The ethics of ‘faking it until you make it’

Many sources encourage us to ‘fake it until we make it’ in a new career path. If they’re selling coaching/ebooks or ‘growth hacking’ their social media this kind of advice is especially common. There are some ethical issues around this attitude though – both for the freelancer and their clients.

For the freelancer…

Committing to a task or project we don’t know whether we can pull off can be stressful. We’ve all got different levels of stress tolerance. What rolls off one person can cause another sleepless nights or even a breakdown. Especially with creative work, being stressed out gets in my way and reduces the quality of my work. Why add more stress to your life when it can be avoided?

For their clients…

Clients are hiring us to get a job done for them, because they don’t have the skills, time or inclination to do it themselves. They may be looking to us for our expertise and skills. If we ‘talk a good fight’ but don’t actually have the expertise or skills to carry out that task, then in my opinion that’s unethical.

Clients may see or find out that you don’t actually know what you’re doing. This can also lead to a late task or project, or in some cases outright failure. Clients are unlikely to be happy with any of those outcomes, which can result in damage to the relationship or even the reputation of your business.

You can still learn on the job

An easy way around this situation is to be honest with potential clients and tell them we’re not very experienced at this task and seek their consent to give it a go on their project. They may well say go ahead anyway and you can learn together, but some will decline. Either way, the client is aware of what’s going on and you’ll be less stressed about things.

Another solution is to do a test piece of work before committing to the client project if you have time. This shows you the effort required (which will make your quote more accurate), and the piece can possibly go on your portfolio too.


As we’ve seen, there are some issues around ‘faking it until we make it’ for both the freelancer and their clients. I’d strongly recommend you’re honest with your clients if you’re new to the game or trying out a new skill/tool for the first time so you’ve got their full consent, don’t get stressed and don’t let people down.

Warning Signs Of Difficult Freelance Clients

You may encounter freelance clients who have unrealistic expectations or try and take advantage of you. This might not be malicious, it’s just how some people do business.

Red flags to be aware of include:

  • Low budgets or haggling before a spec is even defined.
  • Overly tight timescales. This is a sign that the client may be disorganised and this will make them hard to work with.
  • Asking for work up front before paying anything – in the form of pitching or ‘spec work’.
  • Not wanting to agree to a proposal/terms or pay a part of the project fee before work commences.
  • Saying that instead of paying they will give you exposure or it will ‘look great on your portfolio’. That may be true but you still have bills to pay.
  • Dictating how things will be done without taking your input into account. There are countless people on the freelance marketplaces that can do prescriptive tasks. Doing this kind of work will grind you down long term, so look for clients that appreciate your knowledge and experience and let you lead in the areas you know about.
  • They have used a long list of freelancers in the past. It’s not always the freelancer’s fault things don’t work out and a string of previous providers points to potential issues with the client.
  • If they are negative about previous freelancers or life in general, they may prove difficult to work with.

There are entire websites devoted to ranting about these kinds of clients, but it’s best to just politely decline their project and move on.

You have a responsibility to choose your clients and projects and take on work that fits well with what you offer. If you get a gut feeling that something isn’t right, take notice of that.

Your time and energy is valuable and there’s an opportunity cost to working with clients that don’t treat or pay you well. If you’re working for them you’re not working for client that treat you well and pay your full rate, on time.