Put “Not Knowing” to Work in the Workplace

Don’t be intimidated by thinking that everyone around you has it so much more figured out than you do. One woman shared this insight with me that a college professor imparted on her.

“Confidence is as much a rhetorical position as it is a real attitude that people carry with them. Just because someone is projecting confidence through what they say and the way they act has no relationship to whether they actually feel confident all the time.”

This idea helped liberate her from “manufacturing fear” as this 40-something woman experienced in her 20’s but has now outgrown:

“The worst thing about my 20s was being driven by fear and not understanding that it was manufactured. It was really coming from me. I guess it’s a lack of confidence but anybody who knew me in my twenties would not have thought I wasn’t confident. It was all blustering. It was so false. I was putting it out there because I thought I had to but it was totally being driven by fear and I don’t have that at all anymore. I was afraid to ask for help because you want to seem like the one who knows everything. I don’t feel like that now. I recently called this producer who’s got a reputation for being really tough and chauvinist the other day to ask for some advice. He actually said “Are you stupid?” I had to laugh. That would have devastated me when I was 20. Now I’m like whatever. Thanks for the advice and see you later.”

Feel some calm in knowing the fear of  “not knowing” will go away —  it’s normal and maybe you can turn it to your advantage. We all feel the pressure to do things right, to not be wrong and to not be “stupid” at the very time when our lack of knowledge is truly a benefit. Maybe a flip on projecting confidence when you don’t feel it is actually being confident in your lack of knowledge. I recently spoke to an old boss and now entreprenuer who mentors a lot of  20-something women and he shared this insight that hits this idea home:

“In your twenties it’s really hard to shed all the pressures from outside and understand that the best way to perform as a twenty five year old is to not feel any pressure. It’s actually your youth, your freshness, your almost naivety that is a core benefit. Let it come out. Being confident of being naïve and proud of not knowing the answer is the value a twenty year old brings to a company and to themselves.

I think there’s so much pressure for this generation entering the workplace that it’s easy to forget that it’s okay to make mistakes. Take advantage of your twenties. I always say that if you’re 40 years old, people expect you to have an answer that makes sense. When you’re 22, it’s okay to be pie in the sky. Not having mind-blocks is the advantage of your age. And nurturing that will help you grow in the long run.

Of course if you’re an accountant you can’t be wrong. It’s the difference between a job where intellectual value is the most important thing and a skill or trade. Skills have to be perfect so if you’re an architect at 25, you still have to make sure that the building doesn’t fall. You can’t be wrong on that. But creating a new shape of a building that challenges what convention says is possible may be what breaks through into creating a new shape that’s never been done before. I think there’s a differentiation between skills and thinking for a 2o year old. You have to learn the skills but you have to  let your mind wander and be confident in that.” — 40-something, entrepreneur, mentor, “guys-eye view”, New York, NY

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