Let’s Put the Brakes on “Fake it Till You Make It”

Let’s Put the Brakes on “Fake it Till You Make It”

“Fake it till you make it” is one of Silicon Valley’s most prized maxims. The phrase suggests that individuals should pretend to be confident and capable — even when they are not — in order to manifest actual success later on.

The motto also appeared as the tagline of the most recent volume of the Stanford Daily magazine. In a letter introducing the magazine to readers, Daily editors encourage Stanford students to adopt a “fake it till you make it” mindset in order to deal with “uncertainty and stress” resulting from the pandemic, everyday college responsibilities, or even “changing interests and identities.”

But faking it till you make it is a fraught piece of advice for college students, and the Daily’s platitudes fail to justify why we should fake it till we make it. While a small amount of “fake it till you make it” (FITYMI) may be helpful for those debilitated by self-doubt, challenging circumstances should demand even greater commitment to authenticity and principled decision-making. The alternative is an inauthentic and scam-like culture that amplifies imposter syndrome at Stanford, impedes genuine connection and creation, and doesn’t actually help anyone succeed in adverse environments.

On campus, I’ve observed how FITYMI and imposter syndrome amplify each other in a dangerous feedback loop. Some freshmen arrive at Stanford feeling like they don’t belong on campus, so they attempt to “fake it” in order to fit in. As a result, more students feel like they are imposters and feel the need to manufacture self-assurance. Some students could certainly benefit from “faking it” occasionally — when paralyzed by perceived flaws, posturing can provide the temporary self-confidence needed for short-term success, and build real confidence in the long term.

However, like most Internet advice, the suggestion to “fake it till you make it” often falls on those who least need to hear it. Just as self-care culture is often espoused by those facing the least amount of real harm, FITYMI culture has the danger of encouraging insincerity in those who are already the most disingenuous. In other words, while students might begin Stanford feeling like frauds, FITYMI culture leads many to start acting inauthentically by misrepresenting their credentials and claiming to have skills they don’t possess.

Overall, our campus community would be better off if we spent less time pretending that we have it all figured out and more time forging genuine connections, ideas, and organizations. True success in any field requires a real-world foundation. On the other hand, con artists and scammers operate on the prospect that they can fake their way to success, but their house of cards always falls apart eventually.

Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout who defrauded investors and customers with her failed blood-testing startup, Theranos, exemplifies the pitfalls of FITYMI. Holmes ultimately failed to deliver the blood tests that she claimed to have invented and is now a convicted felon. From allegedly lowering her voice to sound more authoritative to eventually providing inaccurate blood analyses to patients, Holmes exemplifies the slippery slope from FITYMI to real fraud.

So I was surprised to find a sympathetic article in the Stanford Daily magazine’s FITMYI volume, titled “The Cultural Power of Elizabeth Holmes,” that venerates Holmes and FITYMI culture by lamenting her wasted potential as a feminist figure. The piece confusingly suggests that the aspiration of having a female role-model in tech could justify her short-term dishonesty, if only she had “made it” in the end. But this thinking is delusional; Theranos’ product didn’t pan out precisely because she “faked it,” promising investors a technology that was decades from existing.

One Stanford student who attended Holmes’ trial described her as “a little badass” for being a woman within a male-dominated start-up culture, Theranos’ fraud notwithstanding. But, it is demeaning and sexist to hold female leaders to a different standard or to suggest that women must turn to inauthenticity, or even fraud, in order to make it in a male-dominated industry. In fact, celebrating the fact that “she was able to get so far on a lie” is harmful to anyone trying to achieve real success in an adverse environment.

The magazine’s feature on Holmes isn’t all complimentary. The piece does critique those who don T-shirts bearing Holmes’ face — not due to her dishonest behavior, but instead due to her association with “white feminism” in which “women are climbing the capitalist ladder, but they’re still exploiting other women while doing so.” This critique of so-called “girlboss feminism” has gained popularity in the aftermath of “Lean In,” which encouraged women to be more assertive in corporate environments.

But it misses the underlying issue: a culture of normalized inauthenticity that encourages anyone to use whatever farce is available to them for short-term ‘success.’ For example, in 2019, the Stanford Daily reported on Eric Smalls, the founder of Stanford’s robotics club, who was accused by the Oklahoma Department of Securities of defrauding multiple investors in his start-up MANNA Robotics; when asked for comment, Smalls claimed that “all allegations made are false and racist!” Cases like those of Holmes and Smalls are rare, but they are the product of a culture that values bluffing even after the foundation of one’s success has been roundly refuted.

The feature article on Holmes closes with a student lamenting, “It’s not all about how many glass ceilings you can shatter. [...] Stanford doesn’t really prioritize [...] find[ing] happiness for yourself in your womanhood.” In fact, FITMYI culture creates this false dichotomy by placing authenticity and success in tension when they should in fact coincide. Maybe we’d have more successful start-ups if we began by interrogating our core principles and values, rather than trying to figure these out along the way. Through increased skepticism towards those who begin by “faking it,” Stanford could birth more ethical tech leaders grounded in strong principles, and avoid enabling the occasional grifter too.

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