When you should fake it \’til you make it

When I was 16, I took a high school coop course that put me in a placement at a local technology holdings company. It was a small family business, employing a few software engineers and a receptionist. The receptionist would tell me about The Secret and the law of attraction, which I realized was a version of, “Fake it ’til you make it.” Think, pretend, and visualize that you have what you want, and you will eventually get it. Be mindful of what you think and speak because you subconsciously and spiritually can make it come true in the physical world.

I’m not sure if the law of attraction fell out of favor or if I just stopped paying attention, but the idea started trending again in 2019 under a new word: manifesting. Namely, that you can manifest things to happen if you focus your mind on it. The first piece was a cautionary tale against manifesting, which I really appreciated. Then there was a piece in 2020, exploring whether manifesting actually worked or not. And, of course, it hit the New York Times style section.

Outside of manifesting, there’s still all sorts of advice prescribing to fake it ’til you make it. There’s self-delusion, and acting as if. There’s dressing for the job you want, not the one you have. There are also many entrepreneurial stories of taking on a project they hadn’t done before—essentially assuring the customer they knew what they were doing, even if they didn’t. It’s mostly this final point that I’ll cover in this piece: How does a person navigate between, “Fake it ’til you make it,” and being honest and trustworthy?

For example, Bill Gates famously called PC pioneer Ed Roberts, founder of Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS), and offered to do a BASIC for its Altair 8800 product. While he didn’t have a finished product yet—or even experience with the Altair 8800—he was confident that he and his colleagues could make it happen. It worked, MITS became Microsoft’s first client, and the Altair BASIC became Microsoft’s first product.

What Gates probably didn’t know at the time is that the MITS Altair 8800 that they saw on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine was also something of a dud. Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews write in Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America, “It was a mere mockup, a cardboard box whose front panel lights and switches were utterly inoperable.”

When faking it ’til you make it works

In Steal Like an Artist, author Austin Kleon defines “Fake it ’til you make it” in two ways:

1. Pretend to be something you’re not until you are—fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them to; or

2. Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.

Kleon goes on to tell the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe wanting to be artists and moving to New York. They dressed up in bohemian gypsy gear and went to Washington Square Park. They learned to be artists, at least partially, by pretending.

The degree of pretending is something to consider. For example, while Gates hadn’t had experience with the Altair 8800, as Manes and Andrews write, he and his cofounder Paul Allen did have “the 8008 simulator Paul had designed so that Bill could program the Traf-O-Data machine. It wouldn’t be trivial to convert that simulator to work for the 8080, but it wouldn’t be insanely difficult, either.”

And similarly, Roberts had completed a prototype of the Altair 8800. The one on the cover was an empty box because the package never arrived at the magazine. Thus, while the evidence was lost, a prototype had actually been completed.

In both Gates’ and Roberts’ cases, the people making the decision to pretend—to fake it, to tell an exaggerated version of a story—had degrees of confidence they could accomplish what they set out to. The confidence wasn’t built on manifesting or visualizing. It was based on evidence, the fact that one actually had experience with the software (not the hardware), and another based on the fact that they’d built an actual prototype (but the express company had lost it).

Time orientation also plays a big part in this. There’s a big difference between lying about the past and projecting into the future. Believing in the future—or pretending to—can work, but only if a person is honest, truthful, and even earnest, about the events that took place in the past. Lying about the past is fraud.

The most you can do with past events, metrics, or performance is communicate what each observation means to you and your business story—to reframe it in an exciting or inspiring way—but you wouldn’t be well-served lying about the event itself or pretending that it didn’t happen.

Telling a story about the future to get others to believe

There’s a specific version of “Fake it ’til you make it,” that I find fascinating, which involves much more activity than merely pretending or omitting an inconvenient fact. Here’s a plausible, though apocryphal, example, which I found in Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin’s Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers. I’ll paraphrase:

Henry Kissinger was asked to help a young man secure a job with the chairman of a large bank. The chairman was looking for a new VP, and Kissinger said he knew someone who happened to be Rothschild’s son-in-law. The chairman was interested.

Next, Kissinger called Rothschild, whom he heard had an unmarried daughter, and mentioned he knew a young man who had ascended the bank’s corporate ladder and was also unmarried. The deals went through, and Kissinger, “made his words true, rather than merely spoken true words.”

While the story might not be true, it’s plausible enough to have happened sometime and someplace else. A person of strong reputation lends their credibility to get other people to believe in something.

As David Friedberg says in All-In, episode 19, Elon Musk did not meet the numbers that other people thought he was going to (even regularly falling short of his own goals), but enough people believed in his vision and his story of the future that they bought the stock, which enabled Musk to raise additional capital and build the business in the way he said it would happen. It was a belief in the future, without a distortion of the past or the present.

It’s really this idea that I think most technology leaders implicitly understand and is one of the crucial skills of an entrepreneur. Except for these days, of course, there are much higher fidelity ways of packaging an idea than simply word of mouth. It takes place, instead, through demos, presentations, prototypes, and films. All of this is in the service of convincing someone to believe. It’s the tactic of overselling.

On a more day-to-day level, there’s a simple example in product management, known as the “painted-door test.” Rather than building an actual door, the team or company paints the door first to see if it’s actually useful.

