You’ve probably heard the line “fake it ’til you make it” before. It can be used to describe a wide range of different scenarios—for instance, you might think of it in terms of buying the trappings of financial success before you can really afford them.
When I think about “faking it,” however, the first thing that comes to mind is less about specific markers of success and more about my intangible self-improvement goals. In this case, I’m using “fake it till you make it” to refer to a different kind of “making it”, one that’s much more personal. I’m talking about self-confidence— developing it, maintaining it, and how it appears in your interactions with others.
I’m not the most confident person on Earth, and chances are, you aren’t either. Pretty much everyone struggles with self-confidence in one way or another. (For instance, sometimes it takes effort for me to believe that I can give good advice to high school students!) However, it’s clear that being confident comes with benefits in terms of what you get out of life and how others perceive you.
Fortunately, I’ve found that it’s not always necessary to be confident. Frequently, acting as though you’re confident is enough to garner some of the same benefits. Here’s how to fake confidence before you really feel it, and how projecting a confident attitude can give you space and practice to develop a truer sense of confidence in yourself.
What does it mean to fake it ’til you make it?
When it comes to developing personal qualities like confidence, “faking it” doesn’t mean lying about who you are or what you’ve accomplished. It’s about what kind of attitude you strive to project. This kind of faking it means choosing to act like the best version of yourself, even if that version doesn’t feel quite natural in the moment.
Feigning a higher level of confidence than you actually feel isn’t about what you tell other people directly. You don’t have to start every conversation with a monologue about how confident you feel—in fact, this is generally not recommended. (I’ll talk more about the risk of appearing arrogant later in this post.)
“Faking it” in terms of confidence is much more about what you tell yourself, how you present yourself to others, and what actions you choose to take going forward. You don’t have to feel genuinely confident in some fundamental inner way in order to change your outward behavior, and you don’t have to wait until you’re perfectly at peace with yourself in order to project a confident attitude in your interactions with others.
Again, this kind of “faking it till you make it” isn’t about lying, either by commission or by omission. Obviously, you shouldn’t take credit for accomplishments you didn’t actually accomplish, deny responsibility for things that were actually your fault, or otherwise misrepresent the facts.
However, the reality is that everyone utilizes some degree of artifice in presenting ourselves to others. Whether you’re carefully choosing what to wear to a job interview or carefully curating your Instagram to conform with your chosen aesthetic, you’re making conscious choices to frame yourself in a certain way.
Particularly when you’re dealing with the stresses of the college application process and the transition to college life, you might as well work to appear as a confident person, even if it doesn’t come naturally. The social, academic, career, and other benefits of confidence are great enough that even if that confidence isn’t quite entirely real, it will still benefit you to present yourself that way.
A guide to faking it: tools and strategies
Seeming confident is, of course, easier said than done—particularly if, on the inside, you’re the absolute opposite of confident. However, there are things you can do to help yourself. Here are a few concrete strategies I’ve found useful in appearing more confident outwardly while I work on building my internal confidence.
Put on your Confident Hat.
Whether it’s about wearing the outfit that makes you feel particularly competent, bringing that notebook that reminds you of something a real scholar would carry, or adjusting your body language to appear more in control of the situation, sometimes it really can help to consciously play the role of a confident person.
Yes, this may involve costumes of a sort. There are certain garments I wear or items I bring with me when going into stressful situations in which I’d like to appear more confident. As strange as it may sound, I’ve found that it can help. (Though you probably shouldn’t dress up as your favorite superhero for a job interview.)
Whether you’re choosing an outfit that you know is particularly flattering, or carrying an accessory that has an association with professionalism or other good qualities, it’s never a bad idea to present yourself in the way that helps you feel like you’re at your best. Looking the part (in whichever way you prefer) can help you feel—and be perceived—as more confident.
Ask yourself what a confident person would do; then, do it.
While you’re waiting for your internal confidence level to catch up to the confident image you’re trying to portray, it can feel like you’re attempting to become a different person entirely. You might as well harness that feeling and put it to work.
If you’re trying to change something about yourself, but you’re not quite there yet, it can be hard to know how to make important decisions. Sometimes the easiest way to figure out what to do is to imagine someone else making the choice. In this case, you can imagine how a more confident person would react in your situation.
As with your clothing and presentation, you can think of this as acting out the role of a confident person. When I started at my first “real” job, I often felt like a child playing dress-up. A running narration in the back of my mind said, look at me, I’m putting on my work clothes to look like a real employee! I’m sitting in my cubicle and making business phone calls, just like an actual person with a job!
The thing was, regardless of whether I felt like a real adult person or a kid just pretending, no one else could tell the difference. As long as I got my work done effectively, it wasn’t so important that I didn’t yet feel like I could genuinely and confidently inhabit that role. Choosing to do what a confident person would do was good enough to get me through until my mind caught up with my external reality.
