Updated on 03.24.09

Fake It ’til You Make It?

Trent Hamm

Recently, I’ve received emails from several readers with the often-quoted career nugget “Fake It ’til You Make It” in their email signature. I’ve heard the phrase many times from people talking about their career strategies.

As with any little nugget, there’s a nice core of an interesting idea there, but actually translating a six-word catchphrase into something that can actually help your real career and real life goals can be quite tricky. Let’s take a look.

What Does “Fake It ’til You Make It” Mean?
Wikipedia provides a succinct definition:

“Fake it till you make it” (also called “act as if”) is a common catchphrase that means to imitate confidence so that as the confidence produces success, it will generate real confidence[1]. The purpose is to avoid getting stuck in a self fulfilling prophecy related to one’s fear of not being confident, e.g., by thinking, “I can’t ask that girl out because she would sense my lack of confidence.”

In other words, fake it ’til you make it is a call to arms to act confident in your endeavors, because that confidence will eventually lead to success. It’s a good example of the power of positive thinking – if you talk yourself into acting confident, others will think you’re confident, and that will build your own confidence.

It is not a call to actually fake your work. Faking your work will eventually lead to disaster and a complete undoing of everything you’ve wanted and worked for. Instead, it’s a call to be confident about yourself and your work.

As I’ve stated before, positive thinking alone is useless. If you don’t couple that positive thinking with action, you’re not going to succeed.

Having said that, fake it ’til you make it is one of the elements of “positive thinking” that I agree with. When you do things, do them with confidence, even if you don’t quite feel it yourself.

Eight Simple Steps to “Fake It ’til You Make It”
So, how do you do it? It’s a handy catchphrase and all, but how can you actually turn that catchphrase into something that can help you personally or help your career? Here are eight tactics that work.

Stick to your areas of expertise. It doesn’t matter what the audience is – if you’re representing your particular area of expertise, you have every reason to be confident. Thus, save your opportunities for speaking up until you can represent a topic that you know very well. Doing so means you don’t have to focus on presenting stuff you’re uncomfortable with – instead, you can focus on presenting the things you already know well. You have no better opportunity to exude confidence than when you know the topic at hand very well.

At the same time, work on expanding your areas of expertise. Don’t simply be content with your current body of knowledge. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn new things, expanding your area of knowledge and thus your area of confidence.

When you reach the edge of what you know, be honest about it. It’s easy to have your bubble of confidence busted if you step outside of what you know. Suddenly, you’re representing information that you’re unsure about – and that’s going to show. Instead of falling into that trap, admit you don’t know. Instead, tell the questioner that you’ll find out and send the information to them, then move on to another topic that (hopefully) is more within your area of expertise.

Share what you know. One great way to build professional confidence is to be in a situation where others come to you for guidance and answers. How do you get there? The best way is to share what you know with others, consistently and without condition. If you do this regularly, people will begin to look to you for knowledge – and there are few better confidence builders than that.

Stick to reputable, positive information where you can. One big key, though, is to share good knowledge. Focus on sharing information that actually works instead of rumors and heresy. If you provide reliable information to others, they will come to rely on you much more readily than if you’re offering up questionable things.

Present, present, present. Whenever any opportunity comes up for you to present information within your area of comfort, take it. There are few better ways to build confidence than to present what you know well.

Practice, practice, practice. When you get that opportunity to present, though, don’t just fluff through it. Practice. Figure out exactly what you’re going to say. Run through it several times. Run through it with an audience and take their comments seriously. If you can polish that presentation, it will just add to your natural confidence – you know what you’re talking about and you know that the presentation is good.

Roll over the speedbumps. Many people are quite good at starting off with confidence, but if they stumble at some point, their confidence gets shattered. They fall into a downward spiral and the air of confidence is destroyed. Here’s the truth: everyone stumbles a bit from time to time. If you make a mistake, don’t amplify it. Just skip it, and move on. Get back into your groove as fast as you can.

So, go out there and “fake it ’til you make it.” Just be sure you have something of value to back it up. Good luck!

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  1. Johanna says:

    I would be a lot more inclined to believe that “Fake it ’til you make it” does not really mean “Act like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t” if there were not so many people who have achieved so much success for themselves by doing just that.

  2. Studenomics says:

    As I read this I’m sitting in class waiting for my turn to present infront of the auditorium. Yesterdays presentation went well because I had a chance to discuss blogging, something I am passionate about. The one tip that I plan on applying to this presentation is to not get thrown off just because of a small stumble. I find that I can be too hard on myself sometimes when I make small mistakes and it then throws off my whole presentation.

  3. When I was getting my MBA a couple of years back, on of my guest lecturers who is a CEO from a very big company (that will remain nameless) came in and talked about image in the business world.

