How to Handle Being Out of Your Depth: 6 Tips from a Con Man

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 21, 2011 · 65 comments

in A Man's Life

Your boss invites you to the country club to play a round of golf with him and other important higher ups. You’ve never stepped foot in a country club before, and haven’t played any golf beyond putt-putt.

You’re hoping to graduate early and decide to take an advanced class that’s required for your major, even though you haven’t taken the recommended prerequisites for the class. It’s only the first week, but you’ve only really understood 10% of what the professor’s been saying.

You put “Excel” under your list of skills on your resume because you once created a super simple table to chart your exercises. After you’re hired, your boss asks you to do some more advanced Excel functions, and you’ve been staring blankly at the screen for an hour.

A rich friend has invited you to a charity ball in which the guests make about 10 times as much as you do. You feel a little silly as you pull up and give the keys to your 95 Honda Civic to the valet.

You’re a high school sophomore, and your brother invites you out with him and his graduate student friends. As they talk about their favorite books, most of the conversation goes over your head.

You move to a foreign country and only know how to ask, “Where is the library?”

Every man will experience a scenario like those outlined above at least once in his life. It’s called being out of your depth, and it means that you find yourself in a situation where your skill or knowledge isn’t on par with what’s needed and/or with the rest of the people in the group.

Sometimes out of our depth situations are our own fault. We fudge a little and lead someone on to think we’re more comfortable or experienced with something than we actually are, and when they call on that expertise, our noob-ness is revealed. Those kinds of situations are avoidable with a little humility and honesty.

But oftentimes we’re just thrown into situations where we find ourselves out of our depth. Unforeseen problems at work or a friend’s invitation can put us there. They also often spring up on us while pursuing adventures (they wouldn’t be adventures if they didn’t push you outside your comfort zone after all).

Regardless of how you got into the jam, you’re going to want to make the most of it and minimize the damage.

Being out of your depth can be incredibly nerve-racking, as these kinds of situations are often ones where you cannot easily ask for help without compromising your position or missing out on an opportunity.

But it is possible to quell the stress, and handle an out of your depth situation like a pro. And so today we turn to a pro for advice on how to do that. A professional con man that is.

Frank Abagnale, whose autobiography, Catch Me If You Can, became a popular film, engaged in some of the most clever and literally high flying swindles of all time. Between the ages of 16 and 20, this high school dropout  traveled all over the world posing as a pilot for Pan Am, impersonated a chief resident pediatrician at a Georgia hospital, passed the bar and became a prosecutor for the Louisiana attorney general, taught sociology as a college professor, and forged two million dollars in checks.

Now, I’m by no means advocating that you should follow his path and become a con man! But a guy who can sit in the jump seat in a plane’s cockpit, pretending to be a pilot and chatting comfortably with the crew, knows a thing or two about fearlessly dealing with being out of your depth. The man had cojones of steel, and the techniques he used to get away with his elaborate capers can be utilized by any man who’s looking to get out of a very legal–but embarrassing–pickle. Here are 6 of them.

1. Relax and Project Confidence

“When the guard turned to confront me, I was combing my hair with my fingers, my hat in my left hand. I didn’t break stride. I smiled and said crisply, “Good evening.” He made no effort to stop me, although he returned my greeting. A moment later I was inside Hangar 14…I hesitated in the lobby, suddenly apprehensive. Abruptly I felt like a sixteen-year-old and I was sure that anyone who looked at me would realize I was too young to be a pilot and would summon the nearest cop. I didn’t turn a head. Those who did glance at me displayed no curiosity or interest.” -Frank Abagnale. Catch Me If You Can

When you’re in a situation where you feel like you’re out of your depth, nervousness and even panic can set in—your heart races; your palms get sweaty. The feeling of being out of place consumes your thoughts.  As you look around the room, it feels like your inner dialogue is being broadcasted from your forehead, and that everyone else is focusing in on you.

But as Abagnale discovered, people are far less observant and attentive than you’d think; folks aren’t tuned in to looking for differences, absences, and discrepancies.

There was a study done once on a college campus in which a researcher would stop and talk to a student. In the midst of the conversation, two workers would rudely walk between the pair while carrying a large door. As the workers passed in-between them and the door obscured the student’s view, the first researcher quickly and furtively ducked out, and a new researcher stepped in. When the door passed by, the student was standing in front of a brand new person, and yet the majority failed to realize it!

So the next time you’re at an event where you feel like everyone is staring at you, try to relax and realize that people probably aren’t paying attention to you. Abagnale found that if he strode confidently and purposefully wherever he wanted to go, people were unlikely to question him at all. He acted like he belonged, so people assumed that he did.

Of course, he also always made sure to…

2. Look the Part

“The transaction also verified a suspicion I had long entertained: it’s not how good a check looks, but how good the person behind the check looks that influences tellers and cashiers.”

“I was always accepted at par value. I wore the uniform of a Pan Am pilot, therefore I must be a Pan Am pilot.”

Abagnale found that there was great power in an uniform. This was back in the day when flying was quite glamorous, and wherever he went in his Pan Am pilot’s get-up, people instantly afforded him trust, respect, and admiration.

While not every job and situation calls for an actual uniform, every event does have a standard of dress, and by adhering to it, you’ll automatically seem more like a guy who knows what’s he’s doing. First impressions are crucially important and people use them to glean a lot of information about you. If you show up in jeans and a t-shirt to a swanky party, or a three piece suit to a casual workplace, people will immediately peg you as a guy who’s not quite on the level.

Additionally, when you’re dressed appropriately, and you feel like you look good, your confidence goes up, and this effect is only compounded as people treat you with more respect. Abagnale’s pilot’s uniform changed the way people treated him, which greatly increased how comfortable he felt with the role he was playing.

