Fake It 'Til You Make It

Interviews with successful authors never get old.

The Paris Review interviews (the celebrated interview series with writers) have remained popular since they launched in the 1950s. (Go read them all for free online.)

Why do these interviews fascinate us?

Partly, I hope for a glimpse of the genius that produced the work we marvel at.

And I’d say aspiring writers want to know: What’s the secret to their success? What are they doing, or trying, that I am not?

Of course, the more and more you read such interviews, the more you realize that nearly every writer has a unique way of working that doesn’t replicate well. Or, that is to say: We each have to find our own path.

Sometimes I wonder if such interviews can have a damaging effect (especially when they focus on the path to success), because so many writers read them in aspirational mode. I wish I were that good. I wish I were that lucky. I wish I had that idea.

I wish, I wish, I wish.

Sometimes life hits us with situations where we’re forced to fake our way through it. We have no other choice than to pretend we’re getting along, to pretend we know what we’re doing. We may be a hit with a loss (bereavement, heartbreak), or we may be hit with a blessing (new job, new parent).

Either way, life doesn’t stop. We have no choice but to move forward.

If we get stuck wishing things were different, or hoping to be other than who we are, we’re not acting or moving toward what we want. We’re sitting on our ass.

If we want to be different, we have to first (at least) believe OR pretend that we are, until we make it. We have to emulate or do all those things that we believe or think someone would do if they weren’t faking it.

And, one day, we’re no longer faking it.

You’ve probably heard the Muhammad Ali quote:

“To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.”

That kind of energy and enthusiasm is the best benefit you can bless yourself with. And there’s brain science to back this up. Suzanne Vaira Workman offered this thought on my Facebook page:

It’s a neuro-plasticity thing. The more brain cells and motor function dedicated to a manifestation, the greater the subconscious and conscious acquisition of accompanying data, stimulating more dendrite growth connecting those brain cells and logarithmically multiplying that knowledge/understanding (much like compound interest hyperbola), making real what began as only desire.

Or, more colloquially, here’s Loudon Wainwright (“The Swimming Song”):

This summer I went swimming, this summer I might have drowned. But I held my breath and I kicked my feet and I moved my arms around.

It’s okay to pretend. We all do, at one point or another. Sooner or later, you won’t be pretending.

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27 thoughts on “Fake It 'Til You Make It

  1. Matches Malone

    Fascinating. I’ve made my feelings known about this on Twitter recently, however, to review, this may not be a valid strategy in all situations. I do agree that you can’t possibly know everything, and by definition, we don’t know the unknowns. However at the same time, it’s possible to draw on your years of experience in order to handle a situation that you haven’t seen before. You don’t have to ‘pretend.’

  2. Helene Bergren

    Great points. Often when I write PR pieces I don’t particularly feel passionate about the topic.

    Maybe it’s an agricultural story about a smart farmer reaping the benefits of the land mortgage program my main corporate client offers. Seems dry. But, if the man whacks $800/month off his monthly mortgage payment, it matters to him, and gives him enormous peace and savings, obviously.

    So, what I write doesn’t center around medical advances or rescue operations. But it still helps. Writing those less showy pieces well matters, too. Likewise, being true to my style, gives a publication an honest, not a contrived, voice. So, I work hard, keep thinking critically, and when the chance comes to write about health, medicine or education, I will chase after it and hope to catch it.

    In the meantime, I am filling a need in my freelancing, and enjoying writing my spiritual blog. Grateful for both.

  3. Genie

    Jane: I immediately took your meaning to be akin to the old "as-if". When you want to go somewhere, act "as if" you’re on your way. Otherwise, you’ll never take that first step. When I applied for my first passport, I started to write "typist" in the ‘occupation’ space. My friend stopped me. "Is that really who you are?" He persuaded me to put in "writer", and that’s when I started feeling like I might be one, even though it was years before I published anything. One of my favorite lines is from the old TV-miniseries "V". The young girl has become the reluctant leader of the rebels and cries, "But what if I don’t know what I’m doing?" The old woman shrugs and says, "Fake it — we won’t know the difference!" I think what she meant was that they had faith in the girl’s abilities. This is what we need to have in ourselves. I admit I am often offended by many of the new self-published people who brag about being ‘authors’ because they suddenly decided to write down some stories and then opened their wallets. It annoys me that they actually consider themselves to be in a class with, say, Joyce Carol Oates. But I accept this situation because I believe that in the end, the real ‘writers’ will float to the top. The important thing is to act "as-if" until then.

