Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jeffrey Davis from Tracking Wonder.
Confidence makes us arrogant, lazy, and complacent. At least that’s one provocative view held by VP and business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.
True? Yes. No. Maybe.
Imagine this: You’re testing a new career field, reinventing yourself, or creating a new venture that lacks a conventional field. Or maybe you work in an existing field and want to expand your services or develop a new product. Perhaps you want to establish your presence as a thought leader or conversation leader.
The potential problems? You lack substantial knowledge and experience. Your talent is untested, or you are unsure what value you offer. You’re not sure that you can actually deliver results from a new service or that your program will even deliver value.
What do you do? Create a splashy, sassy, sensational presence with a funky name to get a lot of viral attention? Fake confidence and hope for the best?
“Fake it ’til you make it.” Good advice for when you’re feeling glum or have unfounded self-doubt, but possibly dangerous advice for when you are honing your business artistry.
When to Fake Confidence
Over 100 years ago in a curious lecture called “The Gospel of Relaxation,” American psychologist William James observed that not only can emotions drive our actions but actions can also drive our emotions. He was one of the first psychologists to observe how our physiology and activity influence our mood. Act differently to feel different, he more or less suggested.
James’s hunches were the foundation for the “Fake it ’til you make it” adage.
Psychologists such as Dacher Keltner (Born to Be Good) and Richard Wiseman (The As If Principle) have followed the lead in studies of embodied cognition to demonstrate how our gestures affect our emotional state. Their premise: you can influence how you feel, and how you feel influences your confidence.
If you want to switch from feeling blue to feeling joy, there’s ample evidence (which my experience bears out) that you’d be wiser to get outdoors and hula-hoop rather than stay indoors and analyze why you’re blue. You can influence your mood.
If an irrational stage fright seizes you before an interview for a job that you know you’re qualified for or before a call with a prospect whom you know you can deliver great value to, it might be wise to fake how you express confidence. You can influence your tone of voice.
If you don’t feel confident, you can act confident until you do feel it. For years, as a speaker and teacher, I have taken Susan Cain’s advice to “fake being an extrovert,” and my confidence in those arenas has increased.
But faking positive emotions for the long term – what sociologists call “emotional labor” – can eventually do more harm than good. Faking it when you know that you haven’t prepared or don’t know what you’re talking about might not boost your boast as much as it will amp up your anxiety. So, consider the tradeoff.
Why do we get trapped in this advice?
Why We Fall for It: Business as Usual
Three reasons: An old code, cultural assumptions about charisma, and some off-base associations. Let’s handle each reason in turn.
Reason #1: An Old, Broken Code Breeds Cynicism
In some business circles, there’s an implicit code that says that lying, exaggeration, and deception are simply part of the game of business. Being opaque instead of transparent is the way “the big guys” play.
This code gets passed onto business owners, thought leaders, and business leaders who believe that they must pretend to have confidence about their business’s health, their vision, and their knowledge and competence.
It’s in part this code that breeds cynicism both toward and within business.
Lauren Martin, in an article called “Fake it ’til You Make it: How to Bullshit Your Way to the Top,” suggests that “If you sound confident within [the] first few seconds, [people] will assume you know what you are doing and [think] they don’t need to listen to the rest. It’s also okay to be confident and wrong.”
This is precisely the type of confidence that Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic believes makes us arrogant, lazy, and complacent. Chamorro-Premuzic is the author of the book Confidence. He’s also Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, and he is Vice President of Innovation at Hogan Assessments, which helps organizations hire high-potential employees.
Because faking it gets rewarded so often, we put more emphasis on learning to project confidence than on acquiring actual competence. But there’s only so far you can go with confidence ungrounded by competence before it catches up to you.
Reason #2: We Associate Confidence with Competence
We get charmed by charisma.
Confidence often compensates for incompetence, according to Chamorro-Premuzic. He calls confidence “noise.”