3. Play Catch-Up Like a Mad Man

“Obviously, I reflected as I left the building, I was going to need more than a uniform if I was to be successful in my role of Pan Am pilot. I would need an ID card and a great deal more knowledge of Pan Am’s operations than I possessed at the moment. I put the uniform away in my closet and started haunting the public library and canvassing bookstores, studying all the material available on pilots, flying and airlines.”

If you’ve been thrown into a situation where you don’t have the skills or knowledge to perform up to par, then you’re going to need to play catch-up every spare second you get. Use your lunch break and your evenings to research everything you need to know to perform your new role or pass the class. If there’s an event on the horizon where you worry you might be out of your depth, then you have the lucky opportunity to plan ahead and bone up before attending.

Abagnale didn’t go into his impersonations by the seat of his pants; rather, they were the result of meticulous and thorough planning and research. He used the same study-intense approach he took in learning about being a pilot with all of his impersonations. When he was pretending to be a pediatrician, he spent countless hours reading books and medical journals, and he carried around a pocket dictionary; whenever an intern or nurse used a term he wasn’t familiar with, he’d go hide in the linen closet, find the word, and memorize its meaning. When he became a college professor, he audited classes to see how other teachers practiced their craft and studied the textbook rigorously.

But there was always a lot of information Abagnale couldn’t find in books, such as the lingo and slang that pilots or doctors used. So he employed other methods of information gathering as well. For example, when learning the ins and outs of flying for Pan Am, he called up the airline, and posing as a high school newspaper reporter, asked to speak to a pilot, whom he then peppered with a myriad of questions about the job. You don’t have to make up an alias to fish for information, however. Just weave casual questions–questions that seem like the “I’m just curious variety”–into your conversations with others.

4. Take Notes

“I kept a notebook, a surreptitious journal in which I jotted down phrases, technical data, miscellaneous information, names, dates, places, telephone numbers, thoughts, and a collection of other data I thought was necessary or might prove helpful.

It was combination log, textbook, little black book, diary and airline bible, and the longer I operated the thicker it became with entries…The names of every flight crew I met, the type of equipment they flew, their routine, their airline and their base went into the book as some of the more useful data.

Like I’d be deadheading on a National flight.

‘Where you guys based out of?’

‘Oh, we’re Miami-based.’

A sneak look into my notebook, then: ‘Hey, how’s Red doing? One of you’s gotta know Red O’Day. How is that Irishman?’

All three knew Red O’Day. ‘Hey, you know Red, huh?’

Such exchanges reinforced my image as a pilot and usually averted the mild cross-examinations to which I’d been subjected at first.”

No matter how much direct or indirect research you do, don’t rely on your memory alone to store all that information. Instead, jot down notes that might prove useful down the line. If there’s some duty at your new job that you should know how to do, but don’t, you can easily get away with saying to your boss, “You know I used to be great at this, but it’s been awhile since I did it. Could you refresh my memory?” He’ll be happy to do so the first time, but if you have to keep asking how to do it again and again, he’ll start to get annoyed. So when he shows you something, write it down so you can refer to it later without bothering anyone.

You can write down people’s names and their interests as well, so that when you know you’ll be attending an event with them, you can study the notes, get their name right, and have material to initiate conversation and build rapport with.

5. Turn on the Charm

“I learned early that class is universally admired. Almost any fault, sin or crime is considered more leniently if there’s a touch of class involved.”

Abagnale treated everyone he dealt with–the tellers, stewardesses, students, and interns–with generous amounts of politeness, charm, and class. His charm staved off suspicion that he wasn’t who he said he was, and made them very willing to help him.

“If I was going to fake out seven interns, forty nurses and literally dozens of support personnel, I was going to have to give the impression that I was something of a buffoon of the medical profession.

I decided I’d have to project the image of a happy-go-lucky, easygoing, always-joking, rascal who couldn’t care less whether the rules learned in medical school were kept or not.”

He also found that self-deprecation can be an important tool of charm. A little wink-wink bumbling. While he was pretending to be a doctor, he’d let his interns make all the decisions, which won them over. And when he made a mistake, they’d say, “Oh, stop joking doc!”

If you’re an irritating boor who’s messing up all the time, you’re going to get the boot. But if you’re polite and good-humored, people will give you the benefit of the doubt and lots of second-chances.

6. Close Your Yap and Observe

“I didn’t do a lot of talking initially. I usually let the conversations flow around me, monitoring the words and phrases and within a short time I was speaking airlinese like a native. La Guardia, for me, was the Berlitz of the air.”

The best thing you can do when you’re in a situation where you’re out of your depth is to be extremely conservative with both your actions and your words. Say little and listen a lot. This gives you a chance to observe how other people are doing and saying things. If you’re at swanky dinner with a full place setting, and aren’t sure which utensils to use, wait a few moments after each dish is served, and casually watch what other people pick up. Then follow suit.

Keeping your mouth shut while you observe has two advantages. As the famous saying goes: “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” If you find yourself engaged in a conversation that is largely going over your head, it’s best not to throw out something like, “Oh, I loved the Great Gatsby! But I was so sad when they shot that rabid dog at the end.” That people will remember. On the other hand, if you don’t say much, there’s a chance they’ll think you’re not talking because you don’t know much about the subject, but there’s also a chance they’ll simply think you’re the smart, silent type. Given the fact that you’re likely to be dealing with a conversational narcissist these days, just ask him lots of questions (“Why do you think that?), and they’ll not only be bound to come to the latter conclusion, they’ll be rather charmed.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were out of your depth? How did you handle it? Share your stories and advice with us in the comments!

