The Downside of Fake It 'Till You Make It

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Fake it till You make it

Why “Fake It ‘Till You Make It”?

If you’re in business, there’s no doubt that you’ve been given the advice to ‘fake it till you make it’. For folks trying to establish a new business and people trying to establish themselves in a new career, this can be valuable. The idea is to act as though you are established until it’s true. For example, this can be very helpful at networking events. When handing out your business card, it’s important to project an attitude of confidence and professionalism. (We’ve written more tips on connecting at such events here.) If you’re establishing a freelancing career, you shouldn’t introduce yourself like this:

“Hi, I’m trying to break into consulting, maybe I can help you with your business?”

Instead, you should shake hands firmly, make eye contact, and say:

“Hi, I’m an independent consultant specializing in X. What business are you in?  Perhaps there is a way for us to work together.”

The idea is that you affirm what you aspire to be. If you always say that you’re an aspiring X,Y, or Z, that’s what you’ll always be–merely aspiring. Imposter Syndrome and a lack of confidence are serious obstacles for newcomers, and they hold you back in business.

When “Fake It Till You Make It” Doesn’t Cut Mustard

There is a big asterisk here, however. The adage is meant for newcomers trying to outsmart their debilitating second-guessing, not for established businesses trying to outsmart their customers. You should use it as a confidence boost, not a mask.

To understand the difference, the concept of integrity and honesty come into play. It shouldn’t be about lying or misleading, ever, and the line can be blurrier than we’d like to admit.

For example, it is incredibly common for single-owner small businesses to use an email address such as ‘[email protected]’, rather than a personal email. This gives the impression that there is more than one email in the domain, meaning that the business is bigger than one or two people. This is especially common practice in digital agencies, when the client will only ever interact with one or two people anyway. This is much more professional than using a personal Yahoo or Gmail account to conduct business. There is a line in the sand when it comes to pretending to be bigger than you are, however.

The Gray Area

As an example, I once knew another owner of a marketing consulting agency who had a meeting coming up to clinch a huge contract. He had a permanent team of only three people, while relying on a larger network of independent contractors to complete his projects. Because his regular team was so small, he was using a tiny office space in the back of someone else’s larger office. When it came time to set a place for the client meeting, he refused to rent out a larger space. He felt that it was dishonest to passively imply that his firm was much bigger than it was. Instead of either risking making a bad impression or compromising on his sense of integrity, my colleague simply decided to meet the client at a restaurant instead. In this neutral space, he didn’t have to pretend to be any larger or smaller than he really was.  I respect that.

There is a usefulness to “fake it ’till you make it’, but it’s only useful in silencing irrational doubts and conditioned fears. You should not be faking it when your integrity is on the line.


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