Sometimes, you really are just a fraud.
You go through the motions. You do your work, say all the right things, and keep up your end of the bargain. But you’re still unhappy.
This is different from imposter syndrome. You still have a hard time accepting where you are in life, but it’s not because you feel undeserving. It’s different because you feel unfulfilled. Because you’re not using your true talents. Because your dreams and values don’t align with the work you’re doing.
But instead of doing something about it, you fake it.
Or maybe that was just me.
A moment of clarity
I remember the exact moment I realized I was faking it. At a corporate training retreat, we had to tell the entire group what we loved about our job and the construction industry. What motivated us? What excited us?
I had a few thoughts:
Great. As if speaking in front of large groups isn’t scary enough, now I have to make up an answer to this question. And I have to sound confident and believable!
I didn’t have an answer. Luckily, there were 15 very inspired people ahead of me. (This is why you don’t sit in the front row.) I took a word or two from each of them and rearranged them into something resembling an answer.
I love solving complex problems and seeing the tangible results of our teams’ work every single day. I love building unique places for people to live and work.
I don’t actually remember what I said. I’m sure it was something like that.
What I said wasn’t really a lie. I do love solving problems, and I love building things that benefit people. But it wasn’t the whole truth. I wasn’t excited about my work. My head was somewhere else.
I knew I had to get out.
The good and bad of faking it
“Fake it ’til you make it,” said someone. I don’t know who it was. I’m sure their intentions were good.
This works sometimes. Dressing for the job we want seems reasonable—it definitely doesn’t hurt. And pretending to be confident—even when we have no idea what we’re talking about—can get us pretty far. (Just ask my wife. She’s onto me now.)
I’ve been faking it as a parent since day one. I had no idea what I was doing when a living, breathing human was handed to me. And most days, I still don’t know what I’m doing. But almost two years later, he’s still alive and going strong (and kicking and screaming).
I fake it as a writer, too. I have no idea what I’m doing. But I love doing it, and I love that every once in a while someone tells me I inspired them. So I keep going through the motions, hoping one day I figure it out.
Faking it works for the things we want. But when what we want is different from what we’re doing—when our actions don’t reflect our dreams and words—then we’re faking our way to unhappiness.
How to know when you’re a fake
I should have seen the warning signs long before that uncomfortable corporate retreat. This is what I learned from a sample size of one:
- You eat alone. Your coworkers just want to talk about work, so you bring your lunch and eat at your desk. Maybe you sit in your car and read for an hour. You definitely don’t answer phone calls during your lunch break.
- You avoid your boss. If you have to go to the office, you try to slip in and out through the side door undetected.
- You don’t grow or improve in your field. You avoid conferences, seminars, and networking events.
- Your boss calls you out. In your annual review, he/she asks you to bring more enthusiasm and energy to your job. After all, this is your project. Own it.
- You don’t like telling people what you do. Because then they ask more questions and want to know more about it. So you try to change the subject after you give a two-word answer.
- You wake up every day with one question: “So I have to do this for another 35-40 years? Shoot me. Now.”
- You try to figure out a way to get fired and collect a severance—hopefully large enough to try and forge a new path for a few months.
I don’t know if those are actual signs that you’re faking it. I just know that I did every single one of those things.
However it plays out, though, faking our way through our work hurts more than just ourselves. We hurt our company, because at some point, we stop giving our best effort. We hurt our families, because we bring home baggage full of unfulfilled dreams.
Both at work and at home, our heads aren’t in it.
The Great Awakening
When I first quit my job, I thought I was just having a midlife crisis. Which made it worse, because if my “midlife” was 37, then I was going bring the life expectancy average way down.
There comes a point in most of our lives when we question what we’re doing. For some lucky people, this happens before they get to college and are forced to make hard choices they aren’t ready for. But most of us aren’t so lucky.
For many of us, it happens when we settle down and start building families. There’s something about having kids that makes us question everything. Our priorities shift from sixty-hour workweeks to how can I spend as much time as possible with these little creatures that can’t fend for themselves?
And for many others, the “crisis” occurs when we forget why we’re doing what we’re doing. Is it for the money or power? And if so, why do we feel empty? We wonder if it’s because we’re wasting our time on something that isn’t fulfilling.
The description is wrong. It’s not a midlife “crisis,” it’s an awakening. Professor and author Brené Brown has a more colorful description. She says midlife is the time “…when the Universe grabs your shoulders and tells you ‘I’m not f—ing around, use the gifts you were given.’”
Okay! Calm down, Universe.
Finding a cure
I can’t tell you how to stop faking it. Everyone is different, and every situation is different. But I can give you a few places to look:
- Do coworkers, bosses, friends, or family compliment you on anything? If so, it’s probably because you’re good at it. When you’re good at something, it’s usually because you enjoy doing it. For me, coworkers would sometimes say, “Great email.” Big deal. My job was to manage construction projects, not write emails. It took me years to realize the only part of my job I was good at involved writing.
- What do you do outside of work? And not just “in your spare time.” What do you go out of your way to do? What do you create time in your schedule for? Those things are probably important to you.
- What did you love doing as a kid? Do you miss it and wonder why you stopped doing it? Playing in the dirt doesn’t pay well—at least not that I’m aware of. But maybe you loved working on your car. Maybe you loved playing piano.
- What do you dream about? What do you wish you could do? Run a surf shop on a small beach in South America? Move to Europe and lead bicycle tours? Design clever Hallmark cards?
- And if all else fails, just try something new—something different. You don’t even have to quit your day job. Just learn new skills and try new things on your own time until you find something that interests you.
Don’t laugh. Someone has to do those things. Why not you?
Just give it a shot
Maybe you still have no idea what you want to do or where to start. You just know it’s something different from what you’re doing now. That’s how I felt for years—and how I still feel much of the time. The best way to discover something new is to try it.
The only thing that prevents us from trying something new is fear. Fear of taking a pay cut to start over in a new industry. Fear of trying something new and hating it. Fear of failure. Just fear.
But so what? Just try it. We can always start again and try something new. Again and again and again.
I think the only real fear we should have is laying on our deathbeds regretting that we didn’t give our dreams a shot.