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Fake it to make it

Rip It Up claims that action, not thought, is the key to a new life

For decades, professional-development prophets have preached the same simple gospel: that perception is projection. In other words, if you want to improve your lot, then you need to change how you think. Force yourself to have positive thoughts and you will become happier. Visualise your desired self and you will enjoy boundless contentment. Think like a billionaire and you will emerge on the Forbes list of richest people.

The theory is elegantly simple; the practice so often tortuously flawed. This is, at least, according to Professor Richard Wiseman, in his new book, Rip It Up: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life.

Uniquely for a writer of this genre, Wiseman – a professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK – started his working life as a magician. His previous books have included The Luck Factor and 59 Seconds, both of which possess the uncanny intuition and novel approach that characterises Rip It Up.

The book is so titled because Wiseman urges readers to tear up the book’s pages as they read them. “The book is all about people changing their behaviour,” he writes. “To emphasise this key message I am inviting readers to do something that they probably have never done. Each time, readers will be changing their behaviour and so altering how they think and feel.”

Wiseman states that the key message often touted by self-improvement books is visualisation. Readers are urged to imagine their ideal selves – to see themselves sitting in the leather seat in the Big Potato’s office, or sipping a margarita on a Thai beach as they feel the warm sand between their toes. Research suggests, however, that this approach does not deliver. Perhaps those who fantasise about the dream life are ill-equipped for setbacks, or are reluctant to put in the effort required to achieve their goal.

Wiseman instead re-presents a concept first put forward over a century ago by psychologist William James, which he backs up with some contemporary experiments.

Working at Harvard University in the late 19th century, James hypothesised that the relationship between emotion and behaviour was a two-way street, and that behaviour can cause emotion. According to James, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. To use James’s favourite way of putting it: “You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.”

This illustrates the “As If” principle – that by acting as if you are a certain type of person, you become that person. Using this idea, Wiseman posits that positive action is far more effective than positive thinking. In essence, the idea is to fake it until you make it. Want to feel happier? Force yourself to a smile and you will actually feel better. Want to be more confident? Adopt a confident pose and you’ll feel that aura of self-assuredness.

Another example is willpower. Motivated people tense their muscles as they get ready to leap into action, which begs the question: can you boost your willpower by simply tensing your muscles? Studies led by Iris Hung from the National University of Singapore had volunteers visit a local eatery tasked with avoiding buying sugary snacks. Some of the volunteers were asked to make their hand into a fist or contract their biceps to act as if they were more motivated. Remarkably, this exercise made people far more likely to buy healthy food.

The same applies to confidence. Most books on increasing confidence encourage readers to focus on instances in their life when they have performed well, or to visualise themselves being more assertive. The “As If” principle, however, suggests that it is much more effective to actually act more assertively, even if this is not how you initially feel.

Singapore-based Mark Laudi, previously an anchorman for CNBC Asia-Pacific and now a speaker at regional seminars and conferences, concurs with Rip It Up’s central thesis.

“The technique of imagining yourself more confident worked wonders for me in television,” he says. “I was a stock-watcher and anchor at CNBC for seven years, and as is usually the case in live television, not everything always went to plan. In fact, things rarely went to plan.

“There were many moments of stress – a late breaking story, an interview guest who didn’t arrive on time, or running out of time before the commercial break. The reason why viewers never spotted these moments is because I pretended to be confident at the most confidence-sapping times.”

Laudi now teaches media skills and executive presence and he says that the same technique works just as well for his clients when facing the media, shareholders or town-hall staff meetings.

More than a century ago, William James proposed a radically different approach to change. Wiseman reveals how it works through an eminently clever book – one that will have you reconsidering much of what you thought you once knew about “inner change”.

Wiseman may have been a magician once, but it’s hard to be sceptical about such a well-researched and provocative work.



Some quick and effective exercises that employ the “As If” principle

Happiness: Smile As countless studies have shown, smile and you will feel happier. To get the most out of this exercise, make the smile as wide as possible and hold it for about 20 seconds.
Willpower: Tense up Next time you want to resist that cigarette or chocolate bar, tense your muscles by either making a fist, contracting your biceps, pressing your thumb and first finger together, or gripping a pen ferociously in your hand.
Procrastination: Make a start To overcome procrastination, act as if you are interested in what it is that you have to do. Spend just a few minutes carrying out the task you are avoiding and suddenly you will feel a strong need to complete the job.
Confidence: Power pose To inflate your self-esteem and confidence, adopt a “power pose”. Stand up, place your feet flat on the floor, push your shoulders back and your chest forward. The world is your domain!