    He talked about dressing the role that you might not have and closed with that very line “fake it…” it makes sense to some degree. I mean a new start up company might not get the bigger accounts if it looks like a one man operation in the public’s eye.

  4. I think “faking it til you make it” walks a very fine line. Your advice to stay within your area of expertise is by far the most important. If you are faking it at something that is completely unknown it’ll be picked up quickly be customers, clients, and employers these days.
    In my life, within any topic I’ve always tried to gain knowledge quickly, and if anything fake experience until I actually built it!

  5. Goethe says:

    I agree with comment #1. I work for a large (and recently largely discredited) financial services firm. Many here including a former direct report boss have ‘winged it’ their entire careeers and are way ahead of me financially. “Fake it” is all around me and I see all too many with ill-gotten gains.

  6. Redsol1 says:

    The “Fake It” idea was the ONLY thing I got out of “Rules for Renegades” by Sussan Lynch, formerly of Microsoft. I’ve always taken it to mean act like you’re successful and you’ll be successful, Exhibit the habits of successful people and you’ll be a successful person. I don’t think they are referring to acting arrogant or flashing a lot of material goods, which is where most people go wrong with the “Fake it” mentality.

  7. Adriana says:

    and how can this pertain to saving money, or frugality?

  8. J. says:

    i’ve never understood “fake it til you make it” as faking confidence as much as faking energy, positive energy or that you actually like your job.

    in each case it can be a helpful temporary strategy–for example, most of us have days where we wake up, think about what the day will entail and think “you’ve gotta be kidding me!” but taking this attitude in the long run can mask a fundamental dissatisfaction with your vocation.

  9. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Fake it till you make it is excellent advice in the legal field. I’ve been in situations where other attorneys have tried to take advantage of me in areas where they had more experience than I did. It’s sad, really, but faking it is essential to properly representing your clients. In litigation matters, you can’t let on what you don’t know to the wrong people. Of course, sometimes you just need to make sure you get the information, however it needs to be acquired, and you shouldn’t act like you know something you don’t. Law is a tough business, though, and I tend to like people that are just honest about their level of expertise in my day to day life. I’m more impressed when people act humbly about their endeavors than any other way.

  10. Mahoji says:

    ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ isn’t always easy to be done. Even to fake it needs confidence. But it’s a good technique to master, as it can be applied on so many fields, including social life.
    Another line I like is ‘When you reach the edge of what you know, be honest about it’. I often end up being asked questions where I reach the edge of my knowledge, and I feel so bad to have to fake that I know something about it.

  11. I just called my sister, who is a biomedical/clinical engineer, and asked her what she thought of this phrase. I am a web developer, and coming from a separate field as her, thought her opinion would be a very valuable one. Her immediate reaction to the phrase: “Oh. My. God. I can’t stand it when I hear that.” I on the other hand have a slightly different take on the connotations of the phrase, so I think it’s important to consider when and where this train of thought of being used.

    For example, in my industry (web development), “fake it ’til you make it”, whether I verbally state it that way or not, has been my modus operandus throughout my career. It does not mean that I ever faked knowing how to build a great product for a client; it just means that there are so many variables, so many requests from clients that come out of left field, that there is no way to adequately prepare one’s knowledge for the myriad minutiae that I have to deal with on a daily basis. Some of what clients ask for I know how to do. Some of what they ask for I don’t. But I’m confident enough in my problem solving abilities to say to a client that “Yes, I can do this,” even if I have never done it before. The stakes are lower in my field than in other fields.

    In my sister’s field of work, patients’ lives are on the line and she often hears salesmen and saleswomen sign off with the “fake it ’til you make it” catchphrase. She doesn’t like hearing this because it gives her the impression that if a doctor, nurse, or other medical professional asks her company’s salespeople a tough question, that they will “fake” their knowledge and try to cover it up with confidence. The stakes are much higher in the medical industry, and I do not at all want someone being so confident that they think they are capable of doing something that they haven’t done before or have had no direct experience with in the past.

    So, I think the definition that Trent gives is one that in a perfect world would be apt. But sadly this isn’t the case. Most people use that phrase to describe those of us who put on airs of being knowledgeable or capable in a field when we are in fact par for the course, or mediocre in our lines of work. When I hear “fake it ’til you make it”, I imagine someone talking big but doing small. And when I read that in someone’s email signature, or hear that come from someone as a catchphrase, it immediately raises a red flag in my mind. Do these people know what they are doing? If so, why would they say that?

    Ultimately, I think that we need to take the phrase, or way of living, on a case by case basis. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. So I’d rather err on the side of caution before uttering this oft misinterpreted phrase.

  12. Beth says:

    I wonder why anyone would use that line as an email signature. Isn’t the whole point of “faking it” to not get caught doing so?

