Is it ever OK to exaggerate your accomplishments?
Several years ago a colleague pointed out to me that another former colleague of ours had listed himself as the founding editor of a publication we knew he’d contributed to but hadn’t founded. A few weeks ago, another colleague from the same publication exchanged texts with me about a different former colleague who made a passing reference in a social media post to a website he’d launched where we remember him being an entry-level employee. (One of us remembers him as an intern. Each of us is certain he didn’t launch the site.)
I was listening to a podcast the other day where one of the hosts lists among his many accomplishments his own radio show. While I know the podcaster is a frequent guest on someone else’s radio show, it’s not really the podcaster’s radio show, even if it sounds more impressive to say so. I do enjoy his appearances on that radio show and would have found it impressive enough to mention that he’s a regular guest.
Do such embellishments matter?
If such exaggerations were listed on a resume or curriculum vitae and were discovered, they likely would indeed matter. Reports of people who have lied about their credentials when applying for a position only to find themselves removed from that job as a result are fairly abundant. They’re also not new. I wrote about a high-profile case about 20 years ago involving the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee who apparently had not earned the doctoral degree she claimed.
But the fear of getting caught exaggerating or outright lying should not be the motivation to avoid embellishment accomplishments. Granted, such embellishments may start as what are perceived to be small tales to boost a profile. But often these small tales take on a life of their own and can easily turn into larger lies that need to be fed. For those who engage in such embellishments, I suppose, the imposter syndrome is not a psychological condition so much as a reality of their own making.
There is a line between trying to paint yourself in the best possible light and claiming ownership of accomplishments that never happened. The former might include a well-wrought cover letter using strong action verbs and vivid stories to inform a prospective employer what you’ve done. But it doesn’t include allowing your exuberance to cascade over into fabrication.
The right thing is to be truthful no matter how boastful you choose to be. If you want to build trust with others, own your accomplishments without feeling the need to make stuff up.
If being truthful isn’t motivation enough, then go ahead and remember that it’s often not the small lies we tell that trip us up. It’s the lies we tell to cover those lies that do us in. Whether you’re applying for a job or posting on social media, remembering that there are those who know if you’re making stuff up out there. Let them and others appreciate you for who they know you to be and for the stuff you’ve actually done. It’s likely impressive enough.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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