Three Reasons Why "Fake It 'Til You Make It" Fails Us


This week, I got into a lively philosophical discussion with a bunch of strangers* about the merits of “Fake It ‘Til You Make It”.

I have no doubt you’ve heard that old chestnut, particularly if you read much about women, confidence, and imposter syndrome.  Like most ubiquitous pieces of advice, Fake It ‘Til You Make It is often presented as an EASY SOLUTION TO ALL YOUR ISSUES -- at the same time, it didn't take much talking to my new smart friends to determine that the definition was . . . well, fuzzy to say the least.  Of the 26 people involved in this conversation, nearly everyone had a passionate opinion about the value of the advice, and nearly everyone had a different definition of what it meant.  

Julie and I have railed before about the “5-step solution/one weird trick/just stop doing THIS” clickbait nonsense that proliferates on the web nowadays.  We’re big fans of nuance (and words, given that you are about to read a whole bunch of them.  Don't say we didn't warn you).  We like grey areas.  We want to get to the core of these well-meaning and essentially meaningless phrases and see if we can’t tease out the useful stuff.  So here are our top three issues with “Fake It ‘Til You Make It”, and some alternatives, with a little help from our new friends on Anchor.  (Because it’s not the internet if there’s no list, right?)

#1:  WHAT are you supposed to fake to make it?  And is "faking" the same as lying?  

Fake knowledge.  Fake confidence.  Fake bravery.  Fake wealth or position.  Fake experience.  Fake talent.  Fake persona.  Did reading any of those phrases make you uncomfortable?

If there’s a sort of sliding scale of morality for what we are advised to fake in order to make it, I would put some of these firmly on the questionable end both in terms of potential hurt to others and potential long-term hurt to yourself.  A few people brought up the quest to fake a particular lifestyle or persona by buying things you can’t afford--faking it to prolong an unhealthy relationship--accepting money from a potential customer who wants to hire someone with a skillset you don’t have YET but know you could probably learn quickly.  Where faking it affects another person, ethical lines get blurry very quickly.  (One of the pithier quotes of this conversation was from Mike Richeson: “If you want to fake it, fake it on your own time.”)

But what if you’re using "faking it” as a means of getting past a lack of confidence in your current skill set -- a solution to imposter syndrome -- a show of bravery that you don’t currently feel?  That’s totally benign, right?

So great--let’s talk fake confidence.  

What does confidence look like?  I bet if I polled 10 people, I’d get 10 totally different answers depending on your culture, your environment, and your experience in the world.  (Scratch that, I’d probably get 7 different answers and the other 3 would be ‘um, Beyonce’.)

When we have no idea what we’re supposed to be faking -- when we are constantly searching for just the “right” mask of confidence in different environments -- we cut ourselves off from our ability to be present.  We’re too busy scrambling to look/talk/behave correctly to actually respond to the situation in front of us.  That floundering as you try on different fake personas can look disingenuous at best and deeply unsettling at worst.  It’s also really difficult.  

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum -- when we’re so “on brand” in our personal presentation that we forget how to just be a human being.  When you are consistently faking it, you have to be constantly on -- and on-ness is also exhausting mentally, emotionally, and even physically.  The cost of this for fashion bloggers was beautifully documented in this article in the Atlantic:

“A personal brand is supposed to come across as authentic, despite the countless hours and financial resources typically required to create it. Navigating this paradox—translating oneself into a consistent yet distinctive visual aesthetic, online voice, and potential partner for commercial brands—is a continuous project….”

Have you heard the term emotional labor?  

We’ve started a hugely important conversation about the cost of emotional labor on employees in the service industry, but emotional labor doesn’t just mean having to maintain a warm, smiling facade when you are delivering food to a rude customer.  Emotional labor is a “form of emotional regulation that creates a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace”.  Sound like faking it?  That’s because it is.  If it affects your health, happiness, burnout, job satisfaction, etc, when you ARE getting paid to do it, imagine what it does to you when you aren’t.  

#2.  Does faking it work? (Or, can I actually fake people into thinking I’m confident, cool, and skilled when I feel the opposite?)   

Classic “fake it ‘til you make it” situations tend to be high stress and high stakes: think networking events, big speeches, interviews, etc.  And most people are pretty terrible at wearing social masks in high stress situations.  

The focus becomes so internal (the self-talk feedback loop) and so performative (look at how WELL I’m doing!) at the same time that very little actual communication happens.  We all have an internal BS meter, and when you are on the receiving end of obvious “faking it”, it can be incredibly uncomfortable and off-putting.  

Tell-tale signs of forced enthusiasm, engagement, or confidence:  too big a smile, too loud a delivery, too hearty a welcome -- all symptoms of trying too hard to overcompensate for nerves.  Where someone may be trying to fake “cool factor”, you can read disengagement, boredom, or sullenness.  

On the OTHER side, have you ever met someone who is almost TOO good at faking it in different situations?  I call them sociomorphs -- those people who actually seem to put on an entirely different personality and set of core values to fit a situation.  Sociomorphs can be very smooth.  They seem to always know the right thing to say and the right way to say it--and they may be good at making first impressions or creating short-term relationships, but they do not engender trust long-term.  They are master manipulators.  The more times you encounter a sociomorph in different situations, the less you know who they really are.  Sociomorph is one baby-step away from sociopath.

In the throes of imposter syndrome, it’s easy to romanticize either a version of confidence that looks NOTHING like you, or even just an ideal version of yourself (”If I were only more articulate/10 pounds thinner/stronger when speaking with my employees/always had the perfect witty riposte for the office jerk/Beyonce”).  There’s nothing wrong with soul-searching.  There’s nothing wrong with a “growth mindset".  There’s certainly nothing wrong with personal development and figuring out your core values along the way.  But when you start to play the game of “the ideal is out there, I just have to figure out what it is and conform to that to get ahead”, you shut yourself off from everything that makes you authentic and real--and everything that makes you truly charismatic.  

