I recently watched Amy Cuddy’s Ted talk on body language. I thought it was very interesting. Interesting in the topic, which as an artist is very familiar to me, and interested in what I thought were some real problems. I specifically considered the idea of “fake it till you make it” and how that is a terrible idea. Amy Cuddy is not alone in mentioning this rhyme, and it has other variants. One that comes to mind is the Richard Branson quote: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
I can’t stress how much I hate this set of ideas. And I mean hate. Let me explain why. I tend to have problems with things that are corrosive, destructive and that do violence to reason. If we rephrase “fake it till you make it” as “deceive till you achieve”, I think we have a bit more, but less savory, clarity. You can’t fake a thing until it is made. Faking, by definition, does not produce the results of authenticity. You can’t fake baking a cake and from this fakery produce a cake. That is called magic. Fakery involves some strategies and tactics, it is not without effort, but those efforts are devoted to deception, either of oneself or others. I am a bit suspicious about self-deception, if not confabulation, but that is another story.
In whatever situation one would like to examine faking is unproductive and escalates into destruction. I have frequently seen this in business and with “amazing opportunities”. It doesn’t turn out well.
Faking involves evaluation. There is a wanted thing, and someone providing that thing needs to be tricked into giving it over with the least stress, effort and resistance. Flattery, ingratiation and up beat charm tend to be effective tools to this end, as does an overt, patient, subservience. As with “the customer is always right”, this appeasement has terrible consequences. Both parties are diminished in the exchange. Let’s take business fakery with employment. It is not uncommon for charming fakers to be hired into jobs far beyond their skills and ability. The consequences are easy to recognize. Aside from the added labors and complications as other employees compensate for the incompetence of the faker, an escalation in fakery on the part of the faker has to occur in order to maintain the farce. Managers and leaders, charmed by and ensnared in the fakery, social or professional, are increasingly obliged to protect their own reputations and credibility, and safe guard what has come to be a parasite. Ill will due to increased work in the form of clean up, and repair due to inexpert damage, creates real hostilities, real pressures on all parties. Politics, delusion, paranoia, deception, and debilitating distraction blossom. Eventually, the pressures rise until….the faker is promoted to a higher position. This isn’t the Peter Principle, by the way. Just to be clear the Peter Principle has to do with aptitude eventually failing at a certain level of promotion. The faking scenario is something else. It is more like hiding disgraces by promoting and paying out of harm’s way, or visibility.
Now this may sound kind of awesome to the opportunist, but it is costly all the way around. There are businesses and industries with a majority of fakery. They produce fakery and superstition as their main product. Standards fail and effigies are propped in their place. Value drops, knowledge is lost and sharing of information decreases.
Fake it vs Practice
I don’t want it to seem like I am dismissing or tearing down Amy Cuddy’s Ted talk. It was interesting and enjoyable in many ways, though there are many problems with it, in my opinion. I also don’t think she was thinking of “fake it till you make it” in the nefarious terms I am. There was one portion of her talk (I’ll link below) that seemed much more like encouraging a student with low self-esteem. She told this student to fake bravery (I’m paraphrasing) and succeed. “Fake it till you become it”. This seems like the fake it theme got carried away. “Be brave” is the simple idea. Minus the theme, that is fine advice. But the bravery was not to cover a scam. The student had practiced and studied, but was lacking confidence. She wasn’t faking anything, she was adjusting her demeanor to be appropriate to the situation. This is a real thing. People often surprise themselves with their capabilities even when those capabilities are long studied, and honed. This is different than awareness you have to use trickery to deceive others into thinking something untrue about your capabilities. You can’t fix it and learn after the fact. That is a favorite movie theme, the magical, undeveloped capabilities appear like a super power to the chosen one and they had to expend no efforts to achieve it. Doesn’t work as well in real life (fortunately because that theme is stupid).
The other term that “fake it” seems to have replaced in popularity, and along the same subject is “Practice makes perfect.” What happened? Let’s look at the opposing directions these ideas address.
Fake it involves tricking away the energies, goods or attentions of others. It is camouflage and has both parasitic and predatory aspects. But these aspects are dependent on the prey, or host. It needs a gullible audience. Faking derives from the situation and is a false front. It is directed at a preset, established, set of standards and opportunities, and works to leech away this established limit. Fakery promotes contamination and contagion. You may be familiar with the phrase “You are making everybody else look bad.” This is fakery made common agreement.
Practice makes perfect involves establishing and construction of both mental and physical mechanisms to achieve an end. Practice involves honing, ordering, shaping, effective decision making, muscle building, efficient energy use, expertise, precise pattern recognition etc. In other words, it does not appeal to a predatory or parasitic set of constraints, but instead aims at criteria and observable effects to high achievement. That is, it actually produces demonstrable results, with high standards.
