If you’re making progress in your career – getting promoted, taking on new responsibility – at some point you’ll be faced with the unnerving reality that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Maybe you’ve never managed a project or run a meeting. Or you’ve never given a professional presentation or conducted a hiring interview. Trying something for the first time can be terrifying, and no one wants to screw things up right out of the gate.
But I’m here to let you in on a little secret: Most things just aren’t that difficult.
In the words of Marie Forleo, “Everything is figureoutable.” Or as my Dad used to say, “You can learn anything in the world from a book.“ (Or, these days, a book and the Internet.)
Sure, some tasks are harder to pick up than others. If you work in hospital reception, you’re probably not going to jump into the operating room and just wing it. But let’s be honest – most of what we do isn’t brain surgery. You can probably figure it out. It just takes a little initiative and a healthy dose of confidence.
Here are some things to remember:
When you first dive into a new topic, it will seem like there are a million different resources and perspectives out there. But as you drill down, you’ll usually find that there are a handful of themes and core concepts that repeat themselves over and over. With practice, you get better at spotting those key points and with a concentrated effort, you can learn the basics of most things relatively quickly.
Most topics have a steep learning curve. In the first focused hours of your study you learn a lot. Then, over time, your progress slows as you work to absorb all the nuance and detail that makes you a master of the subject. But, here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a master. You just need to avoid looking like a clueless rookie while you’re learning. It takes years to become an expert at anything and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t worth putting in the time and effort. But if you’re just starting out, don’t underestimate what you can pick up in a short amount of time.
And don’t forget to ask for help. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, so it helps to talk with an expert. And “expert” could mean that guy in IT you talk to at lunch or your friend over in Marketing. Anyone with experience can point you in the right direction, so use the resources you have. It’s also often a good idea to figure out the basics with a peer offline. There may be no “dumb questions” but you don’t want to repeatedly test that hypothesis in front of your boss. So work out the kinks with a friendly sounding board first and save your higher level issues for your manager.
Great topic – thanks for sharing.
I especially like your third point about asking for help. I remember distinctly when I first started teaching, one of my favorite courses in graduate school had been Research Methods and I now had the opportunity to teach the course. I somewhat sheepishly asked my old professor if he had updated the syllabus and if he could recommend any additional readings, etc. He immeidately sent me his new syllabus saying that there was no sense in me reinventing the wheel and that I should just adapt it to my own needs – which I did. At the time, that somehow seemed to me like cheating. However, now I post all of my syllabi on line at academia.edu and note that folks from as far away as Turkey and Russia have downloaded them. I think that is great.
I also enjoy helping out the “emerging” professionals in areas where I have experience. I find that it is just plain cool to be able to be able to share the good, the bad, the ugly of what I have learned over the years to help streamline other folks learning process. I remember well that my advisors and mentors did that for me too.
The only caveat is to remember what you take out you must put back in. I am often amused by the transparency of the folks who want to talk about my relative brilliance on a given issue (always inflated waaaay beyond reality) until they get what they want (e.g., letter of recommendation, ms. review), never to be seen again once I deliver the goods. Sad – and they are always found out, as it were.
Great examples. And thanks for adding your last point. It’s definitely important to return the favor by helping others when they need it. And it can be super rewarding when the time comes and you realize that now YOU are the expert. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Robert!
I’ve discovered there is usually more than one way to arrive at the same answer. Imagination is key. Good post.