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alpha November 21, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I found myself in this situation with my first insurance job. I had only worked in the food industry except for one sales job where I was mediocre at best. I went into that interview, flipped the script so I was interviewing my future boss – which got him impressed. Did some fast talking and scored myself a job. I was supposed to start immediately, but I wasn’t properly licensed at the time. My boss turned a blind eye when I brought it up to him, got my paper work pushed through, and sent me into training.

During this training I had to interact with the group, give the more subtle points of insurance law and so forth – truth be told I had no idea what I was talking about for the first few days! I’ve found a lot of this comes down to being able to maintain a solid alpha frame – something I break down here.

This was an awesome post. I’m going to go pick up that book now.

2 Matt November 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm

This past summer I got a job writing Android applications. I had fudged my experience some and when I got there and sat down I was entirely confused, but I just dug in and started looking like I was doing something. No one questioned because I had the code up and was just Googling the things I needed.

3 Jeff November 21, 2011 at 10:14 pm

I was a bit of a rascal in High School, nowadays I liken it to being a bit of the Ferris Bueller type con-man.

There was a school dance in February that was going to take my girlfriend to. I bought the tickets and she held on to them for safe keeping. Between buying the tickets and the dance, she broke up with me and decided to use my ticket to invite a friend.

I ended up staying home. Until I got a call from some of my friends at the dance. They begged me to come, as I was usually the life of the party. They complained that the food was terrible and the music which was just beginning was equally as bad. I convinced my Dad (I did not have a license at the time) to drive me. Put on the stylish 3 piece suit I received for Christmas and got to the dance hall.

I waltzed right in like I owned the place and I was just fashionably late. The first people to greet me were the teacher-chaperones manning the admission counter. The first words out of my mouth were compliments on their dresses. They let me through without even checking my name on the list.

I bumped into the principal next and shook his hand.

When I found my friends slumped in boredom at their table, their eyes lit up like lights. My “dance card” filled up, and I don’t think any of us ceased dancing the entire night.

4 Rob Holtsberry November 21, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I was sent to KL several years ago to meet with Malaysian Airlines. I’m a clown by nature, but am reserved when unsure of a situation. I had to go alone because all my sissy co-workers didn’t want to go because it was during the SAR flu problems in Asia. Tourism was down, so hotel deals were cheap. I chose a suite with free breakfast and dinner banquets. It gave me a chance to listen to other businessmen and locals that were more familiar with the business ethics and culture. I showed up on Monday to a boardroom with, gasp, 47 of them and 1 me. I was able to pull it off because I knew my company, but also drank gin all day Sunday with Brits, and engaged my local servers and maids and by being humble, learned a lot.

5 Kenny November 21, 2011 at 10:25 pm

The past 11 years of my life have been spent professionally in the metal fabrication industry, including 6 yrs of service in the military. After a few years of down time, I thought I’d try and re-up in the service. I scored fairly high on my aptitude test and got placed in the Information and Intelligence community. Here I am a first line supervisor (E-5) with no idea what my job entails. Time to button down and start cramming!

6 Alpha November 21, 2011 at 10:28 pm

@Kenny

You’re my hero right now for at least 6 and a half reasons.

I’m not sure where you’re based, or what branch you’re in, but growing up in a military town, I’d like to thank you for your service.

7 Andrew from Canada November 21, 2011 at 10:42 pm

I went to a few parties last summer made up of wealthy condo dwellers. I’m dirt poor, but I realized if I dressed well, and projected confidence, nobody would know I was actually out-classed. I follow the news voraciously and combined with what I learned from AoM’s conversational narcissicism post, I had more than enough charm to carry me through those nights. I’m actually going to another one of those parties Wednesday night and I can’t wait to work the room again!

8 Stephen November 21, 2011 at 10:45 pm

As an extension to point 1, it’s not just that other people aren’t paying attention but it’s also that they simply don’t have as much information about you as you do. You think you look nervous because you know you’re nervous.

If you’re walking into a new job and thinking “oh god, everyone’s more experienced than me, I’m just an X year old kid from X town and they’ve all got it together and I don’t” there’s no body language in the world that can convey those thoughts. On the outside you will just look vaguely unsettled. It may even be that the complete strangers at your new job may not even pick up that the expression on your face is called “nervous”.

The world is a much less scary place if you remember that other people, even if they pay attention, can’t read your mind.

9 Brian November 22, 2011 at 12:33 am

People love to fill in their own narratives. Just make the story they want to tell the same one as you want them to think. Give them a tiny nugget that pushes them the direction you want them to go, and they’ll finish the rest of the journey.

10 UC November 22, 2011 at 12:36 am

When I was 22 I was standing in a hanger at Fort Hood, surrounded by 8 mechanics (6 former military, 2 civilian), a mechanical engineer, and a master wielder. Each was at least 15 years older than I and had extensive qualifications. I was a high school graduate with 15 credits of community college under my belt, I knew how to change my own oil, and I was their boss.
I got there because I’d been helping frame houses (hauling the lumber for the carpenters) the year before when someone I met at a party offered me an interview for a one-month contract on some “military armor project”. I got the job not based on qualifications, but because I was able to keep the interviewer talking about his interest in rock-climbing.
I was put in charge because of all the tips above, especially numbers 3 and 4. It took me 7000 miles from home and paid more in one year than I’d made in the four previous. Each step of the way I was not just over my head, I couldn’t even see the surface. Each step of the way I clung to the same skills that are mentioned above.
I think it’s important to point out that Mr. Abagnale wasn’t actually faking, after a while. Certifications and licenses don’t prove ability, only some possession of paper knowledge, and even the most charming con man, or job hunter, will fail if they can’t eventually deliver the goods. Asking good questions, working your fingers to the bone, and neither forgetting that you’re just faking it, nor letting that thought overwhelm you, will often see you through.

