your lips — this causes you to adopt a frowning facial pose and results in a slight drop in mood. People holding pens in their teeth (i.e., smiling) rated Far Side cartoons as significantly funnier than those holding pens in their lips (frowning). Of course, arbitrary facial expressions like these, that you took on only because someone (or some newsletter) told you to, have very mild effects.

Ideas Into Action: How To Go From 'Acting Like a Success' To Being a Success
If you use your whole body, and more spontaneously express emotions relevant to your goals, the effect is much more powerful than just holding your pen in your teeth. Here's how it works:

  • You will begin to feel the emotions you express physically
  • The phenomenon of 'state-dependent memory' will bring to mind thoughts and memories from when you experienced the same emotion in the past
  • You'll start to feel a boost in your mood and motivation
  • That momentum will get a boost from the people around you because your outward expressions will change how people respond to you (if you act like a success, people are more likely to start treating you that way)

Of course, you'll need some goal-oriented behavioral successes to keep this cycle going. But acting like you are already a success is a good way to get the ball rolling. It helps build the confidence and motivation that can drive true successes.

Stephen Kraus, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained scientist, separates the science of success from self-help snake oil.
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