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Fake it till you make it: How to use what you don’t know to grow

April 4, 2022 - 16 min read

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What does it mean to fake it till you make it?

Three different ways to fake it — and which ones are no good for you

When not to fake it till you make it

How to fake it till you make it — the right way

During tough times — or when we’re under stress — we all lean on mantras or aphorisms to keep ourselves going. One of my favorites is “Everything happens for a reason.” These statements are meant to remind us of our values, so we can connect to a little positive encouragement when we need it. When we're feeling less than confident, we might tell ourselves to just “fake it until we make it.”

While it’s sometimes helpful to borrow a little confidence and a positive outlook, the idea of faking it can get us into trouble. Many people are already stretched thin, dealing with the stress of current events and the pressure of moving forward with “business as usual.” Faking it might make everything look fine — for a little while — but it can add even more pressure to an already full plate.

In this article, we look at the idea of "fake it till you make it" through three different lenses and learn how to rewrite this mantra for ourselves.

What does it mean to "fake it 'till you make it"?

There are a few different takes on fake it till you make it. Viewed through a critical lens, you could say that they’re based on a sort of overlap between emotion, perception, and competence. In general, the idea is to “fake” one of these three things until you gain the benefits of actually having it.

Three different ways to fake it — and which ones are no good for you

1. Act as if

The first version of this is to act as if you have what you want — or are who you want to be. This can be a very helpful and healthy version of faking it. While there's no scientific backing for the Law of Attraction movement, there is evidence that the practice of visualizing how you aspire to be is helpful. People who practice manifestation methods, like positive affirmations and vision boards, see "acting as if" as a key part of bringing their behavior into alignment with their ideal self.

These kinds of visualization techniques are important to success in a number of different fields. It can help you build confidence, identify gaps in your skill sets, and give you the courage to take risks that align with bigger opportunities. 

The drawbacks of "acting as if"

When I started my first job, I had a friend who always lied about what he owned. He worked at a fast-food restaurant but told anyone who would listen about his wealthy grandparents. He said that they were leaving him a large amount of money and he needed to work to “prove himself.” Whenever we got on the train, he’d remind us that his brand-new Corvette was “in the shop,” or “too nice to drive in the city.”

He eventually did buy himself a Corvette, but not before earning himself a reputation as a compulsive liar. While it’s great to practice behaviors and attitudes that align with the person you want to be, you shouldn’t compromise your values to do it. 

Instead of telling everyone he owned a car that he didn’t have, he could have taken other actions to prepare for his future success. There's a line between putting yourself in an aspirational mindset and lying. Visualization should focus on the future and the way you need to behave to achieve your goals.

For example, he could have saved up money for it, taken a defensive driving class, or worked on improving his credit score. You shouldn’t mortgage your current well-being to pay for your future goals.

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2. Nod and smile

Everyone has had the experience of sitting through a conversation or meeting where you’re not 100% sure what’s going on. I know there have been times where I’ve been afraid to even ask a question because I didn’t want to reveal how little I knew (or that I might have missed something). 

But as a former teacher, I can say that if you have the question, there’s a good chance someone else does too. People (even the ones at the front of the room) are usually grateful when you’ve given them a chance to clarify and gauge understanding.

Nodding and smiling is sometimes helpful. It can keep conversations moving along (after all, do you really need to know everything?) and help conserve emotional energy. When others are nodding along, mirroring their behaviors can help improve the sense of positive connection and belonging in the group.

The drawbacks of "nod and smile"

Pretending you know when you don’t can make it harder to come clean about your shortcomings in the future. If you fake it convincingly enough, you may put yourself in a position where you're afraid to ask for help or risk blowing your cover. This can lead to impostor syndrome — the feeling of being ‘found out’ or like you don’t deserve to be where you are.

It's through vulnerability and self-awareness that we grow and learn to leave our comfort zones. We shouldn't be afraid of being seen as less than perfect. Faking it until we make it often contributes to perfectionism and anxiety.

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3. Pretend everything’s fine

There are days when we just don’t feel our best. We might be under the weather, distracted by other things, or dealing with grief. Sometimes, when we need to push forward anyway, we act as if everything’s fine. Our parents and teachers might have called this “putting on a brave face.”

There’s evidence behind this version of faking it. Researchers have learned that even a fake smile can make us feel happier and more positive. Our body language and actions certainly impact our mood and vice versa. We’ve certainly all had days that we didn’t feel like doing something, and we ended up being glad that we went (the gym is a notable example).

The drawbacks of "everything is fine"

Much like “smile and nod,” pretending that everything is fine creates a lot of emotional pressure. You might be putting so much energy into keeping up an emotional facade that you don’t have much left over for anything else. 

Pretending all is well delays the process of dealing with your feelings. This has the unfortunate consequence of often making them seem bigger than they really are. The saying goes “A burden shared is a burden halved.” But you can’t share the burden when you’re invested in making everything look neat and smooth.

This attitude of putting a positive spin on everything, even when you’re struggling, is called toxic positivity. Toxic positivity can damage your self-esteem, mental health, and connection with others.

