Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ways I'm a fraud

“Spirituality is not possible without vulnerability.” - Brené Brown

Do you ever feel like you are a fraud? Or that your organization is a fraud? Like you aren’t embodying what you claim to be? Maybe those insecurities can sometimes help our work and organizations become more effective.

“In fact, you are a fraud,” a Quaker elder said to me, in response to my concerns about how a training about nonviolence that I had just led went.

“Ouch,” I thought. She went on, “You are personally a fraud sometimes, but the message of nonviolence that you are carrying is true.” She pointed out the necessary tension between the aspirations I was following and my limited abilities. If I didn’t feel this painful tension, I might be in trouble. At this time, I was avoiding conflict on many fronts, while also teaching others to nonviolently and proactively lean into conflict. The night before this particular training, I had invented a whole new model for teaching conflict resolution. I thought it was brilliant. The participants in the training didn’t agree.

I still sometimes feel like a fraud. Much of my work now seeks to support groups to get their egos out of the way so they can effectively serve a purpose greater than narrow self-interest. As I do this work, my ego is frequently alive, kicking, and defensive, acting as an obstacle for the work I’m doing. Recent experiences have reminded me of this.

For several years, I’ve been fortunate to meet on a regular basis with elders from my Quaker community, who provide spiritual support and accountability for the work I am doing. They both help me admit where I’m feeling like a fraud, and they help me reorient myself away from downward spirals of criticism to humble steps to move in the directions I’m called.

I often pray to be molded and shaped. The Quaker elders that I meet with have reminded me that sometimes the shaping of my clay can involve God taking away chunks of who I think I am, or adding new pieces. Some recent experience where I’ve felt like a fraud, or felt rejected, or felt insufficient seem to be a part of this process, an invitation to burn away parts of myself that are getting in the way.

I encourage organizations I work with to quickly develop prototypes of their visions and then fail early and often to maximize learning and keep improving the services they are offering. The universe has been reminded me in the past month to seek out risk and failures in my own consulting work, to maximize my learning and shaping. So with this post, I want to say back to the universe, “Bring it on!”


Unknown said...

Very brave Michael. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing it. By posting this, you are already narrowing the gap.


David Fey said...

At some point in my thirties, it dawned on me that every person in a position of power or leadership I could think of was essentially “making it up as they went.” This was simultaneously appalling and liberating: appalling because I had previously assumed there was something more substantial to rely on; liberating because I figured I was probably as capable of “making it up” as anyone else, so why not try?

The essence of fraud is the intent to deceive, not the act of experimentation itself or the humbling experience of discovering our limitations. As long as we openly acknowledge that we are making it up as we go, learning from our mistakes, and trying to do our best – within our current limitations – I don’t see any reason to be concerned about being (or being perceived as) a fraud. Flawed, perhaps, but who isn’t?

Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Tom and David.

Since I just left my thirties a couple months ago, these things are still sinking in for me!

When I'm grounded, I can see my limitations as part of learning and experimenting, and be open about them. When I'm off-center, I sometimes try to hide limitations and, at the same time, get inwardly fixated on them. In this post, I was seeking to counter-balance that 2nd pattern.

Jeanne said...

Thank you for this post.

I'd very much like to learn more about your process, since I have a similar pattern. Can you be more explicit and specific about a time you were a fraud and how you turned yourself around and what kinds of help you got?

Also, I wonder where and how this "making it up" as David said is spending some of the privilege you have as a white straight man who had very educated parents who valued education. Not everyone gets to "make it up."

I have those same questions and have these other voices that say that women don't get to be bold (and in fact I've been beaten down metaphorically for being so bold), and I don't get to do that because somehow my public education and my low-tier later-in-life college experience isn't good enough. I realize these are my demons but I'd like to make some of the privileges more explicit so we can do better at undoing the structures that support those privileges.

Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks for the mixture of provocative questions, Jeanne.

In response to your request, I started to make a list of some times I've felt like a fraud. For the sake of confidentiality for others and myself, I don't want to share specifics now, but I'll continue to consider that and maybe post one later. I've got a lot to learn about working through in a positive way. Generally, I've been helped by acknowledging my insecurity in some way with the people involved, sometimes renegotiating my role in the situation where I feel like a fraud, crying, prayer, and checking in about it with a spiritual companion.

As for the role of privilege in being able to "make it up," that is certainly a big part of it. There have been situations where I've been given leadership roles where I didn't have the typical level of education or experience for the role--and my whiteness, middle-classness, and straightness made it more comfortable for people to give me that role because I came from (and operated from) those places of privilege. These situations both gave me the opportunity to make it up, and also forced me to make it up in ways I wasn't seeking to do. I think a part of that pattern of privilege often includes not confessing that I am making it up, pretending that I have it all together. I often fall into that trap. But sometimes the privilege also gives me the opportunity to confess that I'm are making it up, and not loose all my credibility.

I'll continue to chew on these things.

Vera said...

Thanks Michael, I like the idea of "holding the tension" it takes away the shame. It's certainly not a very comfortable place to be but at least I know I'm not alone:):)

Bryan D. Bertsch said...

Very well expressed, Michael. Thanks for sharing.

Melinda said...

Wow. Thank you. And thank you for your responses to other peoples' comments and questions, too.

David Boehnke said...

I think there is a difference between how people think about frauds and how people think about lack of capacity to embody something from lack of experience, lack of clarity, etc.

As such, I think it is really important to notice how the nonprofit sector is SETUP to make everyone a fraud, giving people a job that is supposed to be about social change but is really mostly a job...and the personal storytelling we do to negotiate this often makes matters worse, including but particularly the idea AND reality of sacrificing, of loving our work, of having it good, of accomplishing things...

David (

Michael Bischoff said...

Great points, David.

The kind of fraud I was talking about was falsely portraying a capacity that I (or we) don't have--on some level, deceiving others to make them think we are doing something we are not. More than just a lack of capacity, but a misrepresentation. I think this kind of fraud is very common in the nonprofit world in just the way you were saying--claiming that we are impacting fundamental social change when what we are doing is primarily reinforcing the current social structures.

Margaret Benefiel said...

Thanks very much for this courageous post, Michael. Your vulnerable sharing helps me be more vulnerable. I found this post liberating.

With gratitude,

Ron Kraybill said...

A great reflection piece, Michael, both bold and insightful. The comments of others are also interesting and confirm that many resonate with this theme. Thank you!