Personal Development

“Fake it ’til you make it”: The Best and Worst Advice in the World

I was just talking to someone, and the phrase “Fake it ’til you make it” came up. This is simultaneously the most useful and the most damaging piece of advice in the world. It is both one of the few things you need to understand to be successful at anything and a potent formula for self-alienation and collapse.

Why “Faking it” is Good Advice

The thing that I think is potently, powerfully good about “fake it ’til you make it” is that it encourages you to just act. It knows that it is action — even if directed by a sense that you’re just “going through the motions” or “play-acting” — that really moves things forward. The phrase is a reminder that you can’t just sit there and think about how you’d be a good father, sister, friend, coworker, or whatever. You’ve got to actually go out in the world and do those wise things.

What’s more, experience has shown me that you can fake some things into being true. For me, smiling — when I’m in the right mood — can actually make me feel happier. And going through the motions of starting a workout can end with me very glad that I did. The same happens to me a lot around social occasions — I have to cajole myself into going, and then I have a great time.

Faking it is great because it trades on this wisdom and experience that doing things makes things change. And that sometimes just trying to do a thing is enough to make it actually become true. You can fake your way into being a better friend or life-partner or whatever just by continuing to go through the motions that you know a better friend or life-partner would.

Why Faking It is a Terrible Idea

So faking it can lead to action, mood-change, and wise actions. Good things, right? What’s bad is that if you “fake it” too hard and too long, but it never changes — you just keep feeling like you’re play-acting your life — it can feel so devastating. Like you’re a failure and a fraud and, by the way, no one has ever really loved you.

“Fake it ’til you make it” can be read to encourage unhealthy levels of self-deception. And self-deception is a great recipe for self-alienation, which is itself a giant black hole. A hole which can lead you into some very dark, brutal, hard feelings.

When you accept yourself as you are, you love yourself. When you love yourself, you remain in touch with those traits that make you worthy, lovable, and interesting to the world. When you’re faking it, you’re forced to (at least a little bit) reject the part of yourself that feels that you’re faking it. And that level of self-rejection can easily lead you to violent full-throated self-hatred.

How To Balance the Good and the Bad

You’ve got to keep aware of both halves of this dichotomy. You’re best served by staying aware that faking it is great advice when you don’t know how to act in a given situation: pretend that you’re the perfect person for that situation and then do what you envision them doing. But you must always realize that what you’re doing is an abnormal stretch, a risk, and something that hasn’t touched the core truth of who you are: a lovable, worthy, intelligent, and adaptable person doing the best they can in a world where they sometimes feel out of place.

Self-acceptance and self-love are absolutely essential if you’re going to stay a strong, resilient, and up-beat person. But you must also, as a strong, resilient, up-beat person take risks and act in situations where you feel out-of-place and uncomfortable. That’s the core pair of facts that makes “fake it ’til you make it” the best and worst advice in the world. Or to borrow a phrase from Colin Marshall, “cargo-cultism you can use.”

Personal Development

It’s Easier to Say Wise Things than Do Them

It is so much easier to say something sage-like and wise than to live out the implications of that wisdom. I touched on this a bit in my yearly review from last week, but it’s one of the core things that reading through this site regularly reminds me.

Doing wise things requires actually facing up to the reality of a situation and putting your base responses aside. To act wisely you must understand a situation fully, and act on that knowledge coupled with your highest, most noble understanding. And then you must take an action unimpeachable even from a great distance of time.

Part of the reason many people so love giving advice to others is that we know somewhere inside of us that this difference between speech and action is real. When we give advice, we don’t have to bear any of the responsibility for the wise action. We’re just responsible for seeing the situation clearly and having an opinion about the best way through it. The hard part of making that real in the world is left to the advice’s receiver.

I wrote last year about how gratitude is so important. I advocated for cultivating gratitude as it makes life better and easier and all that. And yet I just recently realized that I had been missing — for most of the period since that piece was published — all the small miracles in my life. I hadn’t forgotten the power of gratitude, but I only knew it in an abstract, academic way. I’d forgotten to actually live it regularly.

But living it is what life consists of. Learning to live the things you know. Learning to manifest in the world the beauty that is in your heart. There are few lines from 13th century Persian poet Rumi (translations differ) that go:

May be beauty of what you love be what you do
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground

At heart, what we must regularly remind ourselves of is this: what we love, what we want the world to be like, what we wish were true — all of it — is our responsibility. We change the world by changing ourselves. Not just in what we think and say, but in what we actually go and do in the world. It is wise action, not wise thought or wise speech, that makes the world better.

Practical Philosophy

“Simple But Not Easy”

I don’t remember quite where I first encountered the phrase “simple but not easy,” but after a recent encounter it’s been stuck in my head. I believe deeply that all the important insights in life are simple. Really really really stupidly simple.

The reason the phrase is stuck in my head, though, is that there’s an often related, unstated, and wrong corollary that people think follows from the idea that everything is simple: that everything is easy. Things are not easy. At least not for many people in many situations much of the time.

How does one develop a reputation as a kind, generous, and admirable person? Well, by being a kind, generous, and admirable person. (Duh! It is that simple.) But how do I act kindly, generously, and admirably? You perform actions that feel kind, generous, and admirable. (Duh! It is that simple.) What about when I don’t really feel like it and I really just want to say the mean thought that’s on my mind because I’m tired and a bit fed up? Even then, especially then. I didn’t say it was easy.

