Is “Fake It ‘Till You Make It” Mentality Keeping You Down?

  • October 12, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 37 Comments

holding-you-downHappy Monday everyone. I just got back to San Francisco after a fantastic weekend in L.A. My wife was in a group art show down there on Friday, and we spent the rest of the weekend catching up with friends.

In between visiting art galleries and catching a great improv comedy show, I really enjoyed reading the comments and email responses to last week’s post on radical lifestyle transparency. It’s clear that transparency for its own sake is controversial, but everyone seems to agree that we need more authenticity and honesty in the worlds of lifestyle design, personal development and online business.

There are countless thousands of bloggers and consultants out there who tell you how to live a better life, how to be productive, how to build a business or how to realize your potential. Many of those people portray themselves as experts on everything in their field, but few of them are open enough for you to really evaluate who they are.


Plenty of those bloggers and consultants aren’t really experts at all, but they think they need to be for anyone to care about what they do. They’ve decided to take the old “fake it ’till you make it” advice to the extreme. And that’s really too bad, because they might have some useful advice underneath all the posturing and marketing.

I’m a big believer in the continuum model of expertise. What I mean by that is expertise isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. There are infinite shades of expertise from complete beginner to massive success. Dave Navarro (The Launch Coach) likes to talk about the 10 point scale of expertise:

You have certain skills you can offer the world, and whether or not you don’t appreciate them, other people can. You may not see yourself as a 10 on the old sliding scale, maybe you’re a 5, but let me tell you this: To people who are a 0, 1 or 2, your 5 might as well be a 10. You have value they need.

But sadly, that’s not how most people see the world. It’s much easier to think about things as black or white, experts or beginners.

For most people, that usually does one of two things. Either you’re an open and honest person, and think “I’ll never be an expert. There are so many other experts out there already. Why would anyone want to pay me for advice or by my product?” Or, you’re more comfortable with creating a facade and instead you think, “Man, people will only buy my stuff if I’m an expert. I better make myself look like an expert until I actually become one.”

In either case, the black/white, expert/beginner view of the world keeps you from growing as fast as you could because you’re not sharing your real value with the world. And what’s worse is that nice guys really do finish last in this instance. Pretending to be someone you’re not will get you further than not trying at all. If you don’t ever try to do something because you’re not already an expert, you’re guaranteed to get nowhere. On the other hand, if you pretend to be someone you’re not, you probably won’t meet your goals, but at least you’ll learn something along the way (and maybe succeed the next time).

A Far Better Way

I’m not at all advocating that you pretend to be an expert. Far from it. There is a much better way. The “fake it ’till you make it” mentality has been widely misunderstood. It’s not about pretending to be a rock star until you actually become one. It’s really about understanding your true value and being confident about how that value can help other people. Don’t fake being a rock star, fake having the confidence of a rock star.

For example, if you’re a complete beginner, share your beginner’s story in all it’s learn-as-you-go-along glory. There is real value in that. Anyone else who comes along to attempt what you’re doing afterward will benefit immensely from your story. Understand your value, know who will benefit from it, and be confident that your value will help other people. Don’t act like a rock star. Act like a rock star beginner.

If you’re somewhere in the middle (not a complete beginner, but not a complete expert), you’re in a fantastic position. Since most people share the all-or-nothing view of expertise, you can stand out with authenticity and openness. Be up-front about where you’ve been successful already and what you’re trying to achieve. What if you haven’t reached all your goals? That’s great. Nobody has reached all their goals. Share your story, understand who can benefit from it, and be confident that your value will help other people. Don’t act like a rock star. Act like a rock star in the making.

Wherever you are on the continuum of expertise, you can blow the fakers out of the water with authenticity and confidence. You know you have something to offer, so get out there and tell people about what that is, with confidence.

Share your thoughts!

Where are you at? Are you a rock star beginner or a rock star in the making? What do you think about “fake it ’till you make it” mentality?

photo by Mohan S

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Jeffrey Tang October 12, 2009 at 1:02 pm

All I can say is: YES.

I think there’s tremendous pressure (particularly as we become ever more keenly aware of “social media) to portray yourself as a guru of some kind. It’s marketing gone wrong. And it feels fake to read AND to write.

Besides if you really stop and think about it, real gurus aren’t compelling because of their credentials and book deals – they’re compelling because of their stories. Who do we listen to? People who have done something impressive; people who have pulled themselves out of a broken life; people who have been through the fire.

