Should you fake it till you make it?

In While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock pretended to be a engaged to comatose patient. Playing the role of someone she wanted to be, in her words, got her a loving family she had always craved.

Pretense, in her mind, would precede occurrence.

She continued the act right up until she almost married her would be fiancee. Just as she was about to make it, she chose to not fake it anymore.

Without the music and drama, too many of us play the part of who we feel like we should be, hoping that a few steps down the aisle, the shoe might just fit.

This is especially true in corporate America, a cradle for achievers and killing-field for the rest.

I left Intel in late 2008 to diversify my career since my skills were extremely proprietary to Intel, thereby reducing my employment mobility. Leaving behind a stable job at a company I admired (and still do) was necessary, but still risky.

That risk was amplified since between the time I resigned and started my next job, the stock market fell off a cliff, the economy crashed and hiring froze.

Amid all this chaos, I was starting from scratch in a new company. I had bought a new house a year earlier and was going to get married soon. This was hardly the time to not succeed in a new job.

My first assignment was labeled “high visibility,” corporate-speak for “if you fail, there is no soft landing for your backside” or “if you fail, you will be beheaded with a dull guillotine.”

I exaggerate, of course, but that is what it felt like.

The project came with an estimate of 5 weeks. Even a perfunctory review made me realize that the estimate was too low.

A meeting to review the estimates with the VP of Engineering, the Director (my boss), the project manager and the VP of sales was my chance to voice my concerns.

“Five weeks seems plenty to deliver this,” a voice said to me.

“No, this will take much longer. We must re-evaluate,” I should have said.

Asking for more time in my very first project would be seen as a sign of weakness and incompetence, I thought. This is how first impressions are made. These leaders will observe how I do, shape their views of me, and those views will ripple to others.

“Yes, I’m sure I can pull this off,” I said. My pride (and fear) came before the fall of 2008.

Narcissism and necessity convinced me I had to fake it. The most dangerous place in the world was not Afghanistan, I told myself. It was between me and my goal. I would fake it and then make it.

These next five weeks were hellish.

Long days were followed by longer nights, fueled by desperation and coffee, progress was made by sheer will and stymied by knowledge gaps.

During morning status meetings, I always managed to demonstrate progress. I had to show I was in control. Things were under control. Of course, I should have asked for help, but that would have made me seem incompetent, so I radiated reassurance.

I soon realized that expectations are like jello, there’s always room for more; additional stakeholders and requirements rained on the project.

The goalposts kept moving, and I ran harder to keep up. I was faking it so well I could have been cast in a sequel for When Harry Met Sally.

My assurances masked my anxiety. I was not quite living a lie, but I was living two lives — the person I was, and the person I wanted to be.

My health suffered. The pressure weighed on me. The bags under my eyes were so big even United Airlines would not have lost them.

One evening when my candle almost burned out, I asked myself: Was accepting the job a mistake? Was I so good at interviewing that my bosses had overlooked my flaws? Was I ever good or just good at my old job?

There was no one else in the office. It was raining outside. Inside, I was drenched in doubt.

I was there when the cleaning crew showed up at 10 PM. They spoke in a language foreign to me. Which was ok, because I was programming in a language foreign to me.

Eventually, as always in my career, the tide turned. Outcomes followed efforts, despair yielded to durable progress, and I met the deadline with no time to spare.

My initial confidence was fake. It was stupid. I was trying to prove a point not just to my employers, but to myself. That I ended up succeeding does not change the fact that I’d jumped off a plane without a parachute and learned to fly a few inches from the ground.

I had made it out of prison by swimming through human excrement, except I created the circumstances that put me in prison and the excrement came from me, since I was full of it in an attempt to meet unreasonable standards that only I seemed hellbent on holding myself up to.

At the end of it all, I wondered how different things might have been if I had not been so obsessed with keeping up appearances.

However, not being able to change the past doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it:

  • Don’t fake it.
  • When you see people around you who seem proficient and prolific, it challenges you by reconfiguring the value you place on your own skills. Your self-esteem goes through a sense of trauma as you both absorb the challenge while remaining true to yourself.
  • The more successful you have been before, the more you need success to maintain your mental equilibrium. That insecurity means you give a damn, not that you have nothing to give.
  • People fake it to win over those whose approval they crave. In reality, no one has the time or energy or capability to validate you, and there is no final verdict on you outside of you feeling like you left nothing undone in pursuing your goals.
  • Fakery offers you fantasy, clear and wishful. Reality is much more muddled and lacking in guarantees, but necessary to get a fuller measure of the gap between who you are and who you wish to be.
  • If you fake it once, it may become a habit and a tempting shortcut to take over and over. And, if too many people start doing it, what does that say about the integrity and quality of the work we do? How will real expertise ever develop? How will we know who is feeling it and who is faking it?
  • When you fake it, you rob yourself of the future satisfaction that you’ll feel when you achieve your goals, because in your fake world you’d already achieved those goals. Why forego real satisfaction for the fake kind?
  • Finally, you are neither as good as your successes nor as lousy as your failures. All experiences culminate into what becomes your ever-evolving identity. Faking it prevents you from building up this identity of who you really are, and that is why it takes so much work, it is ultimately counterproductive.

Before you go from fooling others to deluding yourself, stop faking it.