So why has “practice makes perfect” been displaced by “fake it till you make it?” Smiles. Positivity. These are a problem. What? Did I write that? Yes I did. A positive person makes you feel better! Putting a smile on can change your mood! Well, that has some real boundaries. First, what are we considering? Positivity has become a cult, even a gang. Positively faking someone into a bad situation may make them feel better about the whole thing but the same bad outcomes are imminent. Feeling and outcomes, should be disentangled. An annoyed, angry, person can be highly effective and good at what they do. They may be hard to work around. A positive person may be great fun, and terrible at their jobs. Of the two the positive person with terrible outcomes is preferred. The proposed business endeavor is not the goal. Fakery becomes systemic. There was a social media meme going around about this involving difficult, high performing, geniuses ruining business cultures. This supposes a majority of jolly happy less competent workers are better than surly high performers. What it actually indicates is a reversal of the Peter Principle. A business has become incompetent as some workers excel. It wouldn’t be surprising if those workers became surly. A low standard majority bias is preferred, even if the majority is fatal to the business. They are more positive working together, though.
A focus on positivity (even if masking passive aggressiveness, bigotry, or highly destructive actions) has become a point of peer pressure. It is very popular, and becomes increasingly magical and superstitious. The drive to magically induce a “better self” free of “negative emotions”, or making others feel bad, or evade offering offence at all costs, has led to a great deal of emotional and intellectual maiming. The idea a smile or a postural change can alter your world is highly superstitious. It applies to very specific communities with shared methods of communication and cultural fictions. It is not universal. The tactic of faking has greater and less success depending on audience, their receptivity to deceptive postures and how aggressive the next faker may be. Let’s not forget fakery has competition too. In fact, it is rife.
We have a suite of emotions and interactions that do not deserve to atrophy or suffer neglect as they are deemed negative. This includes failure, vulnerability, sadness and anger. They are not less important than feeling good. In the same sense I think over inflation and exaggeration of emotions (happiness included) shouldn’t be a goal. The encouragement to become Stepford like is damaging and a disguise for some unpleasant vices.
Let’s consider smiles as a mode of changing your body language or mood and how far it allows fakery. A smile is not an endless flow of goodness and graciousness. There are good and bad smiles. Smiles involved with wickedness and smiles with victimization.
So let’s be specific: activity of the pars lateralis portion of the orbicularis oculi in conjunction with the “mouth smile” is the enjoyment smile (the Duchenne marker). The other smiles, well, all kinds of things are going on, good and ill. Does your Duchenne marker smile, or even a super fakey smile, reduce stress and make you feel better? Maybe. Is that the question? Can faking an emotion (triggering your body to simulate other component parts of the disguise) make you feel that emotion? Some research suggests so. But what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? You feeling good is not the same subject as whether or not you are being effective, knowledgeable and honest. Much of learning, practice, and accomplishment does not feel good. Failures, in fact, hurt. Stresses are uncomfortable. I hear heroine feels good, though. Stresses prompt action, change, and survival. You might not want to suppress these but instead pay close attention.
Faking emotional output (smiles are not for you remember but for the reading of those looking at you) and receiving interactive replies says nothing about the good or bad outcomes of a situation. It isn’t saying your situation has improved. It says you have found a clever way of dosing yourself, and like many drugs, have addled your decision making. It also says you don’t mind dosing others.
Let’s look at another aspect of the “faking until things are made” gambit: everybody knows. It is a saying, meaning the fakery has become or always was pretty popular. Everyone is doing it. As tactics to enhance laziness, entitlement, evasion and trickery have been around for a long time, it can be guessed that there are already many practitioners of faking until destruction. Faking needs rubes. If you are faking it til making who are your rubes? Your victims? Would it seem unlikely that others are also faking toward you, with smiles, gestures and postures? So if everybody is faking it, and everybody is rubes where are the sincere, honest, and knowledgeable people? They are out there-frustrated with incredible endurance and compensating for the corrosion brought by inauthenticity.
Even when the faking is framed with a heavy emotional plea (blackmail) it does not look to be a very good thing. It attempts a costly short cut at the deliberate expense of others. Notice the saying isn’t “Be sincere, earnest, diligent, smart, honest, and imaginative, until you make it.” I think that may point out the virtues lacking in the faking idea.
Back to Amy Cuddy’s talk. Changing our body chemistry as connected to our bodily position, postures and expressions are not as impressive or magic as it sounds. And it won’t bring success. Our body chemistry changes under all kinds of pressures. We can’t all win, we can’t all succeed, and these faking, posture battles happen all the time. I’ve read accounts of these success driven gestures and expressions as they were enacted on pirate ships. People have been posturing, bullying and bluffing each other forever. We aren’t the only species that does this. It is really common.
There are more things going on than how we experience our feelings. People are far more complex and varied under any given condition than a magical smiling, arm raising gesture, can cure. Especially as no cure is needed. Uniformity of expressions and gestures of faked success is not a boon. The drive to succeed for an audience, to be the best by false means, is childish and attention seeking. It might be good to consider what the best idea for a given circumstance is, or what might make one’s life as reasonably enjoyable as possible. Winning all the time is not anything at all as the contest being won is largely imaginary. Competition and wrangling for success are not eternal states. There are other things going on as well, like philanthropy, and teaching. There are times to step aside, collaborate, encourage others, defer, and admit being over matched, none of which are shameful or lesser.
Don’t fake it til you make it, please. Practice until you are perfect, be honest, sincere and reliable, and for my part, I’ll do the same and help you in these endeavors as I can.