Fake it till you make it

Yesterday I went to a workshop entitled “Finding Balance in the Everyday of Being a Graduate Student”. To the logical, rational, goal-oriented version of my self the workshop was less than stellar. There was little I learned that I didn’t already know and I didn’t walk away with an actionable, checklisted, 12-step plan for being more balanced and productive as a graduate student.

However two useful things did come out of it. First, I remembered the reason I had come to graduate school in the first place – because I want to learn and grow both as a researcher and as a person. Second, I think I realized what “fake it till you make it” means, at least for me personally.

Cornell has a student-run, peer counselling program called EARS – Empathy, Assistance & Referral Service. At the end of yesterday’s workshop, one of the instructors told me that I should consider joining it. It would be an interesting, enriching experience and a good way to meet and work with people from across Cornell. Normally I would have politely declined. I don’t see myself as much of a people person and I’ve never done anything of the sort. The closest I’ve come to something like that is being a Residence Advisor at Lafayette. Though that experience was interesting, it’s not something I care to repeat. I also can be very zealous when it comes to cutting “unnecessary” things out of my life (and keeping them out).

But at the same time, I have been wanting to get more involved in campus and social activities. I’ve been wanting to meet more people outside of computer science and engineering. I’ve been wanting to be part of a larger community. And this was the perfect opportunity. What I realized was that even though I didn’t consider myself to be a natural listener, a counselor or a people person, I didn’t have to be those things right away. Hypothetically, a future version of me is an EARS counselor, involved with the community and has a range of skills and interests outside of programming and computers. But I didn’t have to quietly sit around and wait for this person to magically emerge. I could just do the things that this imaginary version of myself would do. I could sign up for EARS and get more involved in campus and graduate school organizations. In other words I could fake it till I made it.

I could start saying things like “I should act like my highest self” but I think the point is simpler and doesn’t need to be dressed up. There is me. And there is the me I want to be. The best way to close the gap is to do the things that future me does. It’s throwing myself in at the deep end. Now of course, I can’t take this quite literally. Wanting to be a marathon runner doesn’t mean I should go run 26.2 miles tomorrow. But it does mean that I can start running regularly and start eating like a marathoner would.

If I want to be a more socially active and responsible person, then I should do more social activities and take on more responsibilities. Even though I’m no counselor, I think I will sign up for the EARS program next semester. I think this works for more academic matters too. I’m not an expert researcher, but I can start emulating one. I can dive deep into the literature, I can start making small experiments to try out new ideas, I can talk to experts to get a better idea of the open problems, I can take up their work ethic and research thinking.

As I write this, I realize there’s a thin line between pushing myself to improve quickly and overburdening myself and collapsing. I don’t know where that line lies for myself, but I think I’ll find out. I don’t think “fake it till you make it” is a good idea for all things in life and all professions. Taking it very literally is certainly a recipe for trouble. But there is something to be said for pushing yourself and taking the most direct route to the person you want to be. Is this the most direct route? I don’t know, but I’ll found out. Time to fake it till I make it.