11 Bill November 22, 2011 at 2:03 am

I was once told after losing a game of pool (yes there was a few dollars on it)
“If you can’t play over your head, why play at all?”

12 Depressed Mormon Mommy November 22, 2011 at 3:08 am

This is both hilarious and informative. I loved it so much I dragged my husband over to the computer to read it. He’d been feeling a little insecure with how to act in a new calling. He says he can only hope to have such cajones, but it gave him some ideas :)

13 Marshall November 22, 2011 at 4:08 am

After working as an independently contracted massage therapist for 5 years, one of my clients finally decided to open a day spa of her own, and asked me to be lead therapist and assistant manager. I accepted the job and acted as a consultant (which I’d never done before) for anything she needed, but what I didn’t know was that the Corporation into which she had bought had ideas of its own as far as the pay schedule went. A week before we opened, she calls me at lunch in a panic, saying that Corporate won’t let us use the pay schedule we’d already promised to our newly hired massage therapists. I asked how I could help, and she immediately emailed me a phone number and some sort of passcode, and said to call there in 15 minutes. I did as instructed. The passcode was for a phone conference between herself, the operations manager for the company based in Arizona, and the CEO himself in Michigan– I’d never once spoken corporate language before, but there I was, on the horn with The Big Men themselves! I was scared out of my wits, but I shut my trap and listened to the banter for awhile, and finally cut in with what I had to say, and with my new boss’ help, we managed to convince them to let us run our own pay schedule for three months on an “experimental basis.”

14 Out of my depth November 22, 2011 at 4:38 am

Rob Holtsberry points at something important: humility is as important as self-confidence in situations like these. Since I like to push myself outside my comfort zone at work and volunteer for things I’m not experienced in, I find myself in those situations all the time, and what I do is something like research -> enquiry -> research etc. First I keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut, absorbing as much as I can and getting information from every available resource. Then, when I have to face a situation where I have to face someone knowledgeable while having to display some kind of knowledge myself,, I make use of that information but I cover my back with a large dose of humility, so it would go something like “Excuse my ignorance, I’m not an expert in so and so, but I gather blah, blah…”. The other person: “Exactly, that’s right. The way it works is blah, blah….”. You get two things from this reply: First you double-check the results of your own research and second you learn new things to build upon it (“The way it works is…”). You’ve been candid about your own ignorance so he thinks “For someone who’s ignorant he’s actually quite knowledgeable”. He doesn’t care you know less than him, since after all he’s considers himself the expert, so that actually reinforces his ego. Then you take that consolidated knowledge and build upon it by further research and enquiry.

15 W. Kelley November 22, 2011 at 5:44 am

Great post.

If I may offer this, Attitude is everything in these situations. If you can see it as an Educational Opportunity, as a chance to grow and learn. Win, lose or draw you will still come out a head.

No greater tragedy than the failure to try

16 Owen Marcus November 22, 2011 at 7:58 am

As men we are program to do, but as your post points out often we are better off if we wait and watch.

17 CB November 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

I’m starting a new job on Monday and in my head I’m wondering if I’m really qualified for the position. I keep reminding myself I wasn’t necessarily as qualified for my current position when I started but I’ve learned a lot along the way. In the past I’ve used many of the techniques described here.
One point to keep in mind that I struggled with is not appearing cocky about the things I did know. That can set you up to fall on your face in a hurry!

18 The Dutch Dastard November 22, 2011 at 8:37 am

Great article!

I had my share of social conning a year or three ago. I was 20, and was asked to deliver some parts for a ship engine to Colombia. I was there for exactly one day, but walking through town in a (remember the quote about the yankees) white linen suit, i met one of those guys who can get you ‘anything’ (and anything he meant, i was quite repulsed by what he mentioned). But all in all, quite a friendly and well connected guy. We talked and talked, spent some money in ‘his’ stores, and after a while he thought i was just a big blond bad ass guy who delivered valuables to the more dangerous places on earth. Happy go lucky, and with a few bucks to spend. On parting he gave me a tip for a club to spend my evening.

That evening i went to that club and upon entering i was welcomed by someone who knew my name, and took care of my needs……in the end i don’t believe i was asked to pay for half of what i did there…..

it was a very nice day in Colombia…..

19 Olle November 22, 2011 at 9:29 am

One of your better articles, mainly because it’s so universal and widely usable.

20 Rene November 22, 2011 at 9:51 am

On my first job out of college, I was in an entry level engineering position. One morning, the Senior Project Manager comes to my desk and after the usual ‘how was your weekend?’ banter, said “By the way, we have the executive team of a Canadian firm coming in today at 10, you’ll do the company presentation”. I was chosen because I can speak English, only no one cared to tell me until then.
The advice on this article is exactly on the mark, even though I was as nervous as I’ve ever been, no one noticed. I had the information about the company mostly because I’m curious and I’ve been asking questions since I got hired, so I had notes on everything. And observing played a big part, I could tell by the way questions were asked what answers were expected, and when I didn’t know the answer I could infer it from the small reactions of the Project Manager.

I learned a lot that day.

21 Pastor Joshua November 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

As a pastor I find myself adapt to many different types of situations, be it visiting the local jail (I live outside of Detroit), just sitting in on a bible study, or joining the local agnostics and atheists at the college Philosophy Club. So for one thing, I frequent many different events and my dress needs to reflect each style. I try to dress at the same level or one-notch higher, but never down. It is easy to remove a tie from a button up shirt, but not easy to look casual as I run and look for a collared shirt in my trunk. Next, regardless of dress, I follow a simple method…ask questions, hold my opinion, be polite, and use first names. As Carnegie said, A person’s favorite word is their first name. A lot of folks have misconceptions when it comes to pastors, but as long as I do my best to make them feel comfortable people appreciate that and hopefully, when life hits, they remember their new friend, who happens to be a pastor, and God can use me to speak into their lives.