The right amount of confidence, he suggests, is confidence fully aligned with one’s actual ability – “when it acts as an accurate barometer of what you can actually do.”
I asked some people on Facebook what they thought about the “fake it ’til you make it” advice. Attorney Jim Dwyer said this about it: “If I were to apply it to myself, it would be that it’s about me getting over the self-doubt that’s stopping me from doing what I really can.”
Brooklyn-based designer Monica Gurevich-Importico weighed in, too, saying that the advice helped her overcome creative self-doubt and adding, “The trick is to surpass the faking bit.”
Reason #3: We Associate Humility with Weakness
We associate the word “conventional” with traditional values of hard work and formal learning. We associate “disruption” and “innovation” and “new school” with being lean and speedy and with expertise-hacking.
People full of bravado and comfortable with risk might propose an idea without much forethought, while more careful people might pore over research first. Because the humility shown by the latter group can be viewed as weakness, they’re likely to get the “fake it” advice, as well as being regarded as “old school.”
Why do we encourage people to fake confidence and even fake competence?
One reason might be the current hacking meme of the past several years. It’s vogue to hack education, hack business, hack mastery. There is a suspicion of experts upholding an old-guard way of doing things. Perhaps with the increased democratized access to knowledge and resources the Internet grants us, we would like to believe that we can bypass the years of education and practice necessary for us human beings to truly learn a skill set, develop our minds, and attain competence.
Maybe we advocate this fakery in the guise of dismantling the old guard. But maybe we’re inadvertently perpetuating business as usual.
So what’s the harm in faking confidence other than being potentially out of integrity?
The Dangers of Faking It
“Fake it ’til you make it” is dangerous, short-sighted advice for people who are starting their ventures in new fields or wishing to expand their presence as thought leaders.
“Fake it ’til you make it” doesn’t translate well to positioning yourself within your playing field or to expanding your presence with integrity.
It can throw you off-center.
When asked if anyone had ever given him the “fake it ’til you make it” advice, business coach Mark Silver said, “Yes. I was so much younger. I tried. It felt horrible and never worked. Then I stopped working with that person, became myself, lowered my prices, caught my breath, and everything flowed much more easily.”
The fake-it advice diminishes your trade or field. It diminishes the nature of merit and good work. Christina Desmarais of Inc. magazine goes so far as to say it could bankrupt you.
For the long term, it could have adverse effects on your business, motivation, and character.
Word spreads or it doesn’t. If you don’t deliver on what you promise, either people will know it or they will not likely spread the word of your work.
Here’s the important distinction: When you know in your bones that you know what you’re doing and that what you have to say or offer is valuable, but you simply lack the confidence to express it, then fake your confident demeanor. Don’t just rehearse saying what you have to say. Feel it. Know it.
But if you’re starting a new venture and you do in fact lack the skills and competence, get the skills and competence. Or be honest about the fact that you’re new and testing the waters.
Five Ways to Make It without Faking It: Business as Unusual
If you lack the content, skills, and knowledge to stand on, then your stage fright might be legitimate.
It’s true that many industry outsiders have come along and forced competitors to pivot or perish. But you likely won’t make it in your field on high self-esteem and charisma alone.
Mark Hatch, CEO of Techshop and author of The Maker Revolution, tells stories of several seeming amateurs who innovated within their fields. They didn’t innovate by faking it.
Of Elon Musk, Hatch writes, “He has always been an industry outsider who climbs whatever steep mountains of knowledge are needed for each venture.” He notes that one of the key drives for such outsiders to innovate is “access to tools; the other is access to knowledge.”
1. Get strong field knowledge.
Many of the programs I and my team at Tracking Wonder design are built on advancing participants’ self-knowledge, which builds on craft knowledge, which builds on field knowledge or industry knowledge. To step out of the Amateur Bubble, get savvy about your playing field. Emphasis on the play.
Find out the conventions of your field so you’ll know later how to push those conventions. Study three people who are leading the conversations in your field so you know how you can contribute your verse.