We know what it means to be nice. We know what it means to have courage. We know what it means to forgive. We know what it is to help. We know what it is be present. We know what it is to love. When we don’t do those things, in most cases, it’s not because we don’t know how we would do them. Rather, we fail to demonstrate qualities we admire because they either aren’t easy for us to see, or they aren’t the easy or expected thing for us to do.

To really be the kind of person who is thought of as kind is an exceptionally hard task. It’s hard not because it’s not obvious how to be kind. It’s hard because it’s not easy to be kind to a lot of people a lot of the time. People have a habit of doing things we don’t like. And the easy reaction when someone does something we don’t like is to be mean. To meet what we perceive as their unkindness with our own. It is a hard thing to be kind when every impulse you have is to lash back. But it really is simple.

The core insight of “simple but not easy” is this: while we frequently want to blame our deficiencies on a lack of knowledge — thinking that we “don’t know how” to do the right thing — it’s typically actually caused by a lack of will. We tend to — for comfort, for simplicity, for the conservation of energy — do what is easy. But if we want to be proud of our actions, we should try to do what is simple and obviously going to make us feel admirable and proud. Not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.

Personal Development

On Dreaming Your Dreams

One of the hardest things I’ve learned in my life is that dreaming doesn’t make it so. This sounds so self-evidently true that you’d think I never needed to learn it. But I knew it, and sometimes still know it, only intellectually. What’s needed to really grow and mature and become the person you want to be is to know it completely instinctively and automatically. You need to know it in your bones.

Continue reading


How Fear Blocks Action

We’ve all got it: a list of things we hope to do. In some ways it’s a great thing to have. We can carry around this list and it gives us hope of a future brighter than today. When we finally write that novel, or make that movie, or start that business or painting, then we’ll really show the world. Then the world will turn around and pay attention.

And so we keep these ideas for future actions locked up deep inside our heads. You keep a few of them so they’ll be there when you’re feeling down. “This job sucks, but when I finally write the Great American novel, my life will be so much better and different.” So long as you keep the idea inside, you can always seek solace in the certainty that you’ll someday do this great thing and the world will finally give you the rewards you so richly deserve.

The single best piece of culture on this phenomenon, by far, is this episode of The Show with Ze Frank about “Brain Crack”. Sensitive viewer should be aware the video includes a fair amount of profanity. All viewers should know that there are fair number of irrelevant inside jokes.

The video is just a masterful clarification of the concept, its problem, and the solution. I should stop writing, because I feel that I probably won’t say of this better than Ze’s seven-year old video does. I’m afraid I’m wasting your time.

And fear, as the title says, is what this is about. You’re so afraid of this brilliant idea of yours working out — or failing to work out — in exactly the way you picture it, so you never really do the thing. Fear stifles action. Fear — of success, of failure, of doing the work, whatever — is a devastatingly powerful impediment to progress.

There is a very real possibility that the project, or life-change, or whatever you’re dreaming about will land in the world with a heavy wet thud.

So what do you do? We practice, slowly but surely, getting intimate with fear. We try to trust that while this project may not succeed spectacularly, it also will not be our end if it fails. We push through our doubts, and accept that this idea, no idea really, is going to change the world.

Unlike the somewhat concrete and physical projects you’re probably dreaming of accomplishing, your idea has no weight. It doesn’t even have an existence outside your head. It has no impact on the world, and no real likelihood of having an impact while it remains only an idea.

There is a very real possibility that the project, or life-change, or whatever you’re dreaming about will land in the world with a heavy wet thud. And you’ll undeniably and reasonably be disappointed. But the effort of trying to make this brilliant idea real — at least so long as your idea isn’t a life-threatening stunt of some kind that doctors would strongly discourage — is guarunteed not to kill you.

In fact, for most failures the world just doesn’t notice. So do it. Do it now. Your first failure to make the thing that’s so perfect and beautiful in your head will be at least three times as valuable to both you and the world as the idea of it in your head. Because even if the world totally ignores what you make, you’ll have it, the concrete product you can show history, and a lesson learned about one particular way in which this idea will not successfully change the world.


The Art of Doing

It’s far too easy to let the worry that you’ll not do it right stop you from doing it at all. As someone who’s spent most of his life avoiding embarrassment at the cost of inaction, I feel rather certain I know what I’m talking about.

Doing is the only way you’ll learn anything. Ten thousand books about how to speak Italian will not stop your first spoken words and sentences from being sputtering conveluted unrecognizable messes. Ten thousand tips about how to write will not make words flow from your fingers pure as a summer rain.

Life exists, mostly, in the doing.

Ten unexecuted million-dollar ideas do not yeild ten million dollars. Fifteen great ideas for books does not make you a prolific author. Twenty great ideas for organizing your life does not organize those junk drawers in your kitchen.

The first thing you learn about doing is that it’s hard. It’s scary. It’s messy. And it’s not always fun. What’s required is a commitment that you’ll make it through the beginning stages until it becomes fun. You’ll keep going through all the hard work that’s required before you’ll get any recognition. Before it’ll start to feel second-nature. Before you’ll realize that maybe you’re overusing the power of repetition to convey your point.

We need more doing and less thinking about doing. And we need more doing without the constant worry that we’re doing it wrong. And most of all, we need fewer people pointing out where someone else is doing it and more people learning for themselves how to do.

It’s easy to watch. And it’s also easy, while watching, to develop opinions about how it’s being done wrong. But sharing those opinions isn’t doing it. And broadcasting mere opinions formed by watching hardly counts as doing it.

I’m no master of doing. I’ve not been doing this for far too long. But I’m begining to realize the value of just doing it. And I really hope to find the time to just do it more frequently.