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Should we rethink “fake it ‘til you make it”?

by Ned Kelly

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How many times have you faced the prospect of starting something new and unfamiliar, and suddenly freaked out, thinking you can’t manage it?

That feeling is called impostor syndrome. In fact, 70 percent of the global population feel like they’re intruders in their own lives, secretly living with a sense that we don’t deserve to be wherever we are, and that we’re about to be found out at any moment.

I’ve had that experience follow me around in just about everything I’ve ever done. If you ask me, I think I’m an idiot, incapable of meeting the expectations of my peers, ill-equipped to survive—let alone get the job done properly. This fear of being unveiled as the incompetent hack used to paralyze me until I heard that neat little phrase, “fake it ’til you make it”.

The notion is simple: act ‘as if’. That is, act like you know what the hell you’re doing and eventually you’ll gain sufficient confidence and experience to actually know what the hell you’re doing.

The more I’ve thought about making it’, the more it has me puzzled. Making what? What is the mysterious ‘it’ I’m supposed to be ‘making’?

I’m going to be facetious for a moment and pick apart some of its literal meanings: if you need something built from scratch, you have to ‘make it’. If you ‘make it’ home, it means you reached your destination. If you ‘make it’ past the finishing line, it means you succeeded, or maybe even triumphed. But of course, we all know that when we say ‘they made it’, what we really mean is, ‘they are thriving’. Doing well. Achieving.

Putting the phrase into context brought me to the realization that we have attached an abstract notion of success to our understanding of survival. Nowadays it seems it’s expected to arrive at a place where we’ve conquered every obstacle, and planted our flag firmly in the dirt of our chosen career path. It’s not enough to simply try as hard as we can, learn, develop, grow and get by. We need to ‘make it’.

“The idea of ‘making it’, or being perceived as a ‘success’ in the eyes of others, can become an unrealistic goal, always out of reach,” says psychotherapist Cathy Ingram. “This can give rise to a state of incongruence between where we are and where we think we should be.”

Psychologist Carl Rogers described this incongruence as the gap between your perceived self, how you view yourself and your ideal self, and how you would like to see yourself. (Easy for Carl to say—as one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century, he definitely ‘made it’.) But his skill was in illuminating the here and now, and the gaps between experiencing and desiring.

There’s often have a huge gulf between what we want, and where we’re at, and it can lead us to feel worthless and fake. The implication in “fake it til’ you make it” is that we’re incomplete until we’re validated by an external source—some ethereal tap on the shoulder that says, “hey, you’re alright!” When you pick it apart, living with this looming ideal seems like a bleak prospect.

“Our self-image is at odds with our lived experience,” Ingram says. “We often end up valuing our own worth from thorough external evaluation, against a specific set of criteria, dictated by family, culture or society. Our concepts of wealth, social prestige or success may have more to do with the views of others, rather than internal evaluation. But when our wants and desires are aligned with our own values, much more is possible.”

So when we wonder about whether or not we’re gonna ‘make it’, doing whatever we’ve chosen to do with our lives, what we’re really envisioning is ticking a bunch of boxes that would make everybody around us impressed, and indicate that we’ve ‘arrived’ at our destination. For some people that destination is a nice home, car, family, salary. For some, it’s artistic impact, creative freedom, and an exciting lifestyle funded by the thing you love doing. Maybe it’s a hit single, an Oscar nomination, 100,000 Instagram followers, or all of the above. Whatever your #lifegoals are, the frantic anticipation of achieving them is often likely to erode our self-esteem, and leave us in a state where we really do feel like impostors in our own lives—even if we’re lucky enough to achieve our goals.

Success is a relative term, and the idea of ‘making it’ in life is elusive to the point of being ridiculous. But the idea of ‘achieving’ is so prevalent in our culture that it can feel difficult to get away from. We need to get our values in line through developing authenticity. Acting ‘as if’ can kick start this. And mindfulness can help put our values into perspective by keeping us tuned into our present experience, rather than constantly running to catch up with an uncertain future determined by others’ expectations. It’s useful to remind ourselves that maybe we don’t really need to ‘fake it’ or ‘make it’—we just have to be.

Ned Kelly

Ned Wolfgang Kelly is an actor, music producer, and occasional writer from London, England. His work has appeared in print in Brick Magazine, Out There, and online in various blogs and webzines. When not making music, he can be found meditating in one of London’s parks, sitting alone in the cinema, or wandering around listening to angry hip-hop.