Sometimes I hear advice along the following lines: “If you want to be wealthy, you need to wear and drive the status symbols of wealth. That’s the only way anyone will take you seriously.” In other words, fake it till you make it. I can sort of understand where this advice comes from. It is hard to land an executive job if you’re wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It’s hard to get a bank manager to give you a loan for some real estate if you show up driving a Pinto and wearing overalls. You do stand a better chance of being taken seriously if you look more like the expected picture of an executive or real estate maven. But there is a very real danger in faking this level of success.
I know a woman who took this advice to heart. She had a dream of owning her own business so from the very beginning she bought a Mercedes, Prada shoes, Coach bag, and Chanel everything else. She bought all of this on credit while making an entry level salary as a marketing associate at a software firm. Her income wasn’t nearly high enough to cover these purchases, but she rationalized that she needed to look successful in order to be successful. Of course, her spending forced her to live in a tiny one bedroom apartment on the iffy side of town (great place to park the Mercedes, by the way). She said she didn’t mind because no one could see the apartment so it didn’t matter. What mattered was what people could see.
She was determined to fake it until she made it. Did she ever make it? Nope. And her failure wasn’t because of a lack of talent, either. She simply spent so much money on her outward appearance that she had no money left to spend on the business she wanted to start. She finally got a big contract for some work — the big break she’d been faking it for — but she couldn’t pull it off. She couldn’t buy supplies or hire employees. She couldn’t rent space and she couldn’t put together any marketing efforts. No bank would give her a loan because her credit was tapped out on all the trappings of success. She lost the contract and her reputation took a big hit, as well. Last I heard she was still working as a marketing associate and trying to figure out a way to pay down the massive debt she’d incurred. Barring a windfall, I doubt her business will ever get off the ground because she’ll simply never have the money to start it, which is a real shame because this woman was talented and could have made a real mark on the world.
Contrast that story with this one: I know another woman who wanted to start her own business. From the beginning she plowed all her extra money into that business rather than herself. She started small and worked at growing the business. When she had to call on clients or on a banker, she dressed professionally in clothes bought at outlet stores and on sale. They weren’t name brand clothes, but they were tasteful and classy. She drove a respectable but not luxurious Honda and she was well groomed. She might not have looked like she had a million dollars, but she did look professional, serious, and capable. She let her portfolio of work do her talking at a client site and she let her balance sheet and credit report do the talking in a banker’s office. She was well respected, even without flashy displays of success. She was taken very seriously and soon had more work than she could handle and financing to cover a huge expansion. By all measures she has now “made it” and has allowed herself a few luxuries like a BMW and a Prada bag.
The first woman tried to start a business after she was already so far behind financially that the business was simply unsupportable given her income and debt level. She tried to cultivate a look rather than a serious business. The second woman put the business first and herself second. She knew that she would need to look presentable, but she also knew that her work and credentials would speak far louder than any car or outfit ever could. Because she put her money into the business and the work instead of trying to fake it, she is now successful whereas the first woman is not.
This is the danger of trying to fake it till you make it. You may put so much effort and money into the faking it part that you are never able to get to the making it part. If you can’t afford the displays of success, you’re starting out behind. When all the money goes to the image and not to the substance of your success, you’re not going to have any money left over when it comes time to produce the work. You’ll end up in debt before you even get started and, even if you eventually become successful, you’ll still spend years paying off all those years you faked it. So don’t try to fake it. Try to look respectable and attractive on the budget you have and let your work and credit report do the talking for you. You’ll be much closer to making it that way.