22 Thomas November 22, 2011 at 10:01 am

I guess being a con-man can be lots of fun

23 jeff November 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

There is difference between a confidence man and a confident man, and although the points can be used by either, the key difference is basic honesty or just being truthful. There is a difference too between being asked to play golf and accepting when you don’t play, and going to a ball and feeling out of place when handing over your keys to the valet, or being in a country and not knowing the language. I love being a fish out of water, but there is a big difference between being a liar by omission as just not having experience in a situation. The points work very well as long as you are truthful, first to yourself, the people you are associating with, and understanding your place in the situation. And even more than honesty if I find myself at the ball the one thing that will make me fit in is the knowing that everybody will be out of place, just in a different way than I am. You will always be confident when you know how to listen, how to speak and be willing to share yourself, the rest is pretence.

24 Jerimiah November 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

I bumped into a friend of mine one day who asked me what I was up to. I told him I was unemployed and going steady with my empty wallet. He had just finished his third year in University studying Kinesiology. He was gearing up for an actual archeology dig, a two week contract he had signed up for. Certain company’s would take on third or fourth year students for excavations without even having met them. They needed the man power mixed with the brains. I knew this guy from high school and he knew I was somewhat of a con man when it came to a good laugh. I used to go to bars and for every girl I talked to (all in one night) I would take on a different career persona – bee hive keeper, nut and bolt maker, independently wealthy from my grandfather who invented the eraser on the end of pencils, eoronautics space engineer and the list goes on.
Anyway, he told me that they paid really well on these digs and I somehow convinced him to take me along. I told him that I could make it seem as though my name was somehow not on the list and I would “do what I do best” from there. We showed up and we introduced ourselves. After playing dumb as to why my name wasn’t on the list we set our way to an excavation dig. For every potential artifact he found he would show me and explain what I was looking for, based on the age of the site. There was a crew of over twenty walking around, working, discussing. So it wasn’t difficult to walk through the crowd as if I belonged and indiscriminately play it up to my buddy as “hey, look what I found” when ever I thought I had found something. If I thought it was something important, I would walk it over to him as if I was excited about a find, he would explain in detail in a very low voice what it was e.g. a native tool (adz) or a kind of spear head (chert flake) or what type of animal and where in the animal the bone was from, then I would take it to the site manager/co-ordinator and tell him or her exactly what my buddy told me. The were never the wiser.
I kept a jovial attitude about myself which kept the heat off when I didn’t know what something was, but I paid an incredible amount of attention to people’s conversations and how they dug, mostly kept my mouth shut and when I did know something I played it cool as though it was elementary. This whole adventure went from being a little goof to actually learning something fascinating on a continual basis.
I ended up working for the company for three seasons.

25 Patrick November 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

They shoot the dog at the end of Gatsby? Thanks for the spoiler!

Kidding… great article, thanks for taking the time to write and post it :-)

26 claudia November 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

OUCH ~ this entire post read (to me) like a glorification of DECEPTION.
which is unlike the rising or stretching to a suddenly higher set bar/standard.
and reading it made me realize something about this culture as well: people love to be deceived like this, apparently.
since it seems completely okay to engage in this sort of deception as long as one is dressed smartly and buy’s a drink for someone else.
Does the word ethics still has any meaning?
I am really quite perturbed by this post (am usually reading 90% of all postings on AoM) and am rather impressed with the quality and standard of the writings/topics.
this one … a ‘low point’ to be sure.
but that’s just my bias of course … – just hope that AoM won’t need to source convicted felons/criminials and other Con men for future posts.
respectfully ~ C

27 Brandon November 22, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Great read and great article. The insight from Abagnale’s book really made this interesting.

Matt,
So basically Google has gotten to the point where it writes it’s own applications eh?

Claudia,
Although at face value this is a post about a con-artist, he does have many of the “manly” and also many of not-so-obviously-manly qualities that this site talks about.

28 Claude November 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm

In my early 20′s me and a friend attended a CC Rider rally. Neither of us owned motorcycles and new little about them. We failed to dress the part. Both of us in polo shirts and shorts, while the rest of the crowd was middle aged guys in leather.

But we portrayed confidence (maybe cockiness) and just talked to the everyone as if we knew them for years. Made stupid jokes about my ride being a Schwinn and stuff like that. There was good music and cold beer and we actually had some fun.

29 Claude November 22, 2011 at 2:14 pm

@ Claudia

I dont think this is glorifying deception. Its teaching you how to handle those situations that can be uncomfortable if you feel out of place. The subject is a con-man, and we dont aspire to reach that status, but to have the ability to think so quickly on your feet is a tremendous asset. Dont discount it because of the source.

30 Y November 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Oh cry me a river Claudia. This kind of information is useful even to the most ethical of men, as anyone can find themselves in a situation where they’re out of their depth. A simple misunderstanding is all that is needed.

But does that mean that you shouldn’t take advantage of a situation to further yourself in this world?

31 David W November 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm

A bit of charm and attentiveness goes a long way. You don’t have to be a con man to fake it through this world. After all, we are all just trying to make sense of it all too.

Great piece!

32 Wiktor November 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Advice number 5 works every time.
Another thing I could suggest (work in my current job, and many previous ones) is this:
Ask questions about the minutiae to steal away the big picture.
Like, when you’re asked to prepare something for the first time, you can sit down next to someone and ask about some details, explaining that “I’m not sure how these small things are done around here.” You’ll get the small things, some useful tips and an overview of the big task ahead of you.
Result!