Thank you for this wonderful post.

Corbett Barr October 12, 2009 at 1:56 pm

That’s a great point, Jeffrey. Everyone is an expert when it comes to your own story. No one else has the same story, and it’s up to you to tell it.

Jen October 12, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Hi Corbett
I read a similar post at Wage Slave Rebel today, and it’s refreshing to see such honest posts that remind us the value of authenticity. A lot of people online may never meet each other so in some ways you could ‘reinvent’ yourself and be whoever you wanted but as you point to, there’s only so far this will take you. I have pondered this alot with my blog, I want to be as honest as possible but advertising myself as a Life Coach I want to be inspirational too so try to not bring a downer if things aren’t going so well for me. I also try to balance that so as not to deceive anyone either and share what’s going on if it will add value.
Anyway, thanks Corbett for a good reminder
Jen

Corbett Barr October 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm

There have been a number of posts on the topics of transparency, authenticity, etc. lately. I’m really glad the conversation is happening online where everyone can read and participate. Thanks for being a part of it, Jen.

David Turnbull October 12, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Really been loving all the great discussions lately in the blogosphere. Brilliant stuff. And this definitely comes back to why I weave the fact that “I’m just some kid who likes to write about stuff” within my articles.

In traditional success-talk that may be seen as limiting yourself, but I feel it takes the pressure off. I can write about things I care about and people always know where I’m coming from. :-)

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 5:41 pm

There is certainly something to be said for taking the pressure off of yourself. It’s much easier to find your voice when you’re not trying to pretend to be someone else.

Paul Norwine October 12, 2009 at 5:40 pm

“Don’t act like a rock star. Act like a rock star in the making.”

Great advice that I try to follow myself. I cannot call myself an expert nor do I try to portray myself as one. But I DO think my story and situation have value to add to peoples’ lives and I try to maintain that overall sense of transparency while still projecting the confidence that I will one day be an “expert.”

I think too many people sell themselves short and opt for pretending to be someone they aren’t. Not only will these people have a hard time living up to the character they created but it could also come back to bite them on the backside in the future.

Paul

Corbett Barr October 14, 2009 at 2:24 pm

The paradox of the whole “fake it ’till you make it” philosophy is that it really works for some people. It’s all about how believable your confidence is. Some people pull it off, and others fall flat. I don’t think I could pull it off, which is fine because I prefer authenticity anyways.

Alaya Morning October 12, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Love the idea of the continuum of expertise. I always talk about each person living on their own “leading edge.”

There are a series of cascading edges. You look for inspiration and information from those who are further along their path and you reach back and assist those right behind you. Meanwhile, you are constantly moving forward.

Thanks for another honest post.

Alaya

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 5:52 pm

And of course, people can always skip over others in the chain, but the point is we’re all moving forward, right?

Andrew MacPherson October 13, 2009 at 12:03 am

Whoa! Apparently being gone for a week has left me with a few too many words.

On one hand, incompetent people are running around calling themselves mavens, gurus, experts, and any number of other grandiose self-proclaimed titles whilst duping people and bilking them out of varying sums of cash. That drives me nuts on a regular basis.

On the other hand, remarkable people who could dominate in roles far above their current title, job, status, et cetera are languishing in stagnation because of levels of honesty and transparency that holds them back. This is often because of the backward facing and status quo reinforcing bias of “experience” or whatever metric we pick to define expertise. I think the latter is worse because the perpetual fakers will never go away unless someone competent steps in front of them.

I have mixed feelings about this post. Part of that is because it’s directed at consultants and bloggers, but I think those should be separate conversations. I think it fits better for bloggers so most of what follows is why I don’t fully agree in its application to consultants.

While I see where you’re going by re-framing the mentality as “rock star beginner” and “rock star in the making”, there’s something about this that feels… hmm… part overly complicated and partly based on an incorrect assumption.

The dangerous assumption is that people respond to inputs in the same way they say they’ll respond to inputs. That’s cumbersome so let me flip it around… Humans are terrible at discerning and expressing their own wants. Most people stating a preference about transparency will claim to want maximum transparency and maximum facts. However, when this request is granted, various psychological blocks will manifest themselves. “Analysis paralysis” is probably the biggest. People request as much data as possible, but respond better to simplicity.

