Fake It Until…
It’s a popular catchphrase – fake it until you make it – but what are really saying when we repeat this common line and do we believe it?
Have you ever felt like a fake? Have you ever found yourself awake at night wondering when the world, or your employers, or the people closest to you will realise you are just a talentless impostor?
I’ll admit, I’ve often felt like that. In fact, pretty much every amazing and successful creative person I’ve met, has struggled with the same feelings. Musicians, artists, writers, business executives, designers and academics; they all had those cold sweat moments when they have felt like an impostor, like they were faking it.
The Creative Reality Of Faking It
David duChemin recently wrote a frank and honest piece on “faking it.” He lays out an argument for accepting the feeling of faking it as part of the artistic life. As David says,
“… I am faking it. We all are. We’re making it up as we go. That’s what creative people in any pursuit do. It’s not a part of what we do, it’s the very nature of what we do. We try new things, go where we’ve never gone, we do things for which there are neither rules nor established ways we should do what we do. In the process we make a lot of mistakes, fall on our faces, and – in the case of photographers – we make a lot of really bad photographs, the sketch images I often talk about, in pursuit of the good ones. The public, whoever that is, only sees the good stuff. We see it all: the crap, the dross, the chaff, and it’s often the flotsam and jetsam of the creative process that we get hung up on, forgetting that every artist creates the same waste as they chase their own muse. The more creative we are, or endeavour to be, the more of it – the crap, the evidence of our faking it – we produce.”
Faking It – Or Only Just Making It?
My feeling is David is bringing two ideas together in his piece; the inner struggle of an artist and the feeling of being on the edge as we make new things and seek to be fresh and inventive in our work.
I believe David is totally right about the inner struggle of the artist. This gels with my own experience and what I’ve seen from talking to others. In fact, I’ll go further than David and say the true sign of a hack, in any field, is the absence of this concern.
Feeling like a faker is connected to our desire for appreciation and respect (and maybe even the desire to be admired). We feel the need to appear competent and wonder, deep down, if we really are. It’s also connected to self-criticism, the sense we can do better, or our work is not as good as the work we admire. The best summary of this is from a series of video interviews Ira Glass did some years ago, as advice to young creatives.
But, I’m not sure this feeling is the same as “… making it up as we go.” Focus, repetition and refinement are the paths in mastery in any craft. Even when we strike out in a new direction, our work can feel more solid if it’s built on a foundation of technical mastery, or at least competence.
Initially we feel like fakers because we are fakers. We are attempting something great and ambitious but we don’t have the skills and experience to pull it off. However, over time, our competence does improve. Maybe our dreams run ahead of our competence, especially if we don’t settle or become comfrotable in our work, but we still can lean into our experience.
I wouldn’t want to call the process of failing and jettisoning failure “faking it.” Rather that’s making it – the process of making our way, making our style and mastering our craft. In time, this unlocks and deep and profound trust in our ability which can help us become bolder and more confident, even in the face of disappointment.
“Nothing in music is hard, just unfamiliar.”
Fake It Till You Become It
A wonderful perspective on this can be seen in Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. A social psychologist Amy is known for her work in how people perceive both themselves and others.
I encourage you to make some time and watch this talk [EDIT: Yes, even though the research has been contested]. It goes into the science of our body language and self-perception; suggesting we change the way we feel and behave by changing our body language. The final story, where Professor Cuddy goes into her own biography to tell a moving story of “faking it till you make it.”
Fear And Performance
It’s one thing to feel like a faker when we are in our quiet and reflective moments; to be humbled by the gulf between our work and the best work in our field. It’s another thing entirely to feel like a faker when the record light is on, or a client is in front of our camera, or write to meet an editorial deadline.
For years I struggled with fear in my musical performances. I’m not talking about stage fright, I’m talking about a debilitating, voices-in-your-head fear which made it almost impossible to enjoy picking up the instrument (if you identify with this feeling then I strongly recommend Kenny Werner’s amazing book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within. I left myself open to those feelings because I was unable to process some of the criticism I received, I didn’t have adequate checks and balances in place to remind me of the work I had done, how much I knew and how far I could still go. I made it worse by spending less and less time playing and writing music, which only reinforced the negative feelings.
A Million Tiny Failures
I’m not sure those of us in the artistic and creative world ever can completely shake the feeling of being a fake. But, we also gain nothing from living a life in service of fear. We gain nothing from freaking out over the feeling of being a fake, but we also gain nothing from indulging it either.
“And, sorry, all those romantic notions you have of absinthe spoons, manic episodes and Kerouac-like rambling on a long roll of butcher paper really aren’t operative. Creative work is mostly showing up every day and enduring a million tiny failures as you feel your way to something a bit new.”