33 Tom November 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

A lot of the posts on this blog are spot on, but this one takes advice from a psychopath about moral behavior. This blog engages in a lot of hand wringing about ethics today, but this post goes against all of that.

34 Mikey D. November 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I was once in the situation outlined at the beginning–invited to play golf by my boss and some other important guys and I had never played before in my life. I pretty much followed the tips outlined here–before going I asked a golf-playing friend about what to wear and expect, I observed how other people acted at the country club, and I poured on the self-deprecating humor to the nth degree. I played horribly obviously, but I was fine with it and joked about it, so everybody else was fine with it too. Here the truth: people love to help you out and mentor you and teach you. It makes them feel wise.

As far as some of these other comments go, come on! What’s deceptive about dressing nice, being polite, listening, studying, and observing!! And as far as Abagnale goes…a psychopath? Hardly…he was just a kid, and now he actually works as a security consultant, helping people prevent fraud!!

35 Daniel M Jr November 22, 2011 at 3:36 pm

(warning, bad english)
#2 “look the part” refers exactly to a philosophical concept named “mapping your ignorance”, which is an instrument you use to learn any subject: You gotta know what you know and know what you ignore before trying to learn anything. You actually only “know” something if you know both groups.

36 Brent Pittman November 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

While I don’t condone the lying and deceiving that Frank used (let’s not forget he finally got caught), I like the fact that he was an avid learner. Life long learning by reading, observing, and trying new skills are a must if we want to achieve new goals. Thanks for the article.

37 Eric November 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm

This is an article EVERYONE should read. Everyone at some point will feel like this and need to know how to avoid being overwhelmed and giving up.

38 Samuel November 22, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Great article. And here’s a video featuring the “people swap” mentioned at the beginning of the article. It gets even more insane as they switch in people who look completely different.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBPG_OBgTWg

39 Ilana November 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm

As a college student who frequently signs up for classes for which I’m missing many prerequisites, I have sometimes found this strategy helpful. But sometimes, after getting a read on the professor, I’ve found the best thing to do is talk to him/her and admit that I don’t have the preparation for the course. Usually, the professor is supportive of my interest and motivation (especially because I’ve often done a lot of self-study to obtain at least some of the necessary background information) and willing to give me a hand in catching up, or at least to point out which material is most crucial for me to study.

40 tionico November 23, 2011 at 1:53 am

learnid how to drive a three-axle truck tractor by buying a used Kenworth, sticking the key in the hole, and driving it. Learned how to haul a trailer by buying one of those and coupling it to the tractor. First, unloaded.. got pretty good at it, then took a job. First time pulling a fully loaded (46,000 lbs cargo) trailer, I had to relearn how to shift. By the end of my first day I had it down… and did it again, and again…. easy.

41 Ed Roberts November 23, 2011 at 8:18 am

“Now, I’m by no means advocating that you should follow his path and become a con man!”
Aren’t you? Sorry, but I can’t admire the con artist you’re quoting. Being a fraud has no place in what I consider manly behavior. Maybe you could tweak the title of your site a little. How about “The Art of Fronting Manliness”? Doesn’t that sound more accurate?

What happens when you’re putting on your front in a certain situation and you fool everyone there except for the one person you’re hoping to fool?

42 Russell November 23, 2011 at 9:20 am

@Ed Roberts
What he is saying here is some of the tools and techniques used to succeed in the con man’s impersonations can be used to grow and better ourselves. Not to use for evil or self-fulfilling, but to learn, gromw and overcome. When we are faced with an issue , task, or assignment that is beyond our current training, experience, or comfort level, are we to just quit and run away? No, we are to face it with courage, faith, hope and trust and know that what was once impossible for us will now be possible.

43 The Dutch Dastard November 23, 2011 at 9:34 am

@Ed: I think this article is, at least partly, on how to use the ‘razzle dazzle’ and project that feeling of belonging when you don’t really belong. Mr. Abagnale was (notice the past) a criminal. There is nothing manly in that. The man explored the frontiers of social interacting, and making sure he fitted in no matter what. If he didn’t forge so much checks and used his skills maliciously, he could be regarded as an experimental social scientist.

Above are the findings of that social scientist, findings that we can use, albeit in an diluted version. People often have a feeling that they don’t belong at the event ( event in the broadest sense) they are at. Not necessarily because they are there illegally but because they have no experience. This guide gives pointers on how to con your own lack of confidence in the matter, to ensure you can feel at ease. When that happens, you can be yourself again without feeling awkward.

A good suit makes me look ready for business, but most importantly it makes me FEEL ‘businessy’. I con myself out of being ‘just a student’. What is left is a different version of me, ready to take on the task at hand.

Good luck everybody!

44 Nicholas November 23, 2011 at 10:10 am

Great article, fun perspective!

I have been way beyond my depth on so many occasions, and these points here have really helped me. Another one I would add is never give up your end game: act the part always, i.e. “fake it ’til you make it.” And if your game gets called, don’t get defensive, be apologetic and you will usually not have any problem.

Life is about going beyond our limits, expanding our possibilities and horizons. If we play in the D leagues all our life, that’s the end of the story. But if by some fluke we get a rare shot to sub in the A leagues, take it, prepare like crazy in order to catch up, then shine. Who knows, you just might make the right impression. You’ll never know till you try.

In life, there is always a first time for everything, and that first time is never easy, you essentially are “faking” it. Like I am a trained translator and interpreter, but the first time I ever interpreted a conference in a booth, it was for government officials, ministers, international delegates at high-level meetings. Could I have just resigned myself to the fact that this was way outside my leagues? Yes, as easy as pie. But the harder, more manly thing was to take a deep breath, ignore the butterflies raging in my stomach, step into the booth and blow their socks of with a professional conference interpretation. And I am so glad I did it: that one step opened a host of other doors and opportunities to me and made me realize I could do much more than I thought.

