The Case Against ‘Faking It Until You Make It’

UPDATED: December 10, 2022
PUBLISHED: December 7, 2022
The Case Against 'Faking It Until You Make It'

The popular phrase, “fake it till you make it” probably started, like most things, from a positive line of thinking. The idea is simple enough: Pretend to be what you want to be; in time, you’ll stop pretending. Seems logical, right? Or at least a good way to psychologically prepare yourself to try new things? It turns out that’s not really true.

The problem with the “fake it” suggestion is the underlying insinuation that you’re somehow not enough. When you feel like you’re not enough, you open yourself up to a host of negative emotions, such as the fear of failure and imposter syndrome.

Both fear of failure and imposter syndrome can lead to perfectionism and anxiety, or magnify existing perfectionist tendencies. When you feel you always need to be perfect, you hesitate to take bold chances. Worse yet, you assume you have to put on a fake aura until you have somehow earned the right to be the real you.

This is all very troubling because being real to yourself is a gift. When you’re real, you acknowledge there are things you just know and things you don’t. You’re OK with that, and you take strides to learn those things to gain mastery. We would never say to a baby trying to crawl, walk or talk, “Fake it till you make it!” That’s ridiculous. We cheer and clap, even when they fall over or can’t pronounce certain syllables clearly. We don’t pressure them to put on a facade. We teach them to attempt the task, make mistakes with grace, pick themselves up and be authentic.

Learning to be real in the workplace

Of course, you’re not a baby trying to gain independence. You’re a professional trying to forge your career. But the same advice still holds. You have to be willing to fail, which means you have to be willing to be vulnerable and the real you. It’s not always easy, but it’s important.

To be honest, I fail more often than I succeed. It’s how I learn to make better decisions. For example, once, I found out that one of our products had been discontinued by a national retailer. I took the experience personally. It was difficult; I felt like I had failed in a big way. However, our company didn’t crumble because of my mistakes. To be sure, we didn’t have as high of revenue as we assumed we would, and we lost some traction in the market. Still, the failure gave our team the drive to come back stronger—and I’m happy to say that we did.

If you’re living and working with the notion that you have to be fake to succeed at work, I invite you to reframe failure. You don’t need to imitate someone else. You’re competent in your own right. Yes, you’ll fail, but errors aren’t the end of the world. They’re lessons. Take them for what they’re worth and move on.

I’ve failed fantastically many times over the years and benefited each time. Instead of wallowing in failure, here are three ways that a misstep can turn into a step forward:

1. A stronger sense of accomplishment.

In the moments after failing, you might not feel like your best self. Days, weeks or months later, you might see the experience in a changed light. I remember a time when I hired the wrong people and didn’t let go of those people quickly enough. My bad hires caused me and everyone else on my team a boatload of stress.

Eventually, I corrected the ship and released those workers from their positions. As it turns out, our team didn’t suffer. We just had more clarity about what we needed from personnel. The next time we hired, we used this information to make better, more thoughtful choices. My initial failure ended up helping me accomplish more as an employer down the road.

2. A feeling of calmness.

When you can imagine failing as just a bump in the road, you might undergo a strong sense of calming relief. What causes this calmness? It’s being able to stare down self-doubt and refuse to hide. It’s very cathartic to own a failure and tell yourself that the sun will come up in the morning even though you erred.

Never underestimate the advantages that come when you’re calm, either. Being relaxed allows you to avoid a knee-jerk response. You approach the issue from a different perspective rather than assuming you’re the problem. More often than not, you’re going to be the solution—but only if you keep pushing ahead and start thinking positively.

3. Respect from your colleagues.

Most people can tell who’s trying to “fake it” until they make it. They’re often not the most respected team members because they can’t be vulnerable. On the contrary, people who can be real and fully present tend to gain influence.

The best leaders are able to take risks. It doesn’t matter if your title is manager, supervisor or director. You can still be seen as a leader if you adopt a “this is who I am” attitude. You still have to be courteous and empathetic toward others. Nevertheless, you don’t have to be perfect.

The next time you’re tempted to put on a mask and pretend to be something you’re not at work, rethink your reasoning. It’s a much better idea to be true to yourself. Yes, you’ll likely fail at some point. But fail with finesse, and you’ll grow in the process.

Photo by NeonShot/Shutterstock

Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007, she was named president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.