The "As If" Principle

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on March 5, 2014.

A few years ago I ran into a young friend, Michelle, who was studying musical theater, and who had just come out of a singing lesson. In the course of the lesson, her wonderfully wise teacher had asked her what she wore to sleep in. She wasn’t being cheeky; she was trying to help her student sing with greater depth. The answer? Winnie the Pooh pajamas. “Go into a lingerie shop and get yourself a lacy nightgown,” her teacher said. “You’ll never be able to sing if you don’t sing from your womb, and you’ll never sing from your womb if you sleep in children’s pajamas.”

This keeps coming back to me as I’m reading a book by Richard Wiseman called Rip It Up, the fundamental message of which is that small changes in behavior have a big impact on thoughts and feelings. In 1884, the American philosopher William James argued that if you behaved as if you were a certain type of person you would become that person. A few thousand years earlier, Confucius put it about that people could be improved by self-cultivation, and that our habits are what distinguish us from each other. Today, psychologists call the cultivation of new behavior in this way the ‘As If’ principle. You can watch a short animated video about it here.

In my communication skills coaching, I’ve been a broken record reminding people that they know what confidence looks like, and that imitating confident behavior will have an impact on their mental state. There’s always some part of the nervous person’s brain saying to another part of his brain, “Look! His shoulders are slumping! His hands are shaking! Danger! Send more adrenalin! Make him run away!” It makes sense, then, that a straight back and a firm handshake will not only impress his listeners but will also impress his self, calming his brain. We can try to talk ourselves into feeling less nervous, but behaving ourselves into feeling less nervous may be equally if not more important.

Behaving “as if” is a form of self-education, and just like any successful education, it requires persistence. Changing from someone with a weak handshake into someone who always has a strong handshake takes time, just as learning a language takes time. When I wanted to change from someone who couldn’t speak Chinese to someone who spoke it well, I spent six years on it. If we spent six years on confidence, or kindness, or leadership, or creativity, we’d have these traits and abilities embedded deep in our systems.

But back to nighties. I recently got in touch with Michelle and asked if she had gone out and bought some age-appropriate sleepwear. She had indeed, and had really felt the impact. “I feel that I carry myself differently gradually,” she wrote to me, “and feel more mature and more grounded.”

Maybe you already have your power suit, or your maturity nightgown. What’s key is that you remember how it makes you feel, and carry that feeling with you when you’re not wearing it. And then, if you’re still a bit tentative, imagine that the people around you are naked. You can take it from Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”