  4. Rhonda E

    I agree with the fake it until you make it thought process. I don’t think Jane’s intent was meant to be interpreted as: tell your friends you’re a writer until you actually become one.

    A couple of years ago, Rhonda Byrne made waves with her book The Secret. Now there was a concept that could easily be interpreted as: wish for it hard enough and the universe will conspire in your favor and give you what you desire. That is total bunk! I see people buy Lotto tickets in the hopes of becoming rich. Compare that to the maid or factory worker who works hard and tucks away their money and actually acquire wealth.

    Fake it until you make it, but understand that "faking it" (in my opinion) means pretending your method of writing — no matter how disorganized that method may be — is the right method for a successful writer – you.

  5. Baseball Beth

    I agree with Cillaclare. Fake it until you make it is no different than gaining work experience and growing from it. It’s not faking it when you’re genuinely putting yourself out there.

    I once "faked" my way into an Afro/Cuban band by joining as a young percussionist with a lot to learn. I’ve been with them for about 5 years now. At what point have i stopped faking it? When i have nothing more to learn? what? I got the job because i said "yes" to a gig instead of being shy and saying "i’m American and haven’t studied the technique for these rhythms long, so no, i can’t play this gig with you, call someone else."

    So that’s my musicians take on it.

  6. cillaclare

    To me the "Fake it until you make it" statement is not necessarily about having a false view of your talents. I believe it has more to do with how you promote yourself to the outside world. Any actor who waits tables will tell you that they’re not a waiter, they’re an actor – and the same goes for writers. If you’re working to make ends meet but your real aspiration is to be a writer, then call yourself a writer. You may not be published yet, you may not have completed your first novel or submitted your first article or any of the things that establish someone as a writer, but if you persist, you’ll eventually grow into that. I hate it when people say ‘aspiring author or writer’. No, damn it, I write. I’m a writer. I may not get paid for what I do yet, but I’m still a writer.

  7. Todd Henry

    I think the *faking it* thing is more a function of understanding that your skill is independent of others’ recognition of your skill. When you are more concerned about being recognized for what you do than you are with actually doing it, it can begin to wear on your ability to do your best work. But walking confidently in your abilities and projecting assurance of your capability is essential to getting where you want to be. It’s not really faking it, it’s just knowing that your worth and skill is independent of others’ recognition.

  8. David Weedmark

    I think acting like a success is much different than faking it. We see people faking it all the time: the writer who acts like a successful author who does not actually write anymore; the fitness enthusiast who buys expensive exercise equipment but doesn’t open the boxes, etc.

    Acting like a success is to step into the shoes of success and begin walking earnestly towards that goal. Living the journey towards success, while thinking, working, speaking, and behaving until those behaviors transform you from what you wish to be to who you are.

  9. Jane Friedman

    I also just amended the title of this blog post to NOT mention "the secret."

    I think people saw that and immediately thought about the book, THE SECRET, which I did NOT intend to reference! I met secret in its literal sense.

    I haven’t read THE SECRET, and I don’t think THE SECRET is a method for writing success. (I believe that book claims that the power of THINKING something will make something happen. I should be clear that’s NOT what this post is about, i.e., the power of positive thought.)

  10. Ed Cyzewski

    I think optimism and persistence are vital for writers, and part of that process is carrying on even when things aren’t great. Perhaps the "faking" isn’t necessarily deceptive. However, part of confidence is sometimes accepting a challenge that is a little over our heads and rising to meet it. In that sense, we do have to fake until we make it.

  11. bonnie j doerr

    Jane, I can only thank you for this post. Again and again. I feel like I’m faking it on a regular basis, but have never seen anyone bold enough to put the concept into print for all the world to see. Now that’s exposure! I may not be alone. Who knew?

