There is a beautiful song by artist Noa that goes like this:
‘Flower coloured bright, I am strong, I can fight,
But I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Tower brick and stone, make my way on my own,
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I don’t know why, I don’t know how…’
‘I don’t know’ could have been the tagline of my life until recently.
I am of a generation that was taught to respect authority and whose education was firmly anchored on the principle that the teacher knows it all and the student doesn’t and should by all means shut up unless he/she has something amazingly special to say. Imagine how often that happened in my classroom…
These views have been so engrained in my mind that when facing anything new, my first reaction was to freeze and shut down because, you see ‘I don’t know’, ‘I was not taught to handle or operate that particular thing’. It can be something as trivial as doing a transaction on a check-in machine at the airport (machines for me are evil, full stop) or starting a new activity or, height of horror, going to a place I have never been to, albeit with a GPS…
When faced with the unknown I become the stupidest of creatures. No really. Seriously. Suddenly my brain shuts down, my creativity disappears, my common sense is obliterated. Why? Because, oh my God, hang on tightly to your seats ladies and gentlemen… I. Don’t. Know. How.
The interesting underlying assumption behind this statement being: there is somehow one ‘right’ way of approaching this and unless someone in their infinite wisdom and grace bestowed that knowledge upon you, you are doomed to look at this new thing like a total idiot, because…
You. Don’t. Know. How.
Self-confidence is a like a wild animal you see…
And I can safely say I did not get to tame it until the past couple of years and, mind you, in only one area of my life, business. I’m still working on the others areas… It is only through years of experience that I ultimately was able to prove to myself that I was actually good, even excellent, at what I was doing. I used to tell my team that the critical difference between me now and me 20 years ago was not intelligence, I truly think I did not get smarter, but self confidence. It is only when you believe in yourself that you can push an idea to its maximum and by doing so can reach something truly amazing. When you doubt yourself you start on the idea and then go to another one, because maybe this one is not good enough, then try a third to probably get back to the first but reformulating it to make sure people like it, then scraping it again, and so on, and so forth… In the time it took you to fully develop that idea, when you doubt yourself, you probably would have generated 10 when you don’t.
Self doubt is not only unproductive it is also exhausting, draining, depressing.
Because let’s face it when you are filled with self doubt it is because you inherently think you are less good or worthy or smart or beautiful or fit than others. When I was in 11th grade, I used to come back home every day crying, telling my parents that I did not understand a thing, that all others could, to an extent where my parents had discussed the fact of taking me out of the scientific major I was in, reserved for top marks students, and putting me somewhere less challenging… When the results of the first quarter came I was second in my class. My parents actually shouted at me that day.
The thing is, I really believed it. That I didn’t understand a thing. That I was less smart, less good, less whatever. And that feeling stayed with me forever. That feeling, I realised years later, that huge block came from the unconscious certainty that there was one way of doing something that if otherwise untaught left you with no access to the solution.
Luckily my higher education taught me to think for myself. In maths, philosophy, literature, foreign languages… But I didn’t realise it for a long while, still looking at kids and adults around me with awe… They are in the know!!! Sometimes I look back at the studies and jobs I actually succeeded in wondering how I managed that with the huge burden I was carrying… I. Don’t. Know.
Interestingly the youth of today face the complete opposite issue. They were brought up with a limitless access to information. When they don’t know, they google, You Tube and what not, and as such, they know! That fundamental change in the rules of the game has created a generation of young professionals much more confident than me at their age and by all means I think it is a good thing. Self doubt doesn’t serve you, it inhibits you. However, knowing a fact does not make you intelligent. Intelligence requires you to be able to cross compare, analyse and apply critical judgement and unfortunately most often than not the youth of today lack that important ability.
If the Saint of Google or Wikipedia says so, then it is most definitely an established fact, an undeniable truth! Period.
My previous job revolved around strategy, market analysis and consumer research. Lacking critical judgement in that area can be a huge problem. Especially when you operate in the Middle East where two sources can give you complete different data and, as such, two complete different directions on otherwise simple things like GDP growth, population levels or tourism in-flows… Lacking critical judgement and trusting the god of Internet blindly leads you to researching a photo of the previous king of Jordan and end up with the current king of Saudi Arabia… True story… Now if the youth at that time applied critical judgement instead of just going ahead with what Google found, even without knowing the faces of the people researched, that youth would have realised that…say… people in the Gulf dress very differently from people in the Near East and as such that king was most probably not the right one to publish on a document that was going to be read by thousands of people…If you are worried about how this story went, don’t. I caught the mistake and that youth actually developed into a fine professional…
No, knowing the facts does not make you intelligent. It makes you knowledgeable. There is a difference.
And although self doubt is an unproductive, unwanted, limiting feature, humility, intellectual humility is, in my opinion, one of the best quality you can display in the work place.
It doesn’t mean that people around you are better but it means you listen to what they have to say because you acknowledge you might not know everything. Their view might help you or not but you took the time to integrate their perspective and then, with confidence, build your own.
Because, you see, there is something I discovered about ‘knowing how to do something’. There is not one way of achieving this holy grail. You can be taught. Or you can research. Or you can go at it with trial and error. Or you can ask around you. Or you can channel your own intelligence or creativity or intuition and come up with the solution. And you know what? All roads actually lead to Rome!
The critical thing when facing the monster of ‘I don’t know’ being to actually trust yourself, your inner abilities and the resources available around. And understand that in any case if you get it ‘wrong’ you are hardly going to die in horrible pain or be shamed forever along with your whole family for not knowing!!
You just need trust, a bit of patience, humility and a good sense of humour.
Very few things in life have to be taken seriously and that includes your job. You need to be serious about it by all means but you don’t need to take yourself seriously. Whether you know, or not, or are in the process of knowing, it is not a big deal. Try. Trust yourself. Try again. Laugh about it. And succeed. It is as simple as that.