When buying a car, people often say they want to know about foot/pounds of torque, top speed, and the time it takes to accelerate from 0-60. But when it comes down to it, they want to feel exhilaration, not file a numerical abstraction in their brain. There’s a cliche along these lines that I don’t remember exactly… Something about shopping with facts, but buying with emotion. Anyway, the point is that peoples’ stated wants not only diverge from their actual wants, but often interfere with them.

I think the “far better way” is getting close to dangerous ground. When pitching clients, anything more than knowing your capabilities and communicating exactly that will likely kill your deal. Less is almost always more in this situation. Full disclosure is not as noble as it sounds when you lose out on a gig because someone less skilled is better at condensing information to only what’s important and framing it succinctly. Transparency moment: that’s happened to me too many times.

From another angle… the approach advocated above ignores that playing the game is often inevitable. Frauds who play the game better than talented people still win because the game is slanted in that direction. There is merit in trying to change the rules of the game, but I have to wonder where the best place to draw that line is.

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Great counter-point, Andrew. I think we’re on the same page about a few things. First, the consultant vs. blogger conversation could probably be two conversations, (except that increasingly people are doing both things). Second, I’m definitely a big fan of simplicity and no overwhelming potential customers with too much detail. I’m not saying that being honest has to mean droning on and confusing people.

It’s just that the binary view of expertise is limiting in the ways I mentioned, and the danger is either in failing to be perceived as an expert, or in not even starting because you live within the bounds of the status quo bias of “experience” as you put it. The continuum model is a way to break out of that catch-22.

I agree that frauds who play “the game” better than talented people can often win. What I’m saying is that you can also win by changing the game and finding customers who respect that. I also wonder where the best place to draw the line is, and admit that aspects of the game (like proven marketing techniques) can’t be ignored.

Deena November 28, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I know this is an old thread but wanted to comment on this. I also see the truly gifted people selling themselves short while the blow hards get ahead.

There is a guy that managed a project I worked on a couple years ago. He didn’t even see the project to the end and he left the company and decided to call himself an expert consultant on this type of methodology.

Truly laughable. He has done one project so now he is an expert?

So why can’t I call myself an expert as I worked on the same project he did!

I find being honest, I do get passed over for people who lie and claim to have x years experience in something when the technology hasn’t existed for that length of time.

I don’t know what the answer is.

Nick Robinson October 13, 2009 at 1:58 am

Nice post,

The useful part of ‘fake it till you make it’ does get forgotten. As you say, it’s not about pretending you’re something you are not, but a potentially useful way to experiment at the really significant level of our identity.

I ask clients to pretend that they are really, totally being the full and authentic versions of themselves, regardless of whether they currently believe that is possible – that’s the ‘fake it till you make it’ part.

I’m less sure that there’s a connection between this and some people’s need to play the expert; and I have a lot of sympathy for people who feel that. It’s tough to get out there and sell yourself and the fear and exposure of doing that does tend to push you into the “I’m already an expert mode”. My own experience over the years has been that when I’ve faked being an expert because that was what the people I was pitching to seemed to need from me, well, they hardly ever turned out to be good prospects or clients anyway. Conversely, when I have the nerve and presence of mind to just be the messily authentic, still-in-the-process-of-learning me, I still don’t always get clients, but when I do, it’s a productive relationship and when I don’t I feel OK about it!

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Hi Nick. You’ve pointed out the other side of this conversation that I didn’t get into in the article. It’s really also about the type of customers you attract in either case. If you stretch the truth about who you are, and your customers believe you, what does that say about them? Will they ultimately be successful, given their ignorance about who an “expert” is, and with the inauthentic advice you give them? Customers like that won’t likely be coming back, which is something else to consider.

Nate October 13, 2009 at 6:21 am

I love this post, Corbett. I’ve got to admit, over the last few years, my view of the expert vs. beginner idea has held me back from doing a lot.

I’ve actually had one info-product almost totally done and then threw it away because I felt like I wasn’t qualified to help others. I’ve now come to realize that the knowledge I had really COULD have helped people.

Dave Navarro’s 10 point concept is great, it really pulls everything together.

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Nate, you’re expressing exactly the damage that is done by the black-or-white view of expertise. I hope you revive the product you tossed, or at least have more confidence in the next one. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Ireland October 13, 2009 at 9:23 am

Corbett,
A great really insightful post. But it takes courage and trust to show people that you don’t really ‘know it all’. There are work places where that approach will result in the sharks circling once they smell blood.

Many years ago I worked for a state government. The pay was low and the future was dim for the people working there. Showing any sign of uncertainty or lack of expertise was not something you wanted to do.

