Monday, December 12, 2011

"Fake it till you make it," and the Laws of Making

Paul Hawken, in his 1987 book Growing a Business, argued, contrary to common wisdom, that most businesses fail not because they had too little money but because they had too much. To be sure, running out of money was the final failure. Hawken, however, observed that many businesses wind up exhausting their cash because they spent too much energy on trying to look and feel like they were in business--by leasing high profile offices and filling them with business furnishings--instead of working out how their business was actually going to start making money (so they wouldn't run out).

One of the pieces of well-intentioned advice, particularly for creative people, is to, "fake it till you make it." As with other bits of common wisdom that have been reduced to sound-bites, this particular notion packs both promise and pitfalls.

A malady common among people who want to make is the tendency to prepare but never actually undertake and finish a project. It is a symptom of the fear that we're not good enough to do our vision justice. And so we practice, sure that once we master some elusive technique or fill all the gaps in our understanding we'll finally achieve mastery. Practice and preparation are necessary and good, but as with most other good things you can have too much. In this case you need to, "fake it till you make it," in the particular sense that you must set aside your fears and make it even though you feel like a fake. It's not much consolation when you're bogged down with self-doubt, but the fact of the matter is that many of the people who you would say have made it feel as much like fakes as you do.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the creative equivalent of Hawken's over-funded businesses: the person who's initial efforts, whether by accident or design, got enough attention that they think they've made it. They embrace the form of their success without actually understanding its substance. This mindset is particularly dangerous because it breeds a sense of entitlement.

Makers strive to understand things as they really are. One of the simplest but most telling signs of understanding is repeatability. With a lucky strike, you might produce a stunning sculpture. It's only when you know what you did that you can produce a second stunning sculpture. But repeatability means more than simply duplicating your work: true mastery means you can apply what you understand in different contexts with appropriate variations.

The fake-it-till-you-make-it that comes closest to true making is captured in the observation that the process of making is a series of progressively better approximations of the final product. Models, mock-ups, and prototypes are perhaps the most obvious examples of fakes that are an integral part of making.

While the integrity of the makers has no room for anything fake, there are important ways in which, "faking," is an important part of making. That said, a distinguishing characteristic of true makers is constant vigilance against self-delusion.

Image: Bill Longshaw / FreeDigitalPhotos.net