To step into the arena, you have to know who else is in the arena with you and what the rules of the game are so you know when you are breaking the rules or making them.
Writing is an excuse to learn. At least it has been for me for twenty-something years. It’s also an excuse to think through ideas more clearly. The consultants and coaches and thought leaders we work with who write books inevitably become more articulate about what they do, think, and stand for by virtue of writing a book.
And if writing a book daunts you, start a Tumblr blog on a subject you’re curious about and want to thrive in some day. Putting your work out on a blog lets you rehearse writing for an audience, practice getting feedback (solicited or not), and write to a self-imposed deadline. Which leads to the next tip.
I don’t advocate your doing your 10,000 hours of study before you even show up. You can apprentice in the arena.
If you want to offer new services or programs that you’ve studied up on, test them out.
I take on new clients with new kinds of problems that require new kinds of solutions. Why? Because that’s what I do: I come up with novel, useful solutions to problems, old and new. But as I watch our clients’ needs evolve, I also develop new methods and enter new, complementary fields to meet their needs.
Here’s the thing: I let these clients know up front that we may be charting new territory – but new territory is the business of Tracking Wonder. Four years before we launched the ArtMark: Brand Story & Strategy program, I tested some ideas on a small group of new entrepreneurs for six months. I told them it was a test to see if I could deliver any value. Three years before that, I had tested the ideas on another, smaller beta group and on our own business. They worked.
When I saw the value and saw that I knew what I was talking about, I developed a business-artist beta manual for clients who wanted consulting outside of my then-book-based consulting. The methods brought clients considerable returns.
We recently launched our TW Consultancy pages but did so only after we were confident that how we operated was true, valuable, and effective.
We didn’t put the confidence before the proof. We built the proof behind the scenes before we went public.
You can, too. Deliberately. What’s important is to be transparent with clients, customers, and audience members.
Chris Brogan writes about a perfect wonder-tracking adage in his book The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth – fall in love with not-knowing.
Wonder skirts the dance between knowledge and not-knowing. When a young Greek dude says he’s befuddled by Socrates’ discussion of knowledge, the wise guy says, “Wonder is the beginning of philosophy” – sometimes translated as “Not-knowing is the beginning of true knowledge.”
So, if you are new to a field, venture. Love that uncertainty. But learn like an eager apprentice on the way to business artistry.
And if you’ve been around a playing field for a while, un-know. Either unravel what you assume you know about certain conventions, or take yourself into new terrain. Take yourself to the point of productive stupidity, as one biologist I interviewed advocates.
When the planks of what you think you know drop out from under you, you fall or fly. But that’s okay. When you develop sufficient cognitive flexibility, you learn to fly with humility or fall with grace.
The word “earn” sprouts from an Old High German word meaning “to harvest.” It’s related to “earnest,” as in grave, deliberate attention. Why should you not reap what you sow? Receive what you merit?
Earning a right livelihood as a business artist doesn’t come from cheap tricks or from faking it. It comes from making it happen. (Click to tweet.)
You make confidence the new-fashioned way. You earn it.
That’s my perspective.
Stephen Lahey says
I’ve been self-employed for the past 14 years, and I’ve seen many people who “fake it” crash and burn. I couldn’t agree more with this post, Jeffrey. Good for you!
Great to have your alliance given your experience, too.
I think we can look out for well-intending start-ups and newcomers.
Thanks for running with me,
Thanks for a good, thought-provoking article. I’d never thought of dividing “fake it ’til you make it” into competence and confidence. Ethics gives faked competence a slimy feel, while the research you cite about body language could make faked confidence curative.
I like your five-step path to developing competence, too. When you temper the hard work of learning with wonder and curiosity, it’s fun.
I appreciate your affirmation. The distinction between confidence and competence only came to me after a lot of scratching of an intuitive itch – “What is that bothers me about this advice?”
I’m glad it resonates and helps you on your quest.