How Volunteering Taught Me to Be Fake—And Why That’s a Good Thing


Want to know what I learned by volunteering?

How to be fake.

Now, before you jump in and start lecturing me about the importance of being yourself and how fake people, for lack of a better word, “suck,” let me explain.

It was Thursday, October 2, and I stood at my desk knowing the day had come.

After work, Melissa Suzuno (the Content Marketing Manager here at AfterCollege) and I would be catching BART to the Mission district of the city to volunteer at a non-profit that helps high school kids with their college applications.

That morning, I had made a conscious effort to dress like a young professional—navy blue blazer over a clean white blouse with black slacks paired with olive boots. I even brushed my hair.

This was a huge change for me. AfterCollege may be 14 years old, but we still definitely have that “start-up” vibe. That means I’m usually heading to the office in a T-shirt, pair of Levi’s, and sneakers. Not exactly what you would call “professional” attire.

So, why did I feel the need to change up my look before volunteering?

Well, if you have ever met me (or seen a picture of me), you know that I do not look much older than a high schooler myself. I mean, one time I was asked if I should be driving my car because the woman thought I was 14 years old. I was 20 at the time…

So, I was incredibly nervous about coming across as a trustworthy figure. If I didn’t look old enough to have gone to and graduated from college, why would any of the kids want to take my advice?

That was why I decided to dress up a little and try to look as professional as possible.

Unfortunately, the outfit wasn’t helping. As we made our way out of the BART station and toward Valencia, I could feel the nerves piling up. I felt totally unqualified to be giving any sort of advice to anyone. Even though I had gone to the training session ahead of time and I, myself, had once filled out college applications, both seemed like such a long time ago. Could I really do this?

I was also having a panic attack about being able to speak with these high school kids in general. I’m not good at meeting new people and I am really not good at being the one to start a conversation. What would happen if we had nothing to talk about?

I could feel myself totally losing it! But, unlike most situations that I feel uncomfortable in, I couldn’t get out of this one. I had made a commitment and Melissa was there to hold me accountable. No ditching.

So I decided to figure out a way to control my fears.

I decided to make a deal with myself.

I could fret all I wanted until I reached the office we were volunteering at. Then, once I got there and crossed that threshold, I had to stop. No ifs, ands, or buts. Even if I didn’t feel confident, I had to pretend that I did.

It was my responsibility to be the mentor. These kids were coming in for help with something that they’d never dealt with before and that was probably pretty scary for them. I had to be the brave one.

I approached it like I was an actress. This wasn’t something I was doing. I was just playing the role of “mentor,” a confident and self-assured person.

To do this, I had to change not only my mindset but my physical stature—the way I was holding myself. I stood tall, shoulders back, and made sure to greet the student I would be helping with a big smile and enthusiasm.

When she and I got stuck filling out one of the applications (something that I’d been terrified would happen) I made sure to smile again instead of letting her see that I was nervous. I told her (and myself) that it was no big deal and that we could just ask the man who was in charge for some help.

Normally, asking for help is not my favorite thing to do. I am terribly concerned with bothering people and hate not being able to do things on my own. But in this role I had taken on as “mentor,” asking for help was just a part of the job. A normal reaction to a problem. I reminded myself that it was much more important to help the student than play into my own pride.

So, we stood up and once again I made sure my posture was strong, and we strode over to the man in charge to ask for help.

And you know what?

It was no big deal. He answered our question and we went on our way. Go figure, right?

After a while it started to feel normal and I was no longer “faking.” But I would have never gotten to that point if I hadn’t been pretending in the beginning. Acting confident allowed me to actually become confident. I guess it’s a bit like that old saying, “fake it ‘til you make it.” Changing my body language and playing that role enabled me to do my best work and offer way more assistance than if I’d allowed my usual nerves to get in the way.

As a twentysomething and recent graduate, there will be times when you might want to just crawl back under the covers and pretend you don’t have to deal with the “real world.” But you can’t do that.

Going to job interviews, starting that first “real job,” meeting your new coworkers, these are all things you’re going to have to do. Forcing yourself to act with confidence can help you to work through those situations. Hold yourself responsible and up the stakes. I had to be confident because I was helping a student who needed a strong supporter. Try not to make the situation about you. If you’re starting your first job, you can think of it as being your responsibility to support your new employer. You have to show up confident and ready to work because your boss needs you to.

Or just try changing the way you hold yourself. Stand in a power pose. Drop your shoulders. Even though you’re nervous, force yourself to smile. Changing your posture and facial expressions will actually help you feel more confident.

Interactive Designer Jessica Moore was really nervous about her informational interview. She used the technique of mimicking the body language and tone of voice of the person she was interviewing. She was still totally being herself, but by adopting certain mannerisms, she was able to connect better with the person she was interviewing.

Homework time! Give it a try. Have something you’re nervous about? Allow yourself to be nervous about it for a designated amount of time. Then, take a deep breath, and change your mindset. Hold yourself accountable. Fix your posture and smile. If you’re conducting or doing an interview, practice the technique that Jessica Moore used and adopt some of the mannerisms of the other person.

You might also try writing out scripts and practicing what you’ll say beforehand. Check out this post about learning to talk to strangers without being awkward. These scripts may seem “fake” at first, but after a while they start to feel natural and you can really improve your networking skills.


4 Responses to “How Volunteering Taught Me to Be Fake—And Why That’s a Good Thing”

  1. D'Ann Stelly

    Great article. These skills are useful throughout your entire career. Acting cool and confident puts others at ease and enables the whole team to achieve more.
    – D’Ann Stelly, Producer (25 years)


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