The Psychology of Winging it Like the Best in the World

Imposter syndrome often prevents us from starting a new project.

We think we need a crystal clear, step-by-step plan before moving forward, assuming that “successful” people do have this—and that’s why they’re successful.

However, what if we’re “putting the cart before the horse” here?

What if the most successful people are actually those who are most effective at “winging it”?

The phrase to “wing it” comes from a time in English theatres when actors played roles without completely knowing their lines, with their performance depending on prompts they received from the “wings” of the stage.

There are few people who have been more successful at “winging it” than Maya Angelou.

As a young woman with minimal experience cooking, she walked into a San Francisco restaurant and announced she was an expert Creolo Chef. Only moments before, she read an ad that the restaurant was hiring for this position.

They gave her the job.

Later, when Angelou decided she wanted to make it in showbiz, she took on a role as a Cuban Calypso singer—despite only ever having sung in her church choir as a child—and she wasn’t Cuban either!

She later went on to become: a streetcar conductor, an actress, an author, a journalist, a campaign organiser for Martin Luther King, a Film Director, and a University Professor.

The secret to her success was a rock-solid belief that she could master new skills through determination and application.

As Angelou’s example shows, “winging it” isn’t about being fake.

It’s about taking on new challenges before you have the necessary skills, knowledge, and confidence because you trust in your ability to adapt and learn as you progress.

Business leaders, politicians, and “experts” in all domains got there by saying yes to responsibilities that were beyond their current capabilities, adapting, and mastering new skills along the way, until they gradually became proficient.

Realising that—to some degree—everybody is winging it all of the time, can free you to overcome the need to feel confident before you start, and throw yourself into action.

This in turn, motivates further action, generating a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.

Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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