February 25, 2020

How to Ditch the ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ Mindset


Article by Kash Mathur

Despite your best efforts, your professional career will never be entirely easy. You’ll encounter a bevy of new situations and confront countless complex problems you’ve never tackled before. No matter how much you’ve prepared, no matter how much you’ve studied or experienced, you’ll inevitably face circumstances that no amount of front-end work could have equipped you to handle.

I’ve felt that sense of being overwhelmed before, and you probably will too, no matter your profession. Prevailing corporate wisdom tells us these situations call for a “fake it till you make it” approach: Act like you know what you’re doing until everyone around you assumes you do because they don’t know any better themselves.

In my experience, however, this never works. For one, it slows down your professional growth rather than accelerating it, which defeats the intended purpose. Plus, people who routinely fake it agree to take on projects they aren’t prepared to handle. If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a high probability you’ll mess something up. Finally, when you fake it until you make it, you internalize destructive habits that are difficult to break.

To really succeed, you simply have to take the time to learn the skills necessary for your role. Not only will doing so make you an indispensable expert, but it will also position you to approach future advancement opportunities in the right way.

Fake It … Until It Catches Up With You

Before taking my current job, I worked as a project manager at another company. It was my first time working with an engineering team in a highly technical role, and there was a lot I didn’t understand.

About a week after I started, my boss called me into a meeting with my boss’s boss to discuss my slate of projects. As both higher-ups peppered me with questions, it became clear I was out of my element. This meeting was a wake-up call. Afterward, I immediately  went to my engineers and asked them to talk to me about their work. As it turns out, people love to share what they know with those who are curious enough to learn.

There’s a lot of corporate pressure to look like you know what you’re doing, but you’ll benefit from resisting that drive. No matter you position, outcomes will rapidly improve when you admit what you don’t know and demonstrate a sincere desire to fill that void.

Not sure where to start? You’ll get incredible mileage out of these three strategies:

1. Accept That You Don’t Know

Track down the people with the knowledge you want and talk to them. Pick their brains and ask for suggestions on books, podcasts, and other resources that will help you learn more. If you instead fake it and try to teach yourself complicated subjects as you go along, you’ll only make things much harder on yourself.

Don’t worry about asking “stupid” questions. Despite what your teachers may have told you, stupid questions do exist — but everyone is guilty of asking them, and every query is a valid learning opportunity. Choosing not to ask a question out of some misplaced sense of pride usually backfires.

Seek counsel from trusted friends, resources, and colleagues on unfamiliar subjects. This humble approach helps you feel at ease when learning something new, and it can diminish the feelings of shame or incompetence that sometimes come with being vulnerable.

2. Focus on Yourself

If you’re trying to fake a job, you’re usually doing it for someone else. Instead of trying to fool your managers and peers, adopt an objective-driven learning mindset to become a better version of yourself.

When I took on an interim head of product role at my current company, I immediately sought out the head of engineering to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. He suggested I do the same coding challenges as the engineers, which gave me the ability to have higher-level conversations with my peers. Now, every interaction has more context.

People with a growth mindset don’t ever stop learning. Focus on improvement and realize that you can’t fake it to get smarter, but you can do real work and get there.

3. Take the Research Initiative

You can’t expect your organization to teach you everything. Put in some effort on your own time and look outside the business bubble. Browse forums to gain a different perspective and read articles from trusted sources. While it’s helpful to ask those around you for advice, it’s also beneficial to approach those conversations with some basic knowledge and research under your belt already. This better positions you to genuinely contribute to the dialogue.

The “fake it till you make it” mindset emerged as a way to counteract impostor syndrome, serving as a mantra to remind people that accruing experience takes time. Today, it has evolved into something entirely different: a way of working that hampers employees who embrace it.

Instead of faking it and hoping the people around you don’t catch on, demonstrate a little humility. Make a commitment to improve, and be open about the steps you are taking to grow your knowledge and skills. This authentic positioning will serve you — and your company — well as you develop in your career.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Kash Mathur is the COO of Chewse, a service that delivers family-style meals to offices from the best local restaurants, transforming transactional drop-off delivery into an inclusive meal experience and donating food excess to those in need through the Chewse to Give program. Chewse operates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Chicago, and Austin. With more than a decade of experience in executive leadership roles, Kash has guided organizations in the food space through substantial periods of scale by focusing on strategy, product, and operational excellence. Kash is excited about how tech and ops work together to scale startups and make real-life impacts, and he volunteers his time to mentor entrepreneurs and executives facing technology and operational challenges.

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