So thanks for a great post!

45 Marc November 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

How to handle being out of your depth? Well, I’d say 1)Be cheeky. 2)Know your limits.
I’m a native Catalan speaker and studied Spanish, English and German in High School. However, I’m able to understand and speak pretty well Italian, Portuguese and French. How did I do it? I learnt the basics before going on a trip (such as courtesy, food and accomodation related stuff etc), listened to lots of music in that language and basically made up the rest. Of course, they’re all latin languages, and let’s say that at least 60% of the words are the same. In a few days, I could have a simple conversation (altough many of italian, portuguese, french friends call me the Cavern man, or Tarzan). However, I cannot have an academic level conversation, write a business letter or whatever so I never attempt to. The same goes to the situation you’re in. Bluff your way around, but only to a certain degree.

46 Andrew#2 November 23, 2011 at 11:08 am

This article begs the question: where’s the line between con man and competent individual who learns very quickly?

Abagnale could possibly be described as a sociopath; however, it would seem to me he’s rather a genius, particularly since his hardest-earned “cons” were legit, like passing the Bar after studying for what, two weeks?

47 Michael November 23, 2011 at 11:54 am

All of these points are important but in some situations you don’t have time to prepare and you have to rely primarily on confidence and wits. Over the years I have for diverse (but I wouldn’t say unethical) reasons impersonated a police officer in the UK (I’m Australian so that required some effort) and a bouncer (in the middle of a bar fight),

Once at school a teacher caught me in his office whilst looking for an exam paper. I feigned that I’d lost my week’s essay assignment and was looking for a spare copy of the question paper. Okay not ethical I know but kids do these things more for the thrill than the cheating.

A few years ago I was travelling with two friends from Germany in Boston. I asked two passersby where we might be able to go for a drink that evening. They were from England and had no idea but let us know of a party taking place for attendees of a big biotechnology conference hled that week. We decided to go and my friends were asked what institution they were from – they responded weakly about some German university and I made up some story about just being an assistant helping with translations. I steered the conversation away from biotech and towards Boston etc with the participant questioning us (who worked for MIT). Me being from out of town she was happy to answer the questions I had about her home town. She even invited me to visit her place whilst we were there and she gave me her contact details and we ended up emailing a few times after that.

It’s exactly as the article suggests, a little bit of humility mixed with confidence, a little goofiness and basic wits can carry you a long way.

48 Harold November 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm

The first time I played golf was on a first-date. My date was a decent golfer and offered to show me how. Somehow luck was on my side and I actually played very well, a feat I have seldom repeated. I played so well she thought I was hustling her! Good article, all good tips for a newbie at anything.

49 Jaime November 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Just what I needed to read… competing for some big jobs with more experienced candidates. Guess I should have done co-op instead of starting summer businesses, this will get me the job!

50 Sean November 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Very cool post. I just moved to L.A. (right out of college) and I’m trying to find a job with very little experience. Interviewing for jobs over my head has become natural now…I just turn on the charm!

51 TD November 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Confidence is everything. My entire professional career is one happy accident after another. I got roped into consulting for a logistics company working with the DHHS while I was in college. The pay was 5 times anything I’d ever made before, my hours were flexible, and I’d be writing. As an English major, this held more than a little appeal.

The company I worked with did grant reviews for different arms of the DHHS. Each of these reviews hosts panels of experts who deliberate on grants to decide who gets them and who doesn’t. They’re all subject matter experts in their field, often with more than one advanced degree. In each of these panels is a scribe who has to compile all of their thoughts and meeting notes live, without them noticing, and then display it for editing.

I had one half-hour of training and then was dropped into a panel with 12 doctors. I had a BA in English and had been out of college for a week. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. 3 days later, at the end of the panel, they found out it was my first gig. Every one of them, to a person, thought I had been working in this industry for years – all because I projected nothing but confidence in myself and pleasant comments to them.

Three years later, I wound up in NYC working for a nonprofit. I’d never written a grant for a nonprofit before and had read a few of them down in DC, but passed myself off with an excellent resume (I did write those for a living prior), an interview where I kept my interviewer talking, and a stellar reference from a friend. Once again, no training, hadn’t written any kind of long document in a year and a half, and had not once worked in the nonprofit world – heck, I didn’t even really know what this agency did. Within two weeks, I’d convinced the head of the organization to fire an overpaid consultant, taken over all grant operations, and cranked out my first proposal (which won). With absolutely no experience in fundraising at all, I’ve raised at least 1.5 million dollars for this place each year since. I’m still working here.

So, yes – confidence in yourself and a calm demeanor pay dividends. Also, at some point you quit faking it because you’ve made it. I didn’t know squat about fundraising or government grants when I started either job – now, I turn down informational seminars and instructional workshops on the topics because I know more than the instructors.

52 Daniel Kiser November 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Great article, one of your best

53 Lena November 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

I’m no con, but I especially use the last one. I’ve grown up in and amongst different cultures and being silent and observant is so important! I call it the Policy of Chill.

54 rick November 23, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Having worked in the medical field for many years, it’s not hard to believe good old Frank passed himself off as a Doctor. One of the best kept (until now) secrets of the medical profession is that a LOT of doctors are just not that good at what they do. Don’t get me wrong, there are many many fine talented docs out there, but the biggest fear of any hospital administrator has is getting saddled with a bad doctor. Since they have a “Code of Honor” stronger than any criminal organization, bad Docs almost never lose their medical licenses, they just get shuffled from hospital to hospital until they kill someone who can afford to sue them.

