Despite your best efforts, a professional career will never be easy. You’ll encounter a bevy of new situations and confront countless complex problems that you’ve never tackled before. And no matter how much you’ve prepared, no matter how much you’ve studied or experienced, you’ll inevitably face circumstances where all that front-end work still leaves you feeling ill equipped.
I’ve felt that sense of being overwhelmed before, and you probably will, too, no matter your profession. Prevailing corporate wisdom tells us that these situations call for a “fake it till you make it” approach: Act like you know what you’re doing until everyone around you assumes that you do because they don’t know any better.
In my experience, this never works. For one, it slows down your professional growth rather than accelerates it, which defeats the intended purpose. Plus, people who routinely “fake it” agree to take on projects they aren’t equipped to handle. If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a high probability that you’ll mess something up. Finally, when you “fake it until you make it,” you internalize destructive habits that are difficult to break.
To really succeed, take the time to learn the skills necessary for your role. Not only will it make you an indispensable expert, but it’ll position you to approach future advancement opportunities in the right way.
Fake It … Until It Catches Up With You
Before taking my current job, I worked as a project manager at another company. It was my first time working with an engineering team in a highly technical role, and there was a lot I didn’t understand.
About a week after I started, my boss called me into a meeting with my boss’s boss to discuss my slate of projects. As both higher-ups peppered me with questions, it became clear that I was out of my element — it was my first time in a technical role, and it was a wake-up call. I immediately went to my engineers and just asked them to talk to me about their work. As it turns out, people love to share what they know with those who are curious enough to learn.
There’s a lot of corporate pressure to look like you know what you’re doing, but you’ll benefit from resisting that drive. No matter what position you’re in, outcomes will rapidly improve when you admit what you don’t know and demonstrate a sincere desire to fill that void.
Not sure where to start? You’ll get incredible mileage out of these three strategies:
1. Accept that you don’t know.
Whether you’re a new hire or you’ve been at a company for years, track down the people with the knowledge you want and talk to them. Pick their brains and ask for suggestions on books, podcasts and other resources that will help you learn more. If you instead “fake it,” trying to teach yourself complicated subjects as you go along, you’re making things much harder on yourself.
Also, don’t worry about asking “stupid” questions. Despite what your teachers may have told you, stupid questions do exist, but everyone is guilty of asking them, and any query is a valid learning opportunity. Choosing not to ask a question out of some misplaced sense of pride, meanwhile, usually backfires.
Seek counsel from trusted friends, resources and colleagues on unfamiliar subjects. This humble approach helps you feel at ease learning something new and can diminish feelings of shame or incompetence that sometimes come with being vulnerable.
2. Focus on yourself.
If you’re trying to fake a job, you’re usually doing it for someone else. Instead of trying to fool your managers and peers, adopt an objective-driven learning mindset to become a better version of yourself.
When I took on an interim head of product role at my current company, I immediately sought out the head of engineering to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. He suggested I do the same coding challenges as the engineers, which gave me the ability to have higher-level conversations with peers. Now, every interaction has more context.
People with a growth mindset don’t ever stop learning. Focus on improvement and realize that you can’t “fake it” to get smarter—but you can do real work and get there.
3. Take the research initiative.
You can’t expect your organization to teach you everything. Put in some effort on your own time and look outside the business bubble.
Browse forums to gain a different perspective and read articles on the web from trusted sources. While it’s helpful to ask those around you for advice, it’s also beneficial to approach those conversations with some basic knowledge and research. Doing this focuses the dialogue and better positions you to genuinely contribute.
The “fake it till you make it” mindset emerged as a way to counteract impostor syndrome, serving as a mantra to remind people that accruing experience takes time. Today, it’s evolved into something entirely different: a way of working that hampers employees who embrace it.
Instead of “faking it” and hoping the people around you don’t catch on, demonstrate a little bit of humility and a commitment to improvement by being open about the steps you are taking to grow your knowledge and skills. It’s an authentic positioning that will serve you—and your company—well as you develop in your career.
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