Fake It Till You Make It: How To Take Advantage of What You Don’t Know

CoachHub · 18 November 2022 · 7 min read

So, your boss just told you they want you to pitch a new project to an account they’ve been trying to land. They are sure you can handle the situation. But, inside, you’re terrified and sure you will fail.

What should you do? Admit your fears? Smile and accept the task and then “fake it till you make it” and hope for the best?

Or maybe, you recently started a new job or were promoted at work. Your anxiety is at level eleven. You receive a project that’s something you’ve never done before. You have zero experience.

Do you ask for more information or get guidance from someone who knows where you should start? Or do you lie and say you know exactly what to do and risk catastrophe if it all goes wrong?

Is forced bravado and faking it until you make it always the right thing to do at work? Or, are there times when it’s ok to be vulnerable? The answers to these questions might surprise you.

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

While it might seem like it’s advocating for dishonesty, that is not what’s behind the philosophy. According to the Urban Dictionary, “fake it till you make it” refers to the act of behaving like you are something so you can become it. That definition is fine.

But it can lead to misunderstandings. There’s a danger of taking it too and lying about your level of knowledge, status, experience or skills. In fact, the aphorism means to act confident, competent, positive or optimistic to achieve those qualities.

fake it till you make it

History of “fake it till you make it”

The idea of acting confident or behaving as if you’ve already achieved a lofty goal isn’t new. The phrase seems to have originated around 1973. A similar phrase appears in Simon and Garfunkel’s 1967 song, “Fakin’ It.” And the words “fake it ’til you make it” are common in many 12-step programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

However, the concept goes as far back as Aristotle’s virtue ethics and the idea that if a person acts virtuous, they will become virtuous.

Skip ahead to the 1920’s and Alfred Adler’s’ therapeutic technique, “acting as if,” or “role play” lends further credence to the idea.

As recently as 2006, in books like The Secret and seminars on the Law of Attraction, the buzz was all about visualization and “vision boards.” They all promised the same thing. To change your entire life, just believe and behave as if you have already attained it.

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The dark side of “fake it till you make it”

Before we get into the modern science behind the principle, we need to discuss the dangers of misapplying the approach. It’s helpful to explore the three common ways people misunderstand the common aphorism.

Lying – to yourself and/or to other people

Lying might seem like an obvious negative interpretation of faking things. But, many people will take the principle of “acting as if” and manifesting their ideal life and self too far. They will either refuse to entertain anything that contradicts their belief.

Alternatively, they might tell everyone they have a skill they do not possess yet or that they think is desirable, but never intend to acquire. And while everyone, regardless of gender might sometimes be tempted to misrepresent qualifications.

Men are more likely than women to “fake it” when applying for a job. It’s one thing to work on viewing yourself as successful and a leader to gain confidence in seeking out opportunities that can help you gain that goal. 

But it’s another to tell everyone you already have a job or qualifications you don’t actually possess. Telling employers, colleagues and friends you have qualifications you don’t possess will backfire. Instead of manifesting the life you desire, you’ll reap the negative rewards of a bad reputation.

Never asking questions or for help

What if faking it till you make it manifests as never admitting you don’t have the answer? Or being afraid to ask questions? Or worse, pretending to understand something when you have no idea what people are talking about?

Taking the so-called “smile and nod” approach to topics and tasks you don’t fully understand might seem like a good strategy. Many people assume it makes them appear confident and competent. It doesn’t.

When you refuse to ask questions or admit you don’t know or understand something, you run the risk of appearing arrogant or inexperienced. You also risk appearing dishonest if you do eventually have to admit you didn’t understand that concept.

You actually appear smarter and more confident when you ask questions and admit you need to learn more.

Toxic positivity

We’ve all seen the meme of the dog in the burning café that’s captioned “this is fine. It’s the ideal illustration for faking cheerfulness no matter how sad, ill or stressed we feel.

Yes, sometimes smiling through adversity can be helpful. The flip side piles on even more pressure.

Pretending everything is good in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is the epitome of “smiling and nodding” instead of asking for help. It actually isolates you from others, including colleagues and managers who could help.

What about imposter syndrome?

Many people in the professional world struggle with imposter syndrome. It occurs at all levels, from entry level to middle management to senior level executives. It’s a type of anxiety that usually starts in childhood. It manifests in different ways.

However, many people who feel like imposters at work try to hide it by acting like a “know-it-all.” Alternatively, they might have a fear of asking questions or for help. It’s a subject for an entire article.

Yet, it’s worth mentioning here. That’s because there is correlation between imposter syndrome and people who misinterpret how to fake it ‘til you make it.

The science behind “fake it till you make it”

There is emerging evidence that how we think, behave and even hold our bodies has a positive or negative effect on our mood and how other perceive us. It’s with this in mind that you can explore positive, ethical ways to “fake it to make it.”

The idea isn’t to fool yourself and others. There is evidence though on what you can do to feel more confident that can make you become more confident. And none of them encourage you to pretend that “everything’s fine.”

Good posture and “power posing”

Nonverbal communication influences how people think and feel about us. It also impacts how we think and feel about ourselves. How we carry ourselves–including taking stances that covey power and confidence–can make us feel better and may also physically change us in ways we don’t say.

There’s some evidence from social and neuroscience that how we hold are bodies results in measurable physiological changes. Social psychologist, Dr. Amy J.C. Cuddy’s famous Ted Talk and continuing research posits that just two minutes of “power posing” can boost confidence levels.

It also may impact hormone levels responsible for elevating feelings of power and reducing stress levels. Even just standings and sitting up straight instead of slouching can change your self-perception.

Change “faking it” to practicing and learning

Borrow a concept from learning psychologist, Lev Vygotsky called scaffolding. The concept refers to the action of using your current skills and experiences to try new tasks that are just outside of your comfort zone.

It might sound like faking it, until you get to the next piece, asking for and accepting help from someone who’s already mastered the skill you’re working on. That’s being transparent and not lying about your abilities.

It will take practice to acquire the skills to accomplish any new task and that might feel awkward. Remind yourself, that it’s ok. Practicing new skills doesn’t mean you’re a fake or an imposter. Instead, it’s how you gain experience and expertise to the point where they feel natural and you can help colleagues do the same.

Seeking out professional coaching

You don’t have to go it alone to build confidence and master the positive aspects of “fake it until you make it.”  It’s ok to get help.  That’s particularly true when you’re working on changing how you view what’s a strength and what’s a weakness.

It’s also good to get advice from a trusted source if practicing acting confident until you feel confident makes you feel like an imposter. CoachHub is a recognized leader in professional coaching and mentoring for all levels of employees, including digital coaching tools.

Discover how our leadership skills development coaching programs can help you and your teams go beyond the idea of “faking it to make it,” to become more confident employees, managers and leaders here.

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