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.”


Deep Honesty and Machismo

I think that one of the hardest things in the world is to be honest. We all give lip-service to the value of honesty. We all like to think that we don’t lie and that therefore we’re being honest. But there’s a large difference between being honest and refraining from lying. One of the clearest examples of the point is what I think of as the “confrontational masculine style”.

Socialized as we are, men are not to demonstrate weakness. To say that you’re uncertain of the situation you find yourself in and worrying about how you appear is honest, but the “confrontational masculine style” doesn’t allow such displays of “weakness”. So instead we see gestures of fight: threatening words, looks, lunges–caricatures of what society has taught is proper.

Confronted with disorienting facts or opinions, men aren’t trained to say “That’s interesting. I’d never thought of that.” A man will, instead, tend to get angry and accuse the cause of his disorientation of trying to get everyone riled up or pick a fight. Whether or not this impulse rises to the level of physical violence depends a lot on social context.

Similar arguments occur on the John’s Hopkins campus and in the tough parts of Baltimore made famous by The Wire, but the methods and outcomes can be vastly different. At the prestigious university, a man who feels so entitled will stake his claim on a woman by spreading the knowledge through a social sphere large and norm-enfocing enough to protect his reputation from any threat. On streets without law enforcers, a man will likely resort to punches, if not a knife or gun, if he feels that his claim on a woman is inadequately respected.

In either context, what’s missing is honesty. It’s honest to say “I feel threatened by the amount of time you spend hanging out with that guy.” It’s honest to say “Your questions are making me feel angry.” What happens is that we yell, we start fights, and we blame other people.

Fundamental to these dysfunctions is a dishonesty to ourselves. Not only are we unable to express these emotions and feelings to others, but we frequently fail to even articulate them for ourselves. We–males especially, but perhaps the whole culture–are not fluent in the language of emotions. We don’t always know the words that match up to our internal state. They try, when we’re young, to teach us this stuff, but many of us aren’t really educated about until much much later. Some of us never really get it.

It’s so much more common and visible for “I feel hurt” to be expressed as “You’ve hurt me”, or even “You’ve hurt me and now I’m angry”, that we can be given some leniency for thinking the second reading is correct. But this second expression fails to accurately identify the situation as it is first encountered. The personal feeling of hurt is always more primary and accurate than the assigning of blame for that emotion. But more importantly, the second makes it natural to expand into the third, which brings with it a whole new set of emotions which only inflame a situation.

Honesty is hard because of all the ways and reasons–strength, machismo, fear–we’ve learned to favor dishonesty. Dishonestly allows for a pleasing clarity. A nice certainty that I have no responsibility for the current situation because the world is refusing to comply with the way it’s meant to be. Dishonesty allows us to play the easy game, projecting our emotions outward so we can move on from them. But it’s very limiting.

Honesty is hard, scary, and worthy of the energy it takes to find. Honesty is the fundamental basis for all useful knowledge. Deep honesty is the basis for wisdom. Almost everything I find admirable in the world is rooted in this deep difficult honesty. And the fight to live in that deep difficult honestly is probably the most important goal I have on a daily basis.