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Why ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ Is Crappy Advice

It feeds the beast of imposter syndrome.

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illustration of woman holding a melting mirror as it reveals her self by noopur choksi
Noopur Choksi
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“Fake it till you make it.” It’s the advice we often give people — especially women — who have goals they want to achieve but lack the confidence to carry them out. And it seems reasonable, doesn’t it? If you’re lacking confidence, why not use a little psychological bait and switch to trick yourself into confidence and success? The end justifies the means, right?

Well, in this case, maybe not.

“Fake it till you make it,” at its very core, suggests inauthenticity. The implication is that the knowledge or expertise necessary for success isn’t present, when it likely is very much present.

Because if you’re walking the walk and talking the talk and doing all the things necessary to succeed, are you really “faking” anything? No, friend, you are not. You’re actually doing the thing, just as much as any expert would.

Years ago, during my master’s program in Cincinnati where I studied music performance, I took an audition that, to this day, still haunts me. I won the audition, a coveted and very generous fellowship to Aspen Music Festival that essentially gifted me three consecutive summers of full room and board and instruction from the best music teachers in the country. Winning that audition meant I had made it.

The problem was, I won the audition with a “fake it till you make it” mentality. I prepped for it assuming I had zero chance of winning it. I walked into the audition literally acting like I belonged there. At no point did I believe I really belonged there. When I found out I won the audition, I thought the judges had made a mistake. I thought my peers would look at me and wonder how in the hell I’d won a fellowship when there were so many other musicians far more talented than me.

I had walked into that audition and played my absolute best. Better than I usually played and maybe even better than I had ever played. In other words, better than I actually was.

I had faked it.

So, in my mind, I didn’t deserve what I had won. I constantly felt I was looking back over my shoulder and waiting for someone to tell me I was a fraud. As a fellow, I was expected to compete in the big concerto competition. Me, by myself, on stage in front of hundreds of my peers, many of them prodigies, playing a concerto from front to back, perfectly. I did not believe I could do it. I could not escape the mentality that I was a fraud.

I fell apart in my lessons leading up to the concerto competition. I purposely missed the registration cutoff, to my teacher’s frustration and disappointment. I fell apart. Really fell apart, crying so much during one lesson that my teacher had to send the piano accompanist out of the room. “I don’t belong here!” I kept blubbering over and over. She had no idea what to do with me.

Many years later, in a session with my therapist, I recounted the story of my undeserved Aspen fellowship. She raised a hand to stop me and fixed me with a stern look. “You do realize you can’t fake being a good player, right? If you played that well once, then you can play that well again. And if you played that well in your audition, then you must have played at least that well in your practice leading up to it. You didn’t fake anything.”

Honestly, there is still a piece of me that can’t believe I deserved to win that fellowship. I still can’t get over the idea that I somehow conned my way into a room full of elites where I didn’t belong. Logically, I know my therapist was right. Psychologically, my brain has trouble jumping the hurdle from self-doubt to self-confidence.

To me, this is the biggest reason why “fake it till you make it” is crappy advice. It feeds the beast of imposter syndrome. If you believe that to succeed, you must fake it, you are sending yourself the implicit message that you’re not good enough with the skills you currently possess. Not only that, but to look back on an achievement and say you “faked it” diminishes the very real, tangible hard work you put in. This is exactly what happened to me. I worked hard for that audition. I may not have been a prodigy, but I practiced more hours than anyone. I was the first to the practice rooms in the early morning and the last to leave at night. I deserved that fellowship because of my ability. Not because I faked it.

The same goes for the goals you have set for yourself, whether they’re creative or professional or a mix of the two. Make a plan because you are a person who knows how to make a plan, and execute it because you are a person who knows how to follow through. Every small task you complete on the way to your dream is a real, tangible act. No job interview you ace is fake. No brilliant presentation you deliver is fake. No successful group project you manage is fake. Your abilities are not an act, not temporary. It’s all real work that you put in on the road to “making it.” You are capable.

No faking required.