Fake it til you make it. Really?

I was talking about the imposter syndrome to a group at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand recently. One of the questions that came up was should you fake it till you make it?

Now while it’s a catcFake it till you make it by Phil Kernshy phrase I’ve always had trouble with fake it til you make it. I have two problems with it.


The first is the word fake. This phrase is giving people permission to be fake. It’s saying go out there and be a fake. Pretend you are something that you are not. Surely there are enough conmen and frauds in the world without encouraging more. Do you want to go to a doctor who is faking it till she makes it? Do you want to get on a plane with a pilot who appears very confident but has no flying ability? Do you want to hire a new staff member who has faked their CV while they wait to make it? Faking has bad connotations for me and so I find it hard to use the phrase.

Til you make it

And the second issue with the phrase is til you make it. This implies that after a certain period of faking you will make it. But my experience of working with people is that you don’t make it. Once you fake your way through this challenge the bar just gets higher. You tell yourself “I fooled them this time, but now they’re going to expect me to do this well every time. Or worse, they’ll expect me to do even better the next time”. And since you’re not that sure that you can meet this standard you need to fake more. In fact it becomes a cycle, – the imposter cycle.

So if I don’t like faking it til I make it what do I offer instead. Two things:

Work to get the skills you need

If you want to be a brain surgeon or a pilot or a plumber faking it til you make it is not a great strategy. You can’t fake skills you don’t have. If the job or task you are undertaking requires specific skills then go off and learn those skills.

Be brave and take action

But what if you do have the knowledge or skills but you still doubt yourself? Well, welcome to the imposter syndrome. This is where you have evidence that you can do something but you still doubt. You feel like a fraud – a fake – but you are not. And this is where you need to push through the doubts and do it anyway. Not faking anything – but trusting yourself.

And so the phrase I like is Be brave and take action. You’re not faking it. You do have skills and abilities. Of course you will have doubts. But you don’t have to know everything. You can learn and grow. So if your doubts and worries are holding you back be brave and take action.

Origin of the Phrase

The phrase, Fake it til you make it has an interesting history. It was, and is, used by the Amway corporation. In fact, it became the title of a book written by Phil Kerns in 1982 where he described some of the techniques used in Amway.

Fake it til you make it. Phil Kerns, Victory Press; 1St Edition edition (1982).

It is also popular in Alcoholics Anonymous groups although it is not part of their official approach. And, of course, it is used endlessly in business, sales and the self-improvement industry.

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Imposters at University

The new academic year has just started in Australia and thousands of people are turning up at university for the first time. And I can guarantee many of them are having imposter feelings right now.


The beautiful buildings at the University of Glasgow where I visited recently.

You’d imagine you’d feel clever if you’d been accepted into university. However, many people’s first experience when they get there is to feel stupid. While you might have been the high achiever in your high school, you’re now surrounded by really smart people. You feel “I shouldn’t be here. Maybe I’m not that clever after all. Maybe this is where I’ve reached my limit.”

And the academic culture in universities can be very critical. When you hand up a piece of work it’s likely to come back covered in red ink. There will be lots of criticism and often not much positive feedback. And of course this critical environment fosters self-doubt. You’d assume that as you go higher, your confidence would develop and you’d lose that sense of being a fraud. After all, you have the evidence of how well you are going. But ironically it can get worse! In fact, the more you achieve the higher the standard becomes. More to prove. More to lose. You’re just one step closer to the ultimate exposure.

Here’s one person’s story, Claire, a mature-aged university student.

“I can clearly remember my first day at university. It was terrifying. I was a mature student. As my kids got older I went back to high school and did well. The teachers suggested that I should go to university to study sociology. No one in my family had ever been to university so I had no idea what to expect. And suddenly I went from being top of the class in high school to feeling like I knew nothing. I was surrounded by all these young kids, well they seemed like kids compared to me, who seemed really bright and confident. I wanted to walk out of that first lecture and never come back. I felt I shouldn’t be there. I was scared stiff in the tutorials that someone might ask me a question and then they’d find out what an uneducated clod I really was. I still feel like that now.”