It reminded me of a line from a Virginia Woof play about a viscious, dog-eat-dog workplace. When asked why it was like that, the response was ‘because the stakes are so small’.

Jim

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Hi Jim,

I’ve never really experienced what you’re referring to in a corporate or government environment, but I’m not surprised it exists. I love the line about “because the stakes are so small.” It’s ironic but true.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen October 13, 2009 at 10:34 am

Another great post Corbett!

I personally love to read personal details and thoughts of people at any stage of success. I learn the most by hearing about problems, fears and successes no matter how small they are.

I want to read about real people and real problems. Tell me what you have done, not what you are going to do.

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Thanks, John. I like a blend of the two, both what someone has done and what they’re going to do. One without the other doesn’t give me a complete enough picture.

jacqjolie October 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Hi Corbett,

While I did enjoy your post and am a big proponent of self-honesty – and that includes being honest with others, the continual dissing of “normal” full time jobs and conventional careers on many sites is really starting to piss me off. I’ve read of a number of people who have lived location independent lifestyles that are still enjoying a regular paycheque and a normal job. If you’re still doing real 9 to 5 in the corporate world and not enjoying yourself, you’re probably not doing it right. I’ve enjoyed most of all the stories you’ve had on your blog of the people you’ve met in your travels who are doing something non-internet related and I hope you keep that coming.

I’m also tired of previously great blogs and bloggers turning into marketing machines to turn everyone into a blogger – as if that’s somehow providing more value in the world? This is what they’re passionate about?!?

I made the choice of working a regular job and doing some consulting work on the side (while being a single parent) and have managed to amass enough financially in the last 5 years (starting from a net worth of close to zero) to be able to retire at the end of this year. Part of that has been due to hard work + opportunity = luck. Five years of hard work and major saving to buy 40-50 years of freedom is well worth it to me.

I’ve got a black belt in frugality and a brown belt in maximizing income, yet I choose to blog on productivity (where I only have a green belt), because I’m doing it as a learning experience – but I honestly hope that I never come off as a “productivity rock star”, since it seems kind of boring and I might wake up from the nightmare and find myself turned into Steve Pavlina overnight. Maybe that’s because I’m doing it just for fun with no intention of making a profit at any time in the future. I’ve been to too many self-help seminars where the speakers became (presumably) rich through speaking – which is the same model that the blogosphere seems to be replicating.

Corbett Barr October 13, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Congratulations on your coming retirement! That’s fantastic that you were able to get that far with a “traditional” job and consulting. I would love to hear more about how you got there.

Also, your points are taken regarding everyone turning into a blogger and the dissing of normal full-time jobs. It’s easy to get sucked into that cycle, and I have to remind myself that individual happiness is what’s important, no matter how people achieve it.

tommy26 October 13, 2009 at 4:59 pm

here is a thought. if everybody leaves their “conventional job and the coorporate rate race” where are these people going to? wouldn’t they just create another rat race under the name of independence?. come on, if more and more people become lifestyle designers and become independant bloggers, location independent consultants, internet website money makers, it makes for more stiffer competition and eventually another rat race where the inevitable will happen…the cream rises to the top. At that point you can either join the “cooporation” or not. microsoft started in a garage but now is a cooporation that provides jobs for thousands of people. my favorite microbrew, georgetown brewery, started by two guys who wanted to start their own thing and do their own thing, now ironically have their own “cooporation”. my point, since the beginning of time people have tried to find the secret to happiness. yes, doing what you want, when you want, how you want can bring alot of people happiness thats a no brainer! my unfortunately, not everybody can do that. there is only one american idol, only 12 spots on a team, only one president, only so many bloggers and consultants that can make money. i appreciate your passion in sharing your journey with people, but at the core you are trying to make money by telling people what oprah, deepok, joel ostene, etc, etc , etc, already do. yours is just through what a job looks like. but hey, if people respond to it like they do oprah, deepok, joel ostene, i support you brother!! and i sincerely mean that. if people can find happiness through what your insight, journey great. but the question is…are you really happy?

Greg Rollett October 14, 2009 at 10:42 am

Hey Corbett,

I first wanted to say that you writing is coming along 100% and I am enjoying the reads. The way you are processing thoughts it tremendous and feel that you are saying stuff that makes bloggers like myself need to step their game up!

