Bravery is the Cornerstone of Being a Fraud

Count Victor Lustig never suffered from imposter syndrome, and he wasn’t a Count, a Victor, or a Lustig. He was a Robert Miller, born in Bohemia in 1890 (probably). 

Bob was a fraud, and “Count Victor Lustig” was only his favorite alias.

His most famous fraud was when he forged government credentials and sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal two times. Two times. He did it once, and the first guy was so embarrassed he immediately started stress eating croissants and never said a word to anyone. 

A month later, the Count returned to Paris and did it again. This time, he narrowly escaped capture by fleeing to America. Give us your tired, your poor, your fake Counts yearning to breathe free. It’s the United States of America, we used to be willing to take our chances with all comers because we understood that the toughest, smartest, most ambitious people have the courage to make change for themselves no matter how intimidating it is. 

For some, the fear is the harbinger—the thing that tells them they must. 

If we fear something and we don’t embark in some way, all we’re left with is the fear of the thing. (I read somewhere that all fear is the fear of death, but this should fix that.) 

So, the Count arrives in America for a fresh start, obviously chastened and ready to make positive change in this new land, right? Nah. Within a year he’d worked out a new con. 

Bob was a quick start and patient.

LUSTIG’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF THE CON

1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).

2. Never look bored.

3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.

4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.

5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.

6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.

7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).

8. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.

He met a Florida man, a cabinetmaker, who crafted a money making box to the Count’s specifications. The “Rumanian Box” featured two small slots, one on each side, and some knobs and cranks that may or may not have been “hooked up.” The Count would insert an authentic bill and an accurately-sized piece of paper into one slot and—six hours later—two authentic bills would come out the other slot. This thing obviously printed money. “I seen it with my own eyes!“ Darryl said.

My favorite part about this one is the six hours. The Count had to spend six hours looking at the box with his new friend while they waited for it make the money. A charmer like the Count killed every time at that six-hour show. No doubt, by the time the money came out, the mark had felt truly seen for first time in his life, like, understood on a level he barely understood himself, ya know? And then this: the original bill and the freshly printed bill were in his hands. He was holding them. Proof. Easily verified by a local bank teller as the real thing. Convinced, the mark told the Count, “I’ll take it!” And the Count sold it to him. Even though it was his last one and he hated to part with it, but for the right price… 

The deal is done. The Count shakes his new friend’s hand. Wishes his sick mother well. And he’s off. Straightaway, the new owner puts his own bill in the slot—the largest denomination he has, of course—and waits six hours, grinning and thinking about how he’s going to spend the money. Six hours. Enough time for the Count to get the hell out of town. 

Do you think Count Victor Lustig ever felt like a fraud? No way. He was being his most authentic self. He was living his best life—using the skills he had to get what he wanted. No matter which passport he was carrying, the Count was never confused about his identity. If he had felt like a fraud, even for a second, it would have put his whole game in jeopardy.

Same. When you feel like a fraud, it puts your whole game in jeopardy. 

The Count was an actual fraud, but he never felt like one, because he couldn’t be a good fraud if he felt like one. And you, even if you feel like a fraud, it doesn’t mean you are one. You can’t be a good non-fraud if you feel like a fraud.

Stop wasting time questioning your right to be exactly where you are. What’s the point? To make sure—when you fail—you can tell yourself, I told you so? Failing is the goal. When you fail, you learn where the boundaries are. When you learn where the boundaries are, you know what’s possible and what it will take to succeed. Feeling like a fraud is a dead end. It puts your whole game in jeopardy. Cut it out.

In 1935, Count Victor Lustig escaped from a Manhattan jail. He got another 26 days in the game before he was recaptured in Pittsburgh. He ended up getting sentenced to 20 years on Alcatraz and died there before his sentence was half up.

So, what’s the worst that can happen if you fail? Alcatraz isn’t even a jail anymore, it’s a tourist attraction, so maybe you’ll get a lousy t-shirt. Unless you actually are a fraud, you’ll end up better off than the Count no matter how many times you fail. And, if you do it right, maybe you’ll have as much fun as he did playing the game.

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