One of the most widespread career advice I hear is the “fake it 'til you make it” mantra. It has become common for people to admit how they didn’t know anything about their job when they started, and how they pretended to know until, eventually, they were able to understand what the hell was going on.
I understand that the lack of knowledge shouldn’t always prevent us from taking up responsibility, because there is no better teacher than doing the job - preferably, with the help of someone who actually knows how to do it. However, when taken to an extreme, this “fake it til you make it” philosophy very dangerous for the following reasons:
1 - It makes us worse professionals.
When I go to a doctor, I don’t want them to pretend to know all the answers. I would rather have them trying to understand the problem, telling me they will study it further, discuss it with other colleagues, and come back to me with the best possible treatment.
I can’t see why other professions shouldn’t take the same approach. Whatever you do, your customer or client will be better served if you take the time and effort to understand the matter fully, even if that means coming back to them with some answers you don’t know yet.
2 - It is not as easy to deceive people as you think.
How many times have I viewed a flat to rent, and realised that the estate agent knew absolutely nothing of the area, flat, or even the general reality of renting? They usually sound very assertive, their voices have a confident tone that they must have learnt in business school. However, none of that cheap varnish has ever made me believe their knowledge. I trust the ones that admit they don't know something, and show interest in finding out what the answer is.
It is even worse when I encounter those “fakers” in the context of my profession. It is very aggravating to have someone blurt out "truths" with all the confidence in the world, and find out a couple of weeks later that they passed on the wrong information, and that everyone’s time was wasted as a result.
3 - It is harder to learn when you pretend you already know.
When you admit you don’t know something, people who know are more likely to reach out and explain things to you. Experienced people are aware that it is impossible to know everything, and won’t judge you for not knowing.
Of course, sometimes there will be an idiot who will smirk and say something like “I am very surprised you don’t know this.” Please ignore them, they’re probably terrified that you will find out how much they don’t know themselves.
Most of the times, when you admit your ignorance, your colleagues will either help you or admit they don’t know themselves, and you can all work together towards a solution.
Saying that, I do believe a confident attitude is helpful. You might have heard of impostor syndrome - a feeling that your are not good enough for your job, that you will be exposed as a fraud at any moment. This can happen to the most experienced of us - as a matter of fact, the more you know, the more you become aware of what you still have to learn!
I really don’t think that the “fake it til you make it” attitude is the solution for the impostor syndrome - I think it is the root of the problem. People are too scared of their lack of knowledge and brilliancy, and therefore hide in a cloak of confidence. This becomes a vicious cycle, where everyone feels less confident that the ones around them - because everyone is faking it.
Next time you feel the impostor syndrome coming, remember the following:
1 - We are all learning.
2 - Each of us has specific skills and knowledge, and by admitting our strengths and weaknesses, we can achieve a better result together.
3 - Confidence in others is not a direct reflection of what they know.
4 - Do your work the best you can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
5 - Don’t indulge in self-deprecation. You should never under-sell yourself.
6 - Be confident about what you know, but make it clear to others you are not afraid of admitting what you don’t know.
It took me a few years to understand all this, and I hope this will be useful to you, especially if you just started working on a new field.
Please let me know if you agree, disagree or have any comments. I’d love to hear your experiences!