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The imposter cycle

The diagram below shows you how a person can feel like an imposter but still be very successful. Imagine you are about to start a new project or prepare for a presentation. Start at number 1 and work your way around the cycle.













  1. The cycle begins—you have some imposter feelings
  2. Search for a reason—I need a qualification, more experience, more practice
  3. Work hard to achieve your goal—now you have hope
  4. Achieve your goal and momentary pleasure
  5. The feelings return
  6. Off you go again—Round 2

So no matter what evidence you gather you can still feel like an imposter. This is how people can be very successful and still feel like frauds.

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Rose of Tralee feels like an imposter

You can win awards and be very successful and still feel like an imposter. In fact the more awards and higher the praise the more intense the feeling can become. Maria Walsh, who won the Rose of Tralee competition in Ireland in 2014 and was honoured at the 2015 Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards admits to crippling moments of insecurity.

Link to the story:
Irish Independent 10 November 2015.



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The Marathon Imposter

The Guardian 26 October 2015

Julius Njogu didn’t feel like running the whole 42 kilometers so he just joined in for the last kilometer. He came in in second place which had a prize of $7,000. Unfortunately he got found out because the officials noticed he didn’t look very tired.

This is what a real imposter looks like.

Read the whole story here.


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Are you an Imposter?

How do you know if you’re an imposter or not? After all imposters do exist. We regularly read in the media about con-men who defraud people, people who impersonate doctors, students who get accepted into prestigious colleges without any qualifications. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’ve just been good at fooling people.

Well it’s pretty easy to work out really. To distinguish between real imposters and people who just feel like an imposter you only have to look at the evidence.

Real Imposter:
A real imposter is a person who pretends or claims to be able to do something or have specific abilities, despite not having the skills, background or experience.

Imposter feelings:
Occasional feelings that you are an imposter or fraud despite evidence that you are not. These usually pass and don’t have much impact on what you do.

Imposter syndrome:
A person with the imposter syndrome feels like an imposter a lot of the time in spite of clear evidence that they are not. The feelings can be powerful and the person may be convinced that they are a fraud. It will affect what they think, feel and do.

The crucial feature of imposter feelings and the imposter syndrome is that there is clear evidence that you are not an imposter but you still feel like one. So if you want to know whether you are an imposter or not – look at the evidence.

But even though you have the evidence you can still feel like an imposter. And that’s quite normal. In fact up to 70% of people experience imposter feelings. And between 30-50% of people will have consistent imposter feelings that will affect what they think, feel and do – the imposter syndrome.

So are you an imposter? If you have evidence that you have the skills, the knowledge and the qualifications that you claim then you are not an imposter.

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Feel like a fraud?

What do Meryl Streep (Academy award winner), Sheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer of Facebook) and Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel Prize winner) have in common? At various stages, they have all felt like frauds or imposters, that they don’t have the skills or abilities that other people think they have.

Many of us are waiting for that tap on the shoulder. Or for someone to come along and say “We need to have a chat”. If you’ve ever had that feeling, well, that’s the imposter feeling. And you’re in good company. Lots of people experience it.



[I felt] like an imposter, faking it, that someday they’d find out I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t. I still don’t.

Oscar winner, Jodie Foster




You think, “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Meryl Streep, most Academy Awards nominated person of all time



There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.

Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation



These are famous examples. But imposters are to be found everywhere. They could be:

  • a student wondering if they are clever enough for the exam
  • a person getting ready for a job interview
  • a new parent wondering if they are fit to be a parent
  • someone who has just been promoted to a new challenging job
  • a sportsperson wondering if they will perform well enough

In fact, most people will have imposter feelings from time to time. It’s pretty normal actually. But sometimes they can get a bit out of control. That’s when the imposter feelings develop into the imposter syndrome. It starts to affect what you do and how you think about yourself.


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