On January 3, 2022, beleaguered Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of four fraud-related counts related to her controversial blood testing startup. See here for CNET.com article, “Elizabeth Holmes Found Guilty of Defrauding Theranos Investors.”
Wikipedia, in their dedicated page to Holmes, contains the following brief on the Theranos matter: Holmes was the founder and chief executive of Theranos, a now-defunct health technology company that soared in valuation after the company claimed to have revolutionized blood testing by developing methods that could use surprisingly small volumes of blood, such as from a finger prick. By 2015, Forbes had named Holmes the youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America on the basis of a $9-billion valuation of her company. When revelations of fraud were released the following year, Holmes’ net worth was revised by Forbes as $0.
Included in the headlines of many articles on the Holmes court case is the term “Fake it till you make it,” such as from The Guardian (“Holmes Verdict an Indictment of Silicon Valley’s ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ Ethos”), Inc.com (“Elizabeth Holmes and Your Confidence Game: A Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It Cautionary Tale for Every Entrepreneur”), and Achona Online (“The Elizabeth Holmes Trial: “Fake It Till You Make It” Culture”), among innumerable others.
But what is the meaning of “Fake it till you make it,” and why has the term been used so frequently in reference to the recent Holmes decision?
“Fake It Till You Make It” Culture
According to the American Sociological Association (ASA), "Fake it till you make it" (or "Fake it until you make it") is an English aphorism which suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life and achieve the results they seek. See here for a Wikipedia link on the ASA definition and further information about the aphorism.
Though the culture of “Fake it till you make it” is particularly prominent in Silicone Valley’s technology industry, and also the entertainment industry in general — both entities related to self-employment and the necessity to impress others to earn a living, as opposed to the oft-presumed stability of a full or part-time job — the mindset is actually quite common.
Opinions differ as to the value of “Fake it till you make it.” Psychology Today published an article on their website that found benefit in the outlook. See here for “How ’Fake It 'Till You Make It’ Really Is a Thing,” by Daniel Fryer, M.Sc., MBSCH. Fryer’s article focuses on an aspect of the philosophy of faking being happy when you are not. On the other hand, see here for Time’s “Why ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ Is Terrible Advice,” by Laura Huang, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
The aphorism has evolved to working philosophy. There have been no conclusive studies of the effects of “Fake it till you make it” pro or con; however, the consensus among psychology professionals is the words have become a lifestyle for many.
As earlier mentioned, the culture is particularly prevalent in the primary Silicone Valley and Hollywood industries. In both the tech and entertainment worlds, end results such as that of Holmes are common. Movie producers announce their efforts and hoped-for results regularly on social media, while so-called “tech heads” (see IGI Global definition here) frequently announce and hype their efforts on fundraising websites.
When one does not deliver, however, as seen in some of the above articles, that is frequently where the trouble begins. See here for Bronwyn Isaac’s attributed article: “20 People Who Tried and Failed to Fake It Until they Made It.“
As both lifestyle and philosophy, Fake it till you make it is a very real practice. As a former mental health professional, my own view is I cannot prevent anyone from engaging, or convincing anyone the practice is dangerous as there are so many opinions on the matter. My advice would be this, if asked by one who abides by the aphorism: If you must fake it till you make it, balance the practice with honesty.
Perhaps then we will avoid the issue of further Elizabeth Holmes-type controversies in the future.
Thank you for reading.