Practice your spiel in advance.
You’ve probably heard that you should practice your “elevator pitch” to use in networking situations, but this advice applies more generally as well. Whether it’s a formal speech, a “casual” (but still high-stakes) conversation with a potential mentor or resource, or a stress-inducing social situation, practice really does pay off.
It’s all too easy to get into a stressful situation, find an opening to speak, and suddenly go blank on everything you meant to say, everything you’ve ever learned or done, and possibly your own name. That’s how stress works for me, and I know that’s true of a lot of others as well.
I also find that it helps to specifically and actively remind myself of my own accomplishments and strong points in advance. In that moment of stress and self-doubt, sometimes I don’t remember what I have going for me, and I don’t present myself as well as I could have done.
Obviously, you don’t want to sound like a robot reciting pre-recorded lines, so memorization isn’t the best idea in situations outside of a formal speech. Also, you never know what your conversational partner will say, so it’s important that you be able to react on the fly instead of sticking to a script. Still, preparation does help in getting you to remember what you need to get across.
Get cozy with your own faults.
If you’re not confident in a particular situation, chances are it’s because you’re painfully aware of your own faults and failings. When those negative aspects of your identity are front and center in your mind, it can be extra difficult to hear critical comments from others, and getting negative feedback can really do a number on your confidence.
Accepting criticism gracefully is hard. Reacting cordially in that situation isn’t easy, and usually involves faking a far more measured response than you’d like to exhibit. However, it’s a necessary skill to develop, and the first step is taking a realistic view of your own weaknesses.
Get to know yourself, warts and all. Don’t be harder on yourself than you deserve, but by the same token, don’t let yourself off the hook entirely. If you know what you need to work on, at least your critics won’t surprise you, and it may be easier to shrug off criticism that’s clearly unwarranted. You might feel better about critical comments if you can remind yourself of the ways in which you’re already working on your weak points.
Advice about confidence often focuses on building up your knowledge of your own strengths, but it’s equally important to be honest and thoughtful with yourself about the ways in which you need to improve. Ignoring those realities in your life won’t help anything.
Recognize that people are complex and no one is perfectly confident all the time.
While you’re considering your own faults, remember that everyone else has faults too, including self-doubt. Everyone has insecurities of one kind or another. Even those who seem the most self-possessed aren’t always and forever one hundred percent confident. In that sense, we’re all faking it at some times and in some places.
Nobody’s perfect, including the people who seem to have gotten everything right. However, you don’t have to be perfect to be confident. If you’re trying to project a confident attitude, it can help to remember that you don’t have to get it right all the time. No one will think less of you if you slip up—your imperfections will just remind people that you’re real and relatable.
In fact, it’s better all around if your confidence is tempered by a certain degree of realism and humility. You’ll be healthier—and people will respect you more—if your confidence includes the ability to react with good humor and bounce back in the inevitable event that you get something wrong. Seriously—no one expects you to be flawless.
Avoiding arrogance: how not to overcompensate
One pitfall that’s inherent in acting more confident than you are is the possibility that you’ll overcompensate. If you overshoot and act too confident, you could end up coming off as arrogant, and that’s not a good look for anyone.
If you appear arrogant—especially in a way that your performance doesn’t remotely warrant— that won’t help you gain the respect or trust of others. In fact, it’ll make it more difficult for others to think well of you. Frankly, they’re likely to think you’re a jerk.
Keeping a realistic perspective about your own strengths and weakness, as I’ve discussed above, helps a lot. Your achievements have all happened within a larger context. There will always be people who do better than you at a skill or task and people who do worse, and there’s no shame in admitting that you’re not the best at everything all the time. In fact, acknowledging that fact is a healthy and necessary thing to do.
For me, it’s also been really important to consciously avoid adopting a black-and-white mindset about my own successes and failures. It can be very easy to focus on the extremes and slip into a way of thinking where I’m either the best thing since sliced bread or a totally worthless failure, with no middle ground. In reality, like pretty much everyone, I’m hanging out somewhere in that gray area that you might call “being human.”
Finally, a key to not appearing arrogant is to not take yourself too seriously. Learn to laugh at yourself, to move on from your mistakes, and to work toward self-improvement without beating yourself up too much about past actions that can’t be changed. You’re still quite young, and many things that seem incredibly important in the moment will appear insignificant or even funny years from now—that’s just how growing up works.
Again, no one is perfect. If your goal is to seem and eventually become truly confident, you’ll need to realize that confidence isn’t about always being right. Ultimately, real confidence is about knowing that even though you’re a human being who messes up sometimes, in the end, you have the ability to keep going and make the best of whatever happens.
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