How fake it till you make it feeds imposter syndrome

Imposters are people who pretend that they are someone that they’re not, or that they belong somewhere that they don’t. When imposter syndrome kicks in, you feel like you're faking your success and your qualifications even if you're not. 

While the phrase fake it till you make it can be helpful when you need to boost your confidence, it can also be self-defeating. In essence, you’re continually affirming that you’re a “fake.” This can be especially damaging when you're already struggling with feelings of unworthiness or doubt that you deserve to be where you are.

When you get caught up in impostor syndrome, it can prevent you from taking a critical look at the skills that you do need to develop. You may begin to invest lots of energy in avoiding others so you won’t be found out. 

When that happens, faking it becomes a permanent part of your facade. This sense that the “real you,” your authentic self, isn’t good enough for where you are is fertile ground for impostor syndrome.

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When not to fake it 'til you make it

While science says that faking a smile can help you feel better, there are times when faking can get you into hot water. Here are three times you should be completely honest in your work life:

1. Competencies

Faking a competency isn’t about building confidence. Most people will interpret that as flat-out lying. If you don't have the skills to do a role, pretending that you’re good at it doesn't help anybody. 

Unfortunately, we often feel under pressure to look like we know everything, especially when we deal with impostor syndrome. For example, a new manager that feels self-conscious about their success might try to overcompensate by acting like a know-it-all.

Even if you were newly promoted into a role, it's okay to not know everything. Just be honest that you don't know everything and where you need support. Nobody expects you to be perfect — but they can't help you if you pretend to have it all covered. 

The real secret? They probably already realize you don't have it all in hand. Your apparent lack of self-awareness might be even more frustrating than your questions would be.

2. Expectations

Don't pretend you know what somebody is expecting from you when you don't. You may be afraid to reveal that you didn't understand what someone was asking for, or that you weren't clear on what the deliverables were in the first place. 

I've certainly said yes to things that I’ve had to furtively ask follow-up questions about. Even though I was afraid that by asking a question I'd reveal my own ignorance or confusion, I found it was better to speak up. Better to ask questions to clarify than drop the ball because you pretended you understood when you didn't.

3. Assistance

When someone is offering help, whether it’s mentorship, coaching, or any other kind of assistance, don’t fake it. Mentorship and coaching relationships are built on authenticity and vulnerability. Moreover, those relationships are for your benefit. They can't help you if they don't know you. That means dropping the facade. 

Even if you don’t need “help,” you need — and deserve — to have a safe space where you can tell someone that you don't feel confident or safe. That’s just one reason why psychological safety is so important to building teams. Someone needs to be there to guide you, support you, and celebrate with you when you finally do “make it.”

How to fake it 'til you make it — the right way

Don't sell yourself short by calling yourself a fake. You're not faking it — you're learning and reaching a new level. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is part of the growth process.

Here are some ways to embrace uncertainty until you “make it”:

1.  You’re not faking it, you’re practicing it

There's a difference between faking it and practicing. Anything we’re working to master will feel awkward at first. Reframe these changes as “working to embody the behaviors for the person that you want to become.” They may not be habitual, but that doesn’t mean that they’re fake. 

Continuing to practice until the new habits become more natural is one way of “making it.” 

2.  You’re not faking it, you’re winging it

Learning psychologist Lev Vygotsky outlined the idea of scaffolding. He explained that as we develop new skills, we learn most successfully when those skills are just a little beyond what we know. He referred to this area as the zone of proximal development.

In order to learn the skills in that zone, we often need the help of a skilled other. Sometimes, we’ll jump into experiences that we’re not entirely ready for. That’s not faking. That’s using the skills you have to try something outside of your comfort zone. It’s scaffolding, and it’s an important part of growth.

If you are learning something new, you're being authentic about where you are and where you still need to develop. You’re admitting that you don’t know it all — which takes confidence. 

3.  You’re not faking it, you’re asking for help

You don't have to do it all yourself, and you definitely don't have to do it all perfectly. Be clear about your boundaries and what you're struggling with. Ask for help, decide what you can take off your plate, and delegate things to others. 

Ask for guidance. It may seem counterintuitive, but research says people that ask for help with a challenging task are perceived as more competent and effective than people who don't.

Final thoughts

You don't have to tell everybody you know that you're not feeling confident. But you'd be surprised what happens when you open up to people. When you’re authentic about what you're dealing with, people will respect you more for the areas that you're struggling with. Rather than just “acting like” a confident person, these mastery experiences will help you build self-confidence.

Moreover, having strengths and weaknesses — working to learn — doesn’t make you weak or incompetent. Mathematical geniuses often wrestle with complex equations for months on end. It's not about solving everything immediately, it's about what you take away from trying to solve it.

Don't let the idea of “faking it 'til you make it” keep you from opportunities to think about things critically because you don't want to pretend that you know. A coach can help you build the mental fitness and self-awareness to learn and grow. You want to be able to have the self-awareness to identify where you need to grow. In the end, it’s trust — and trusting yourself and your support systems around you to help unlock your human potential.

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Published April 4, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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