Fake it, make it

The transition into the real world can be difficult. Writer Acton Clarkin found six ways to succeed in a rapidly changing workforce.

Most people have heard the phrase “fake it ’til you make it.” As in, if you project false confidence, know-how and have an optimistic mindset, it can help get you through a challenge – even if you secretly feel unprepared.

But can grinning and bearing it really help you when you dive head first into new opportunities and learn on the fly? According to experts and standouts in their respective careers, the answer is a resounding yes.

As a student applies and prepares to enter the workforce, feelings of nervousness and unpreparedness can creep in. It’s easy to arrive on the first day at a workplace and feel like a small fish drowning in a big pond. While these feelings are normal, check out these strategies to help cope.

  1. Be a sponge

Quickly breaking through the mental barriers of learning new skills quickly and building self-confidence can be helped through something called cognitive behavioural therapy: a cycle where your thoughts influence your feelings, your feelings influence your behaviour and your behaviour influences your thoughts. But this doesn’t mean that simply thinking hard enough that you’re an expert at something will make you one.

Veteran CBC News anchor, Suhana Meharchand (full disclosure – she is my mother) has a unique job. As a journalist, she interviews experts and presents news and information to people every day in a knowledgeable, confident manner. This requires her to be informed about, but not an expert in, a wide array of topics. For Meharchand, when she has to interview someone in an unfamiliar industry, the most important thing for her is listening.

“I listen, listen, listen and be a sponge,” she says. “My strategy whenever I’m doing an interview, for example, with some scientific-wiz person, I try to understand what they’re saying in a very down to earth way. Because if I don’t get it, I can’t ask follow-up questions by any means that relate to the topic in an intelligent way. If you take information in, digest it and use what is valid for you, then you will be better at your job.”

Meharchand says that listening demonstrates your ability and willingness to learn and understand new information, which ultimately allows you to care more about your work. Caring about her interview guests builds her empathy towards them and knowledge of their area of expertise. She says the more she cares, the more she’s able to learn.

  1. Without a goal, you can’t score

In any job, there will be aspects of it you will be forced to learn on the fly. It’s important to ensure you’re learning about the right things and being smart with your goals. Riaz Sidi knows this first hand.

Sidi is a marketing consultant and founder of Riaz Sidi Performance Marketing. Since graduating from Algonquin College and Carleton University, he has worked as one of the youngest senior managers at one of Canada’s largest media companies and has now launched his own business. He’s experienced what it’s like to be a young, rising star in the corporate world and has dealt with the ups and downs of being a full-time entrepreneur.

Sidi’s experiences have taught him to avoid situations where there’s no way you would ever be able to fulfill unrealistic expectations. “Say I need to produce something in Photoshop where my skills are an eight out of 10, and what’s required of me is a 10 out of 10,” he explains. “Well then I can probably take myself from an eight to a 10.”

That’s a realistic goal. Your skills will be better suited to some projects than others. In contrast to his Photoshop example, Sidi says that if he tried to take on a project that requires him to be a professional body-builder, for instance, he’s already set himself up for failure. There’s a much better chance he will succeed in the projects where he already has a strong base of underlying knowledge, skill and experience.

“Everyone has different skills and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. There’s value that you can provide for one thing that someone else may not be able to.”

  1. Be open and honest

It’s important to note that expressing self-confidence in your existing skills and willingness to learn new ones doesn’t mean you should inflate your abilities or pretend to be something that you’re not. Meharchand believes that showing vulnerability and gaps in your skills can even be a plus.

“Feigning knowing it all never gets anybody anywhere,” she says. “When you say I don’t know the answer to that, but I will get back to you with the answer quickly and clearly, that’s something that people respect. I try to make them feel comfortable with my lack of knowledge and allow them to teach me.”

“It’s not being ignorant, it’s just showing that you’re willing to find out and willing to learn. That’s the key. And really, I think that’s what employers are looking for.”

  1. You’re your worst critic

Another thing to avoid in a new job is being too hard on yourself. New graduates and students aren’t being hired for their wealth of experience. There will be bumps and growing pains along the way. Sidi says he has had lingering feelings of doubt, nervousness and anxiety multiple times in his career and that ultimately we notice our own faults way more than others do. His advice? Don’t worry about being judged.

We just need to remind ourselves that no one is perfect. No one says the right thing all of the time. Telling ourselves that “everyone gets nervous,” he says, is a great way to make a situation feel more normal.

  1. Expectations management

David Hall manager of co-op at Algonquin College, talks with students about workplaces daily. He stresses that people often overthink their expectations of their role.

“Often we feel when we leave school that we don’t know the entire company or the role of the job right off the bat, and that’s okay,” he says. “The organization doesn’t expect you to. You don’t need to be an expert day one. That’s not the expectation.”

So how can you perform well during the first few days and weeks on the job? “The things employers want most are good communication skills, being a good team player and a willingness to learn,” Hall explains. “Your employers are expecting to teach you.”

To really stand out, Hall says it goes beyond the hard skills that separate top performers from the pack. “Students and new employees should be listening to and asking questions to their boss and colleagues, but the best are the ones who bring new ideas,” he says. “Everyone can have good hard skills, but [the soft skills], that’s what’s going to put you above the rest.”

  1. Shape your personal brand to stand out

If you don’t have wealth of experience in a field, it’s an opportunity to build up your own personal brand from scratch. The best part? You can tailor it on your terms.

Second-year advertising and marketing communications student Mackenzie Swanson says her faculty at Algonquin encourages students to craft unique online personal brands to help them stand out to employers.

Swanson says her professors stress the importance of actively managing your social media profiles, especially LinkedIn. “Employers all search for you before you meet,” she says. “On LinkedIn, even things like sharing articles, commenting and posting your own opinions can help you. Brand yourself as what you want potential clients or companies to see you as.”

Beyond LinkedIn, one of Swanson’s professors shared a tip: “Google yourself and see what comes up. Now think, what is an employer going to think of you? Knowing what’s already out there gives you the opportunity to start to brand yourself or even re-brand yourself.”