  12. Jane Friedman

    @Danielle – Perhaps emphasizing skill is the antidote. The only drawback is that evaluating such a slippery thing as skill is bound to draw conflicting opinions! (Writers love to say they produce better stuff than what’s published! Oh the criticisms of Stephanie Meyer’s skill!) But I see what you’re getting at.

  13. Danielle

    I did see that you were saying "act" and don’t let self-doubt cripple you. I guess what sparked my response was that I keep reading posts and books about the confidence side of the tension you so eloquently describe, and I think that it is the second that is in need of championing, these days.
    My experience is that there is now a majority of new writers who have been well and truly convinced of their "right to write" (I have that one, too) but the confidence they have is false and/or over-confidence in abilities that are still at square one. Without an understanding of your true skill level, any "confidence" is the kind of brittle confidence that resists criticism and leads to, for example, insistence that your writing is unclassifiable into any genre, or that grammar and structure are ‘limiting’ or responses to rejections like we’ve seen this week on Slush Pile Hell:
    "I received your rejection notice, and I want to let you know that even if you would have offered representation, I would have turned it down. You obviously have no taste in literature and are a hack. I look forward to your failure as the publishing industry goes down in flames."
    Don’t you think that by emphasizing the development of skill, we actually address the issue of confidence in a much more meaningful way because the confidence that develops will have a solid foundation – skill?

  14. Tanya Egan Gibson

    I think it’s the phrase "fake it" that’s putting some people off? (It doesn’t bother me, because it seemed to me you didn’t mean it literally, as in "not genuine".)

    I agree with your point, Jane, and especially with your comment above about the tension between being willing to receive ongoing feedback at the same time as being able to keep believing in oneself, particularly, pre-publication. As Lamott points out repeatedly in Bird By Bird, things also don’t miraculously change the moment one is published–no one swoops down with a banner for you to wear that says "REAL WRITER."

    Art and artists–at whatever point they are in their careers–are always works-in-progress. To be comfortable doing this, I think, requires developing a pretty high tolerance for open-ended-ness, for unfinishedness, for lack of closure, plus a belief that what one is doing is *worthwhile.* I wrote for many years, and through the rejection of my first attempt at a novel (the kind people keep forever in a trunk under their beds, never again to see the light of day), not because I thought I was better than other would-be-authors or because I thought I deserved it more, but because the entire process of writing and immersing myself in a literary community (joining writers groups and going to conferences) enriched my life.

    I felt like a "real" writer for a long time before seeing anything in print because I was working at the craft and because I was working to improve. Which is exactly what I’m still doing now.

  15. Tanya

    I agree with the "fake it till you make it" mindset. I have been doing it for almost a year now. I started with simply referring to myself as a writer. I had nothing published (traditionally) yet just thinking of myself as a writer, instead of an aspiring writer, I garnered enough courage to seek out real writing opportunities. Taking me from "fake" writer to real one.

  16. Jane Friedman

    @Danielle – Thanks for the further comment.

    What I thought I was emphasizing was not "believe you’re the best" — but "act."

    That said, one of the biggest problems facing writers relates to the friction between:

    – having enough confidence (or ego) to continue writing (when you’re being rejected over a period of years, when you know thousands of others are writing and many more have been published who are better than you)
    – having humility to honestly accept and incorporate feedback & improve your work when it’s likely the one area in your life where you’re the most vulnerable to criticism

    It’s probably why books like THE ARTIST’S WAY, THE WAR OF ART, BIRD BY BIRD, and WRITING DOWN THE BONES continue to be so popular and enthroned in writing advice lit. They very much relate to the psychological battles of the writing/artistic life.

  17. Danielle

    Hi Jane,
    Interesting to hear that your definition of "fake it till you make it" means work hard and earn your self-belief – I don’t think that can be taken for granted in a post like this. Most do not interpret it that way. Have you seen those competition shows where, when a contestant is asked why they should stay and they always say "Because I have the drive" or "Because I’m a winner", it’s all about attitude, they never, ever list their skills.
    I didn’t mean that what you wrote was contrary to the Ali quote, it was more that your post focuses on the "believe you are the best" part, as do so many people when interpreting that quote, rather than giving equal time to the knowing your skill-level part. I don’t think the quote is appropriate for writing, or many of the other things it is so often applied to by the "confidence coaching" gang. In boxing, as in sales, it IS possible to make your opponent lose by overpowering your opponent’s/customer’s confidence in themselves with your own seeming self-belief – in a way, belief can be enough. That is not the case with writing or in any situation where skill is equally or more important (including boxing if simply forcing your opponent to lose isn’t enough for you!)
    Anyway, enough hijacking your blog with my own bugbear – apologies.

