Why ‘Faking It Until You Make It’ Is a Dangerous and Harmful Myth in Student Affairs

The popular advice of “Faking it Until you make it” is often touted as a means of achieving success in the field of student affairs. However, this advice is not only ineffective, but it can also be dangerous and harmful to those who follow it, particularly people of color working in this field.

The problem with this phrase is that it may encourage individuals to step into roles for which they are not properly prepared for. This could lead to an experience that can derail one’s career and leave a lasting impact on one’s personal and professional brand. Furthermore, the higher one climbs on the organizational chart, the more narrow the margin of error becomes, making the risks of following this advice even greater.

But why is this advice so widely accepted and tolerated in the field of student affairs? I recognize there are some that would disagree (I respect that) but in my opinion it is that it is a self serving endeavor, focused on the singular individual rather than the collective. It is asking the receiver of the advice to pretend they have a deep competency in an area where they do not, which is not only dishonest but also damaging to the individuals around them who must carry the burden of supporting them.

The usage of this phrase is particularly damaging in the field of education (K-12 or higher education), where there are so many individuals claiming to be mentors, educators, and social justice advocates, but when the proverbial curtain is drawn back, we are disappointed to find that they lack the skills and depth to truly fulfill these important roles.

The field of education is built on trust and the idea that those in positions of leadership are qualified and capable of guiding and mentoring the next generation. When individuals in these roles have not properly acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill their duties, it not only undermines the trust of those they are supposed to be serving, but it also sets a dangerous precedent for the future. These individuals who have “faked it until they made it” into their positions, may not be able to provide the support, guidance, and mentorship that is needed for students, particularly those from marginalized communities, to succeed. It also perpetuates a culture where it is acceptable to lack the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill a role, instead of striving for excellence and continuous improvement. This ultimately harms not only the students and the institution, but also the individuals who have taken on roles they are not fully prepared for, as they will likely struggle to succeed and may even face career derailment.

But what is the alternative to “Faking it Until you make it”? The answer is authenticity or what I prefer is strategic authenticity [I’ll elaborate on this in a future blog post]. To live out authenticity is to own the lack of competency one may have and seek to deepen their craft in that area. This approach is not only more honest and ethical, but it also allows for growth and development in a way that “faking it” never could. I do realize authenticity requires vulnerability which requires trust and a nurturing environment – and sometimes it is necessary to be intentional about when, who and the degree to which we are vulnerable. I understand how these are all interconnected and it gets tricky. 

This aside, “Faking it Until you make it” is a recipe for disaster for underrepresented people, who often feel the pressure to know more and work harder to gain access to spaces. Instead of following this advice, it is important to be authentically vulnerable and seek out mentorship and support. I cannot help but to think how dangerous this advice can be in other career sectors such as medicine, law, law enforcement or errrrhmmm *cough *cough* politics. I digress.

The advice to “Fake it Until you make it” is not only ineffective, but it can also be dangerous and harmful to those who follow it, particularly people of color working in the field of student affairs. I encourage my colleagues to reflect on this popular piece of advice. Instead, we should strive for authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability in our professional and personal growth. Let’s reject this harmful advice and instead, seek out the support and mentorship we need to deepen our craft and truly excel in our roles.

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