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The Real Reason the 'Fake it 'til you Make it' approach works

Coach Pete Halewood by Pete Halewood

"Regardless of age, the core strategy for self-control is to cool the 'now' and heat the 'later' - push the temptation in front of you far away in space and time, and bring the distant consequences closer in your mind"

The Marshmallow Test - Walter Mischel

Sometimes common lessons can take years to understand. I can't even begin to remember the first time I heard the words 'fake it until you make it' linked with success. But I never liked hearing the concept. It seems to go against the grain of being who you are, and being true to yourself. How can I pretend to be someone I'm not? Surely, I need to be honest about where I am, and then I can move on from there? And who likes anyone being fake anyway? You hear it all the time - "she's so fake, it drives me mad". No, there did not seem to be anything positive with the 'fake it 'til you make it' approach to life.

Then last year I read a book, and I finally got it. A specific book of course, and in this case it was called 'The Marshmallow Test' by Walter Mischel. It was the book's tagline that me drew me to it - 'Understanding self-control and how to master it'. I mean, who doesn't struggle with self-control? If we could all be superbly disciplined and master self-control, what could we not achieve? So the hook was there and I happily went for it.

Kids saying no to sweets

You may have heard of Walter Mischel and the marshmallow test before. It has become the given name for a series of experiments led by Mischel that began in the 1960's to test the effects of delayed gratification in children. The tests were varied and set up in many different scenarios, but the essence of the experiment was to offer a child a marshmallow (or biscuit, chocolate bar etc.) that was placed in front of them, which they could eat at any time, or to wait a certain period of time, 20 minutes for example, where if they held out from eating the marshmallow in front of them, they would receive another one. Thereby having a larger reward at the end of the time period, if they could control and discipline themselves not to eat the immediate reward in front of them. The results were interesting and varied (and far too diverse to cover in this blog post), but after years of study, the conclusion was clear - delaying gratification is key to a successful and fulfilling life. The children who were able to resist the immediate rewards placed in front of them, scored higher marks in tests, earned higher salaries, and had a greater sense of self-worth in life.


A big part of understanding how we can employ self-control, is learning what a hot and cool temptation is. A hot temptation is something that is almost impossible to resist. A smoker needing another cigarette. A free ice cream from the ice cream truck. And so on. Even the most disciplined children in Mischel's tests were given certain factors that made it inevitable they would eat the sweet in front of them. A cool temptation is of course the exact opposite. It's there, but can be resisted. It's tempting to eat a much healthier diet to improve your health in later years, but without being able to see those years right in front of us, the temptation to eat better can be resisted. And that is why self-discipline is difficult; it's very hard to say no to the hot temptations right in front of us, and harder to say yes to the alternatives that won't pay off until much later on, even if we are sure they will. For a child taking part in Mischel's experiments, to resist the marshmallow and gain a further marshmallow, would mean 'cooling' the temptation placed in front of them and 'heating up' the temptation (reward) in the distance.

Faking it

Your mind finds it incredibly difficult not to act on the hot temptation. Therefore, the key is to control what you class as the hot temptation. And here is how the 'fake it 'til you make it' approach fits in. If you act like the success you want to be, you will find it very difficult not to become that. Your brain is wired to act on the hot temptation. If you act like the hottest Saxophone player in town, you will create the necessary conditions to become that. If you behave like the greatest salesperson the company has, the reality will soon catch up. This isn't delusion, this is visualisation. Becoming that that you envision. This is the winner's approach.

So it doesn't have to sound like you're conning yourself - 'Fake it 'til you make it'. A more sensible way of putting would be 'Act now what you aspire to be', but then that doesn't have the catchy rhyme. I now know why it works though. Become the vision or dream you have, and the mind will play it's part to make sure it happens. A golden future hey, how could you resist that?

Recommended reading list:

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel

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