With this post, I think you are right and then part of me disagrees. I work with a lot of people in the search of a “dream job” or a career that will make them happy. Their resumes are padded and objectives portray the fake-it mentality. Underqualified people have the same opportunity to land many jobs with the right sheet of paper, right contacts and right timing.

I think the same applies to the web. One post can make you a star or get the attention of a so called “A-lister.” Google made the online rock star possible. Designers can shoot a WP theme to an up coming blogger and catapult their career overnight (think of Thesis). Having a great idea and a better platform to share it (think of a guest post on 4HWW or Mashable) and your idea is now a best practice. Personally, I started consulting because companies were reading my blog posts that came into their Google Alerts. Instant rock star, right.

There are others that are killing the game. The Twitter profiles that say they are social media mavens with 20 followers or the lie coaches who are living at the poverty line. This has plagued the SEO world since its inception into mainstream marketing as some business guy is going to use 5th grade vocabulary and talk all techie, sell me something I don’t need and put me through some automatic site submission software and collect residuals.

In today’s age, everyone has the same shot at being heard. Some market better than others, but that’s life. Talk about the stuff you know and like Dave’s quote, you will be a 10 to someone. When we work with the homeless and get them into shape to look for a job, I always ask “What are you better at than anyone in the world?” When you hear their answer it gives them that fire and gives a direction from which to build upon.

Talk to you soon buddy.

Mike Carlson May 19, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Sometimes going through older articles on my favorite blogs really pays off. This one is a gem, and you nailed it!
Unfortunately there are those that recommend that we “fake it” and come off as an expert. My feeling is, what about all the stress that creates? It really makes the work not fun; you’re always looking over your shoulder waiting to be exposed. It’s so much more fun to be yourself, and as you pointed out, people can detect it and appreciate it also.

Corbett May 24, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Awesome, Mike. I’m glad you stumbled on to this one!

Trip June 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Forgot to say that I do feel confident about my screenplays, like a “Screenwriter-Star” and faking it to the big screen is just not possible… unless… any ideas?!!

jacqjolie October 13, 2009 at 9:03 pm

I didn’t mean to criticize, your site and posts are far better than most, and like I said, I do enjoy the examples you have on your site of people who have more traditional jobs in other locations.

I do think that some bloggers – because it’s their life and passion – can’t see that not everyone could or should follow this path – yet these non-blogging/non-internet people can also enjoy a location independent lifestyle and have a great career to boot. People like the family on this blog:
http://movingkidstomexico.blogspot.com/

My steps to retire at 44? Do the things that other people don’t want to do, maximize the earnings from those things and save like crazy. Simple, but not easy I guess.

I think you’re doing a wonderful job and you wrote a much better post than I did on the same topic a week or so ago:

http://8020time.blogspot.com/2009/10/are-experts-really-so-expert.html

In hindsight, after writing the post I realized I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that that particular blogger was setting himself up as an expert, which really isn’t the case – and it was his transparency that made me question his authority. But the truth is, that type of advice isn’t what I need at this time in my life – but to someone who is going through what that individual is, the advice is very appropriate.

That’s why I think it’s very important for you to pave the way and show and tell us everything, warts and all, you’ll hit the right audience – it’s not everyone – just the right ones. So I continue to read your blog with anticipation, because I may not have to work for money in the future, but would like to live in other countries than the two that I have. There’s no better way for interacting in those communities than if you work and / or volunteer in the area, otherwise you’re just a long term tourist.

Trip June 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I agree and it’s good to hear people speak about honesty, only proplem is I’m trying to spread the word about my animated screenplay in a world where people rather steal your ideas than listen to you telling them – any ideas what to do?

Corbett June 13, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Hey Trip, when I hear people worry about others “stealing ideas” I usually advise that they instead focus on things they can control. If in fact someone really wants to steal your ideas (more on that in a second), is there anything you could do about it? If you do something about it, will it ultimately help you make progress towards your goals?

In reality, there isn’t much value in an idea alone. People aren’t trying to steal your ideas as much as you think. If no one is interested in your screenplay, look for things that you can do to change that instead of worrying about something you can’t control and may not even be true.

Does that help?

Corbett November 28, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I’ve seen similar situations, Deena. To be honest, I think it’s a balance. To some degree “honest” people like yourself need to build confidence to see there’s not really that much difference between you and a so-called “expert.” The intersection of knowledge, skill and desire is where you’ll really succeed. It sounds like your ex-colleague had more “desire” than knowledge.

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