  18. Tom Bentley

    I’ve read that artificially smiling (simply exercising the smiling muscles) is actually a measurable mood enhancer. It might make people look at you oddly in the grocery store, however. But I do think there’s some merit in the essence of the "fake it, make it" argument in that confidence can be a learned thing, and can be reinforcing. And confidence and humility aren’t enemies.

    I always admired that Goethe quote,
    "Then indecision brings its own delays,
    And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
    Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
    What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;
    Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

    Speaking of emulating author’s success, I read somewhere that Barbara Cartland wrote most of her early works sitting at a piano, naked. I guess I’m just not that bold…

  19. Theresa Milstein

    I had a friend tell me, "Fake it ’til you make it."

    Reading how an author became successful is often inspiring. It confirms that writing is a process, requiring hours of effort and steadfastness in the face of rejection. Except those stories about someone who wrote one book, edited it quickly, sent it out, and got three offers from agents and a bidding war from publishers. Those stories are less inspiring.

  20. G. P. Ching

    Success stories are fun to read and help to balance out the woeful proliferation of rejection stories we hear every day. I think there is something to be said about faking it. As I see it, It has a little to do with the power of positive thinking and a lot to do with appearing confident. I’m not sure about the dendrite growth. My inner skeptic is scratching her chin on that one.

  21. Jane Friedman

    @Danielle – An excellent elaboration.

    I agree that humility is an excellent trait for anyone looking to continually improve and become masterful.

    And if you ask me what does "faking it" look like, specifically, I would also agree that it’s about working and learning. I don’t think "faking it" is a magic trick, but instead a way to compel us to start ACTING and stop dwelling/hoping/wishing/etc.

    I’m not sure that what I posted is contrary to the Ali quote.

  22. Livia Blackburne

    I can’t say I agree *completely* with Suzanne’s quote. The general nature of the promises and mention of dendrite growth and neural change without citing backup studies makes my inner critical scientist a bit nervous (but hey, I’m willing to be proven wrong if indeed there are). That said though, it can’t hurt to pretend, and I *have* seen some studies that pretending does help. For example, a research study found recently that simply assuming a powerful posture actually increases testosterone and feelings of power in an individual.

  23. Danielle

    I, too, love to read (and draw out in person) success stories of successful authors and not once have I heard anyone of them say "well I kind of faked it for a while and suddenly I was good at it and recognized." I’ve heard "I felt like a fraud" over and over but that’s not the same thing, in fact it’s the opposite – genuine humility. Whatever their process, every one of them worked as hard as they were able and soaked in whatever knowledge they could about their craft until, and after, they made it.

    I think we need to be so very careful when discussing this ‘fake it till you make it’ thing. Especially with posts like this that don’t really highlight what you need to actually be doing while you’re faking it: working and learning. It doesn’t magically happen.

    Did you see, on the Daily Show the other day, the statistics about international education? American kids are way down the lists in actual knowledge but number one in the world for believing that they are number one.

    Belief in self is NOT enough. In fact, look up a report entitled "Unskilled and Unaware" and you will find that not only is it not enough but it is a hindrance. Belief in self is important only to the point where it frees you from fear of trying, after that, honesty about your skills (which, admittedly, is not possible till you have a certain level of skill in the first place) is THE most important thing. You cannot become the best if you don’t believe you have something to learn.

    If we look carefully at the Ali quote, we can see that he is saying this, too.

    "To be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are."

    He doesn’t say: If you don’t BELIEVE in yourself, pretend you believe in yourself. He says If you’re not THE BEST, pretend you are." In other words, put on the bravado to keep yourself in the ring and intimidate others but KNOW that you aren’t the best – yet.