  13. Dave says:

    Actually, a better line is “Face the fear….and do it anyway.”

  14. Andy says:

    Hey Trent, this is unrelated to the post, but I have a question and couldn’t seem to find your email address. My wife and I are in the beginning phases of trying to buy our first house. I’ve been a long time reader of yours and have noticed on several occasions that you talk about shopping around for a mortgage. I looked through the archives and I couldn’t find a post where you explained how exactly one would go about doing that. I would love to hear your thoughts on how to shop for a mortgage because there is a ton of information out there on the internet and it is hard to know who to trust.


  15. Stephen says:

    In her book, “Self-Theories…”, Carol Dweck argues that a growth/learning mindset predicts success more than confidence does. If you’re going to fake something ’til you make it, fake that.


  16. Kevin says:

    Andy – for future reference: click on “Contact” in the header

  17. J says:

    Too often I see people forget the “When you reach the edge of what you know, be honest about it” tip. I work at a company that is extremely technical, with lots of people having both broad and deep knowledge of the required subject knowledge. “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand that”, followed by “will you take some time to help me understand it” or “I’ll defer to you for your expertise” is more highly regarded than the person who tries to “fake” their way through something. Since there is generally a better-than-even chance someone else in the room knows more than you do, it’s a way to damage your credibility.

  18. Marsha says:

    This is a tricky one. Personally, I do not think it is wise to include a catchphrase in an email signature that is used for business purposes. Besides not being entirely profession (unless it’s your company’s motto/vision/mission), there is a great risk that it will be misinterpreted. Also it runs the risk of losing any value if it is a part of EVERY email you send out.

    As for this one: I believe it can be an effective phrase for motivating self-talk, but the work “fake” carries SO many negative meanings that it is a dangerous one indeed. JMO.

  19. Jeremy says:

    Good article, I think you mean hearsay though, unless you’re worried about being burned at the stake.

    “Focus on sharing information that actually works instead of rumors and heresy.”

  20. jack says:

    I think everyone is faking it until the make it. My son could really walk but he faked it until he made it. We all do it. I know I do.

  21. Jessica says:

    Good tips. I have to give a presentation on a scholarly research paper I prepared during Scholar’s Week at my university. I was a little nervous about doing so until I read you post and realized that I should be confident b/c I will be speaking about a topic I am familiar with. Also, I will be sure to practice beforehand so that I know what I’m doing and derive confidence from that fact.

  22. Michael says:

    email signatures are lame. That’s all. :)

  23. corinne says:

    I loved this post. I immediately sent it to my two older sons before even commenting. Something that I wish I knew when I was younger. Thank you.

  24. Tim says:

    it also meant that you don’t worry about going into debt to give the appearance that you are fantastically wealthy and successful. Terrible. I’m all for positive thinking and motivation, though. I don’t think you have to fake anything, it’s a stupid cliche phrase and principle.

  25. TStrump says:

    It’s a great saying.
    I guess it means never show fear or nervousness – always act confidant … as though you always have the answer.
    Sometimes, it’s not the message, it’s how it’s said.

  26. lurker carl says:

    Fake it until you make it, how will you ever know when you’ve made it when it’s always a scam? This sounds like something salesmen are taught for selling cars, real estate or insurance. Or maybe politicians.

  27. Elizabeth says:

    My take on ‘fake it until you make it’ is that you shouldn’t stop _before_ you reach the edge of your knowledge. I work in a information-driven area, and there is NOTHING more frustrating than someone who says “I don’t know, we’ll have to wait for so-and-so” instead of working through the logic to resolve a situation. I am perceived, on specific topics, as the go-to expert by people who have been working in this field for 10 or 15 years, when I’ve worked in it for 4. I never lied about what I knew, but I did project the confidence that if I didn’t already know, I’d find out, and then I did so. It’s led to my involvement in projects where I started by just barely grasping the material, but I ended up leading because I acquired the skills and knowledge required. If you don’t push to the limits of what you can do today, you’ll never do more.

  28. I’ve never been a fan of “fake it ’til you make it.” I know several people who are “faking it” and they are not getting any closer to “making it.”

    All they’re doing is staying just under the radar enough for no one to notice they are faking it.

  29. mommadona says:

    Musical written many years ago all about this:

    “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”


  30. “Fake it till you make it” was a popular slogan with our high school drum majors. Just pretend like you were the best marcher/musician/drum major and try to act how you think the best marcher/musician/drum major would act. That same year at a marching competition we all lost count of the music (including the drum majors) during the repetitive introduction, and we just kept marching as if we knew what we were doing until the drum majors gave us a cue to start the next set. The drum majors recieved an award — the judges couldn’t tell we had been faking it.

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