What it really means to "fake it till you make it"

A very common piece of advice in the startup world is to "fake it till you make it." I think this advice is often given to young founders of early stage companies and what it means is that they should project confidence and tell a story about their company that might be more aspirational that it is factual.

Put aside for the moment, the obvious ethical questions around stretching the truth when it comes to your company's performance. Most people who give this advice are really missing the point. Faking it till you make it isn't about something external (like click through rates and user adoption), it is about dealing with something internal, a lack of self-confidence in even the very best of founders. 

There is something called imposter syndrome, which very few people in Silicon Valley talk about but is actually quite significant. At the most basic level it is a fear harbored by many successful people that they are not actually very good at what they do. Their successes, they believe, are the result of a combination of luck and their ability to trick others into believing in them. Psychologists who have studied this “syndrome” claim that as many as 40% of highly successful people suffer from it at some point in their careers. Einstein is quoted as once saying that he felt like an “involuntary swindler.”  

While many successful people sometimes think of themselves as poseurs, they remain successful and the reason for this comes back to the misunderstood advice of fake it till you make it. The truly successful can accept feelings of inadequacy but can put on the mask of confidence when they need to. They tackle company meetings, wow investors and project charisma even though they feel like frauds on the inside. If they do this long enough, eventually they stop needing to fake it because they come to the realization that they have been successful all along, not because of trickery but because they’ve always had what it takes. Maybe it isn’t really about faking it till you make it, it’s about faking your belief in it until you actually believe it.

Don’t fake your numbers. Do project self-confidence.