After being late posting this, I should probably write on either procrastination or the importance of keeping an up-to-date calendar, but since it is Monday, I figured I’d try something a little easier to digest and a little less painful to confront. Instead, I want to offer some stream-of-thought analysis about self-awareness .
Over the holiday break I had some great conversations with friends and family about several issues; plans for the future, goals, concerns, etc. What I kind of consider to be end-of-year reflection and new year looking ahead types of talks. What I found surprising was that in nearly every discussion, when it would turn to preparedness and knowledge, almost everyone I talked to had concerns about how little they knew compared to other “subject matter experts” in the field. The general idea was “I am pretty broad in my understanding of the field, and I know I can learn what I need to know quickly, but I’m not the perfect person, because I am not the expert.” I was surprised to hear it from some of my friends as I look at them and see how perfect they could and would be in the fields they are referring to, but was even more surprised when I realized that I was saying the same things.
Sharon called me out on it, and, while I somewhat jokingly excused my self-doubt as justified since my fellow “Fellows” are literally rocket scientists, it nagged at me the rest of the evening and even into today. Now the concept of realizing how much you don’t yet know is healthy and keeps you motivated to learn and grow, but at what point does that same concept start to limit our growth? How many opportunities have I passed up because I talked myself out of contention? With a nod towards Gary’s excellent post the other day, let’s start with why as in, why do I believe, or at least talk like I believe, that I am not qualified?
Looking back over the track of my 50-years of continuing to orbit the sun, I believe there are a handful of reasons we do this. First we have humility, a term that is not necessarily readily associated with me, but is appropriate nonetheless. We have learned to be humble in regard to ourselves based on failures we have experienced in the past. For every Joe Namath moment of backing up a boast, we’ve had many other moments of failing to achieve the goal we set out to reach, and this has taught us to either scale back or simply not engage in behavior that could result in us having to confront the fact that we sometimes fail. I think this is why a lot of people don’t write down goals. If you write it down it becomes real and then you have to either pursue it or confront the failure, and we HATE failure in ourselves. So, we choose the WarGames option, where “the only winning move is not to play.” This isn’t winning, it’s just minimizing losing.
The second reason I think we do this is because we believe the lie that there is a “perfect” person for the task or position and we can’t compete with them. I call this a lie because, looking back, I have seen the perfect person leave a position only to be replaced with another perfect person who, in turn, was replaced again by another perfect person. They weren’t really “the” perfect person, rather “a” perfect person, in that they worked hard, learned what they needed to learn and did their best, which was sufficient. It reminds me of General Patton’s principle of telling someone “what needs to be done, but not how to do it” and then being “amazed at their ingenuity.” Our real problem here is that we believe our imaginary competition will always make the right move, while knowing that we will make a mistake. This was a problem I had when playing chess. I would get so hung up about playing the “right” move, that I forgot to play the person across the board from me. There is no “perfect” game of chess. Every plan in chess has to be re-evaluated and adapted in response to the moves played against you. There is no true “right” or “wrong” move, just “good” and “bad” moves. Good moves make it easier to win and bad moves make it harder, but neither is right nor wrong.
Finally, I think we doubt ourselves because we get so self-involved when coming up with all of the reasons why we don’t think we are capable, that we forget that everyone else is having the same conversation with themselves. Sure, there are a few people out there that seem to be eternally self-confident, but part of me thinks it’s less about them believing they are the perfect option and more about them understanding that they are as perfect an option as anyone else, so they might as well try. Most people, though, see all of the weaknesses in their past and assume that that is what others see in them as well. The reality is we see ourselves in a much harsher light because we have seen the depths of our weaknesses and failures and fail to see the lessons we learned and took from those to make us better today.
So, where does this leave us? First, everybody is in the process of becoming, which means everyone is still learning, making decisions (some good and some bad) and adapting in response to those decisions. Second, that means there is no “perfect” person, so my imagined competition is just as flawed as I am, maybe in different ways, but still flawed. Third, so if I am just as perfect a candidate as they are, I might as well be the one to try, because, at best, I’ll succeed, and at worst, I’ll gain additional experience and knowledge. Sure, it sucks to fail, but it sucks worse to look back and say, I could have achieved more if I’d just got out and done it.
Have a great rest of the day!