#3:  Is EVERYONE faking it?  And does “faking” actually lead to lasting change?

In this world of carefully curated Instagram feeds  (#Iwokeuplikethis #nofilter), do we really believe that anyone is not faking it to a certain extent?  It’s expected.  It’s NECESSARY!  (Or it’s positioned as such . . . )

[caption id="attachment_1127" align="alignright" width="310"] Credit Maritsa Patrinos / BuzzFeed[/caption]

Many of my conversation partners brought up the idea that everyone is faking it all the time--that we’re all walking around secretly thinking “I have no idea what I’m doing” and pretending otherwise.  People who believe in faking it often cite the placebo effect or concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy -- the idea that merely by smiling, we can make ourselves happier.  But we’re conflating two different things: putting on a mask or fake attitude of success vs actually taking daring actions that lead to success and doing the internal emotional and mental work that supports you.

Mimicry or pretending may lead to a short-term boost in confidence (see also power posing, dressing for success, mirroring body language to create rapport, and other supposedly “easy foolproof solutions” that rely on outward signals to create inward change).  It may even be truly helpful in certain situations.  

I come from the theater world: we pretend for a living.  (Or rather quite often pretend for “exposure” and the chance someone important may see our work and hire us in the future instead of being paid actual money--but that’s another blog post entirely…)  And yes, I love the moment of putting on the costume and transforming into another person--but it's not the costume that accomplishes the transformation.  It helps the journey along, but it's just one piece of the puzzle.

The deepest, most compelling work as an actor comes not when you perfect a character’s outward mannerisms and attitudes and facial expressions and tone of voice in order to convince the audience that you are the character you are playing.  The audience may enjoy the performance on a technical level, but they can sense something is missing.  It’s when you have the response “Wow, they looked so confident!  Their hand gestures were amazing.  Really impressive high notes.  They seem so TRAINED.”

When the voice and mannerisms and attitudes and responses, etc., come naturally as the result of and in tandem with something we connect to on a core, soul-deep level--that’s when the audience connects to the story, the moment, the human in front of them, as opposed to the skillful facade.  

So how can we go beyond faking it to find that confidence that comes from within?

Want an alternative to “faking it”?  Here’s what we suggest:

Find your team:  Not everyone has (or wants) Taylor Swift’s #squad, but we all have -- or can actively cultivate -- people who are in our corner.  Seek out and invest in the friendships that build your confidence and your skill set, and invest in building OTHERS’ confidence too. Our allies are often better at seeing our strengths than we are--and freer to talk about them.

Create a self-talk routine that works:  Ever been hijacked by your inner monologue?  I know I have!  Cut that negative self-talk off at the pass by replacing it with POSITIVE self-talk.  We suggest building and practicing your personal Flashdance routine (boombox, dance studio, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, dance ability not required) that you can use to psych yourself up before high stress situations.  Need some inspiration?  Click here.  

Just DON’T fake it:  Especially in situations where faking it would mean feigning knowledge or expertise, admitting you need help or support is not the end of the world--and actually can show strength.  Great leaders know when to ask for help.  Utilize the resources you have around you.  We’re not advising you to expose your soft underbelly to predators here (you probably already know if you work in a culture of “never admit your weakness” - and we’re sorry about that)--but conscientiously and honestly asking for support or for extra time is much more conducive to building long term respect, credibility, and personal peace of mind.

Let go of endgaming.  We often get nervous, clammy, tongue-tied, feel inadequate, and try too hard in situations where we have a high stakes outcome on the line (I need this job! I want this sale! I just want them to LIKE MEEEEE!).  By consciously reframing these situations as part of a longer journey and not the endgame, we can stay present, keep our sense of humor and humanity intact, make smart decisions, and retain our ability to make necessary tactical changes in how we communicate.

Replace “fake it ‘til you make it” with “practice until you perfect it” (credit Rich Palmer) or "being bad is the first step to being good" (credit Julie Fredrickson).  If you are lacking confidence, it might be imposter syndrome--or it also might be an actual gap in skills or knowledge or experience (deep down, you probably know the difference).  Either way, give yourself room and permission to practice -- and FAIL -- and get better.  It may take 10,000 hours, and it may not.  But practice and iteration, whether it’s public speaking, interview skills, savvy networking, or any of a myriad of soft and hard skills, is what truly sets apart those outwardly confident empty shirts and people who own their expertise.

When it comes to 'outward signs', be smart and self-respectful.  Maybe you work in a city or a field where wearing nicer, more expensive shoes and carrying a designer purse would genuinely help you get ahead (a real piece of advice a friend of ours got from an executive coach--oof).  Do your research, give your bank account a glance, and examine your core values. If the answer is 'ok, it actually looks like this could be effective, and I can do this and still respect myself/pay my rent', then great. I would argue that you aren't faking anything, you are making a real, strategic external choice that supports the interior work you are already doing.

If you are in an environment where your only choice is constant, high-level faking it, and it is damaging to your health and peace of mind--ask yourself how much you want or need to be there. Adjust accordingly.

Keep the conversation going (here in the comments if you like).  The more people talk respectfully and in-depth about real issues of presentation, iteration, personal branding, identity, and confidence, the more we get to learn from each other and the closer we get to answering the big questions for ourselves.  There's nothing fake about that.



*Interested in lively philosophical discussions with strangers?  You should join Anchor, a free app that's kind of like twitter meets podcasting meets public radio.  We think it’s pretty darn awesome.  Thank you to all participants in our "faking it" conversation for their wit and wisdom.

Casey Erin Clark