55 Bama November 25, 2011 at 5:06 am

To some degree, I scammed my way into nearly every job I’ve ever had. Granted, I’ve never been a sugeon or an airline pilot so I’ve never needed to resort to any terribly sophisticated scammery. But I’ve taken a number of foreman and supervisory positions when in reality I had less experience than a lot of people under me.

I got away with it partly because I am a VERY quick learner but mostly because one thing I actually AM is an actor. I’ve been on the stage for over 35 years and I began to look at getting positions I knew I could handle, but maybe hadn’t ever actually DONE before, as just playing another role. And I was always much less worried about getting “caught” than I was about disappointing someone who trusted me enough to hire me so I always threw my heart into whatever I was doing to make sure I learned it and did it well. And by now I actually DO have the experience I used to just claim.

But one of my favorites wasn’t actually a job. It was back in the late 80s in my hometown of Tuscaloosa Alabama. A group of us went to a club to dance but were told there would be no music that night; the deejay had called in ill. “Well you’re in luck!” I tell the manager “I spin at one of the hottest clubs in Atlanta. I’d be happy to get your dance floor moving tonight.”. Now, I’d never actually been in the booth at a dance club before, but I figured it couldn’t be all that hard.

It was a much steeper learning curve than I’d guessed; lots of things to do, lots of balls to keep up in the air at the same time. I played off the first half hour of ineptitude by claiming the set-up was older than what I was used to (and to my relief, the manager admitted they were past due for an upgrade). But I had some good patter and I was able to at least get music playing (and people dancing) until I figured out how to run it more smoothly. Within an hour I was going from song to song with seamless segues and you never would’ve guessed I really didn’t know what I was doing. At the end of the evening the manager even asked if I’d like to do a couple more nights. I almost felt bad that I had to turn him down. Y’know, since I’d already told him I lived in Atlanta…

56 Gary T November 26, 2011 at 12:17 am

This is really a great article, and highlighting Frank Abagnale’s accomplishments is perfect.
Certainly, people first see what they expect to see, so a person who appears to be what they expect has a huge leg-up on passing as is if he is what he says he is.
So, yes, confidence is supreme, even false confidence, cause no one can tell, if you are smoothly confident. Form over substance. That crap seems to win everytime, if there is no prima facie suspicions. And sometimes even if there is.
Getting the lingo down is the next most important thing. Every society has its way of talking. Get that down, and you’ve notched out the second biggest problem of fitting in.
I really love this stuff. It plays morons for the lazy fools they are.
Only people of substance wouldn’t be fooled by this. Just hope you don’t meet one of them while doing this ;^)

57 Aaron November 26, 2011 at 2:20 am

I think there’s a lot of people in very good jobs today (myself included), who ‘test poorly’ (not great school grades) but ‘interview well’ (know how to be a charming bastard).

58 Vair November 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm

This is akin to the saying: If by telling a fair woman that she is beautiful, the resulting glow on her face makes her so. What started as a lie, ended in truth.
Even if you don’t feel confident, you will become confident as you follow the other steps in the article. (Story of my life)

Great Job.

59 Paul II November 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm

I’m a natural at this, it was a fun read! “Being a Bullshitter 101″

60 Buck November 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I’ve had my law license for the past 13 months, and this article pretty much sums up my entire legal career. Beautiful!

61 Jason December 1, 2011 at 3:10 am

I work for a chemical company, and my coworkers tell the story of a young, new lawyer who cowed the EPA out of millions of dollars. The company was fined for non-compliance, and they went to the EPA office to try for some kind of settlement. They had never met their lawyer, and when they walked in he (with dip in his mouth, muddy cowboy boots and a Panama hat) marched right up to the EPA officials and threatened to make their lives miserable and tie them up in court for years. The EPA caved and the lawyer saved my company millions of dollars.

As soon as they were out the door the lawyer went into the bathroom where he spat out the dip, changed out of the boots and took off the hat. They were shocked that he had been playing the part of some roughneck… he wasn’t who they thought he was at all. The point is: attitude and appearance change things, they have the power to give confidence and intimidate!

62 Timothy Cui Malferrari December 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm

The Italians call it SPREZZATURA.The Art of Making Difficult things look easy.Sums up your article.

63 Allen Uribes December 14, 2011 at 10:52 am

This is very interesting information that I shall put to use.

Thank you.

64 JT October 17, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I’m a city boy and I didn’t have to much knowledge about agriculture. I applied at the local gas bar but they said there was no openings and asked me if I would like to work at another store location my reply was “sure anywhere you need my help”. I smooth talked my way through the interview and got my self a job in a warehouse that stocks agriculture goods( feed, salt, oil). First day I get an order form from a customer had no idea what anything was and went off a hunch what he wanted. When loading the order I causually asked about his animals and made small “country” talk. Worked hard and showed I was willing to do the dirty work and now I’ve had that job for several months.

65 ker-ching May 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm

In the UK and other civilised countries, there are laws with severe financial and social penalties for lying in order to gain employment, and overstating your qualifications is basically a lie. I have never tried to decieve anyone regarding my qualifications, however, there will come a time in everyones career when they need to cover for laziness or oversight. I was once supposed to research on some aspect of my job (IT industry) and then discuss that with colleagues to setup a client with a network that was, necessarily, going to be more complex and take more of our skills than any we had so far implemented. A lot of money was at stake. So I was lazy and just bought a couple of network manuals on the subject, cut out the relevant pages that dealt with that kind of network and then read from those when i needed to sound technical, and just made out that when the time came it would be obvious how this would be done and it was then just a matter for others on the team to prioritise the work. I thought I had failed but afterwards people congratulated me on my hard work

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