In a discussion at Reddit, u/moronictransgression writes:

“Sometimes they used existing features in new ways, in which case the prototypes were usually mini-working versions, but more often you were describing a feature that doesn’t exist yet, so you generate code that “pretends” it did just to demonstrate how the real product would work, should it get the proper funding.

I can see how this can immediately pivot to ‘fraud,’ but it’s one of those things that isn’t until it is. That is, it’s all about intent–if you knew a feature couldn’t/wouldn’t be developed but you continued to advertise it–you’re a fraud! But if you advertise a feature that will work by the time you sell it, but might not work now–I see that as prototyping.”

Proof of concepts and prototypes are common practices in technology. Roadmaps, discoveries, and such are nice ways of saying that something doesn’t actually exist yet. In a sense, it’s commonplace.

Smoothing out inconveniences

In the New York Times, Fred Vogelstein writes that Steve Jobs had been rehearsing his now-famous iPhone demonstration for five days, and even on the last day the iPhone was extremely glitchy. Andy Grignon, a senior engineer for Apple, and his team did things to make it appear production-ready, like bolster the phone’s signal with a portable cell tower from AT&T, and programming the screen to appear to have five bars regardless of its true reception signal. All of these observations were, for obvious reasons, omitted from the actual demo.

Jobs had multiple iPhone prototypes on stage with him in case the memory ran low on one of them, which would happen a lot. The plan was for him to switch to another while the first was restarted. Still, with so many live demos, his team was concerned there weren’t enough devices. Vogelstein writes:

“Jobs rarely backed himself into corners like this. He was well known as a taskmaster, seeming to know just how hard he could push his staff so that it delivered the impossible. But he always had a backup, a Plan B, that he could go to if his timetable was off.

But the iPhone was the only cool new thing Apple was working on. The iPhone had been such an all-encompassing project at Apple that this time there was no backup plan. ‘It was Apple TV or the iPhone,’ Grignon says. ‘And if he had gone to Macworld with just Apple TV’—a new product that connected iTunes to a television set—’the world would have said, What the heck was that?\’”

Fortunately for Jobs and Apple, the demo worked out smoothly, and the iPhone’s production met the demo’s standards as well. Sometimes, faking it has much more severe consequences.

Lying about the past is not a good idea

In January 2018, Nikola reported that its electric truck was fully functioning. It even had video footage. But a couple of years later, a short-seller found out that the Nikola One prototype had been towed to the top of a shallow hill, and merely allowed to roll down the hill.

Nikola would not make Nikola One work instead of moving on to Nikola Two. At the Financial Times, Claire Bushey writes that Nikola faces scrutiny from the SEC and that founder Trevor Milton made nine inaccurate statements.

This is the textbook case of an ambitious entrepreneur projecting into the future, setting a really concrete vision, one that they probably could deliver on if they had enough time. Perhaps the main difference is Jobs was running Apple, and the iPhone was feasibly close to complete. The modifications were to iron out the bugs; he wasn’t pretending much, and the degree of deception wasn’t as strong.

By contrast, Nikola’s Milton—as well as Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes—were both deliberately fraudulent, outright lying in their answers to specific questions about the past and the present.

There doesn’t have to be a ton of lawsuits and millions of dollars involved; this principle applies day-to-day too. I’ll never forget this Reddit thread involving a guy who basically built a relationship with a powerful executive, only to use a favor to try to go for a position he wasn’t qualified for, and actually trying to lie about his past skill set through a hands-on interview process. He was caught red-handed, humiliated, and learned his lesson the hard way.

Make the door first

An interview is no time to be modest, granted. But back to the painted-door analogy: There’s a huge difference between painting a door and trying to sell it to someone, and actually making a door. You can be honest about how far along you are—”We only made a doorknob, we expect to make the rest of the door in three days”—and talk about how you’re going to make it happen.

Sometimes, the product itself is enough to get people to buy. In the Masters of Scale podcast, Peloton founder John Foley talks about facing a lot of rejections from conventional VCs but also failed his first Kickstarter campaign. Only 178 people bought a Peloton from the original campaign. Foley’s problem was Peloton didn’t have enough believers yet, and a video was not as convincing as someone actually trying a Peloton bike for themselves.

SoulCycle and Flywheel wouldn’t buy the bikes, so Peloton started its own studio, hired its own instructors, and ended up building out a profitable side of the business because people wanted to sign up for spin class. Word spread, Peloton started a showroom, and that tangible and physical experience won people over.

Similarly, I appreciated this story in which Pitch founder Christian Reber talked about taking two years to make his product before he shipped it to customers. According to Reber, Zoom had done the same thing. This takes resources and funding, of course, but that’s also part of the point. If your story isn’t persuasive enough to convince people to support it, either with their time and energy or with their money, then maybe it’s not such a good story to believe in after all. Maybe you’d be better off ushering in a different type of future, one that’s better suited for you.

You shouldn’t need to fake too much

If there’s any surefire sign to go by, it’s that you’ll know when you’re faking it too hard. You won’t feel good about it, your confidence will diminish, and you’ll feel overwhelmed. That means you’re either telling too ambitious a story about the future even for your own brain to process, or you’re getting a little too creative in reframing the past.

This article originally appeared on Herbert Lui’s blog and is reprinted with permission.