The ethics of faking it until you make it

by Stephen Cobb on August 4, 2015

The advice to “fake it until you make it” has popped up several times recently in my online meanderings, raising some interesting questions. I want to ponder them for a moment and present a couple of illustrations, one a video and another a story.

I started to think about this when I did some research for a friend on overcoming the fear of public speaking. I found an article that had several pieces of advice, include this: “try faking it until you make it” where “it” equals “being a confident public speaker”.

(BTW, I really do mean that I was doing this research for a friend and not myself. I do have my own problems with public speaking, but they are the opposite of lack of confidence, and more in the area of piping up too often and for too long, something I have been working on for many years: namely, knowing when to pipe down.)

Unfortunately, my friend interpreted the article as a recommendation to fake talking about something you don’t know much about, that is, faking being an expert when one is not. The author of the article didn’t really mean that one should engage in professional impersonation, but it could been read that way. And my friend had a point: it is one thing to fake feeling confident, which is often the context in which this “fake it until you make it” phrase appears; but is it okay to fake a skillset until you actually acquire it?

For example, most of my writing these days concerns security (on We Live Security and on S. Cobb on Security). So, would it be okay to fake being a security expert until you became one? Many people would reflexively answer no. Yet even as I ask that question, I flash on the feelings I used to have in the early days of my career in information security, feelings like “I’m not really an expert” and “these people are taking a chance acting on my advice.”

On the other hand, I never actually claimed to be a computer security expert, people just began to treat me that way, most likely because I wrote a book about computer security (after spending several years researching the subject and dealing with real world security problems, then covering the topic for IT publications and learning what I could from people whom I considered experts).

It turns out that this sense of being a fake in one’s chosen profession is quite common, and it may be more common for women than men. Why? I think that many societies teach males to fake their emotional state and self-image as part of growing up. This is reflected in phrases like “Be a man!” which are directed at boys who are not yet men. Now, I’ve always been a firm believer that women can doing anything that men can do, as epitomized by the factory worker in the photo at the top of this post (she’s measuring tubing with a large micrometer, a tool that will appear later in this blog post). However, it is quite possible that the way in which we are raised leads men and women to react differently to the phrase “fake it until you make it.”

To get a different perspective on this, we can turn to TED, as in a TED talk, one that has been viewed by tens of millions of people. I recommend listening to the whole talk, but if you a pressed for time you could skip to the 15 minute mark. This is the point when Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, gets into the issue of feeling “fake” in a professional situation (she talks about this in the context of research that shows how adopting certain physical poses with our bodies can change our physiology).

My opinion? There is a role for faking it until you make it, or better yet, as Amy Cuddy says, faking it until you become it. Let me give you an example that may account for my take on this. My grandfather faked it until he became an engineer, and by doing so he probably saved himself and his younger brother from a life of poverty.

Ernest Cobb was born in England in 1894, the third of four sons in a modestly wealthy family. However, when my grandfather was 14 his father, also Ernest, sustained serious financial and property losses. That meant my grandfather had to go out and look for work to support himself and his younger brother. This was in Coventry, an industrial city in the British Midlands, a cradle of automotive engineering and the home of many classic car and motorcycle marques (e.g. Triumph: 1885, Lea-Francis: 1895, Humber: 1896, Daimler: 1896, The London Taxi Company: 1899, Rover: 1904, Sunbeam: 1901, Hillman: 1907,  and Jaguar: 1922).

micrometer-trans1sThe story goes that young Ernest was out looking for work when he saw a group of men lined up outside a factory. He asked the man at the end of the line what they were waiting for. He was told there was a chance to get a job, but only if you could operate a micrometer, a device that my grandfather, a son of landed gentry, had never seen before.

But he joined the queue and watched as the foreman handed the person at the front of the line a micrometer and a piece of metal to test their ability. By the time it was his turn, my grandfather had observed enough to handle the micrometer as though he knew what he was doing, thus faking his way into a job. My grandfather went on to master many tools and instruments, eventually creating a successful tool-and-die making company. He retired quite comfortably in his fifties when he sold his quarter share of the firm.

In the past, when faced with challenging times myself, I have taken inspiration from this story about my grandfather. It still makes me smile sometimes as I do my two-minute power poses that I learned from Amy Cuddy.

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