Last year I passed 11,000 one-to-one hours as an executive coach.
I expected to feel smarter. Or taller.
Ever since I passed 10,000 hours, I’ve been waiting to receive my expert badge from some Malcolm Gladwellian Outliers emissary.
But I’m not holding my breath. I know I still have A LOT to learn.
How do you view your own level of expertise and wisdom?
Who decides who the experts are, anyway?
Social media is full of self-proclaimed experts. Some are frightening. Some are laughable.
Where are you on the expert-we-need-to-hear-from scale?
There are lots of voices offering you their opinions. A barrage of advice, comments and criticism 😱.
Parents and siblings? Yeah, there’s that.
Followers, friends and the COMPLETE STRANGERS who grab our attention on social media. Oops. Yeah, that too.
And then there are delusional bosses. I say that in the most respectful way. 😉
But the voice in your head is the worst offender.
The voice tends to go in one of two directions. Too often it is overly critical. Yes, emphasis on overly.
Sometimes the voice lulls you into blissful ignorance.
Neither of those is healthy. Both are common. Both can prevent your success.
The solution lies in self-awareness, your attitude and your actions.
There are specific strategies you can use to avoid delusion and eliminate stress.
You’ll be more effective today and better prepared for tomorrow.
You’re Not That Smart
When we begin to learn a task or develop a skill, we start at zero. We know we don’t have the experience, so we lack confidence. As we gain experience, our confidence grows. We don’t have any major difficulties and start to believe we’re better at it than we actually are. This is known as the Dunning Kruger Effect.
This causes us to overestimate our skills / competence / knowledge. We lack the self-awareness to know we’re incompetent. Ignorant of our own ignorance. Go figure.
You see this in inexperienced leaders. Influencer wannabes. Conspiracy theorists.
I began my career in banking with a company that was converting from a thrift institution to a commercial bank. A small group of us started with a commercial loan portfolio of zero and quickly built it up to $250 million. I had been instrumental in the growth and was approached by a headhunter. The largest commercial bank in Miami was seeking an executive to run their flagship Miami region. I was flattered.
After exchanging niceties at the outset of the interview, the President scanned my resume and said, “Tell me about your experience with bad loans.”
I responded that due to my discipline in underwriting, my ability to read people and coach my lenders, blah, blah, blah…I had never made a bad loan.
He made a face and stood up. “I thought you were more experienced. Let’s save us both a lot of time and aggravation. We’re done here.” He walked out of the office.
We’re done? More experienced? Doesn’t he understand that I’m just that good?
Two years later, I was sitting in a deposition for a loan relationship that had gone into litigation and thought about that interview. I had plenty of scars and bruises by then. Breakdowns in processes. Write-offs. Fraud. I knew I was a much better lender and leader as a result. And I also realized that I still didn’t have the experience needed for that Miami bank job.
When I interviewed at the Miami bank, I was a poster child for Dunning Kruger. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And therefore, I thought I knew it all.
Ignorance and hubris are a dangerous combination.
Take Off That Disguise!
On the other end of the spectrum is the impostor syndrome. This is the little voice that tells you you’re too inexperienced / unprepared / delusional. You don’t belong. You’re not good enough.
This can creep into work performance and personal relationships. It causes people to moderate their behavior and can waste time and energy. Over time, it can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression.
There are some common examples of the impostor syndrome from high achievers:
- If they don’t get a perfect score on a test, they consider it a failure.
- If they have to ask anyone else for help, they consider it a weakness.
- They feel that they have to work longer and harder than anyone they know (or anyone on the planet), or they feel like a fraud.
Over the years I have coached several hundred CEOs and high-level executives. The evidence of impostor syndrome typically showed up when they met as a group. Executives who were confident and decisive inside their companies, would get intimidated when they met with their peers. Some embellished their accomplishments to impress the others. Some got quiet because they didn’t think people would value their contribution. They acted differently than they did leading their companies.
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” — Steve Furtick
The impostor syndrome is flawed on so many levels. Comparing knowledge to others. Comparing skills to others. Comparing ourselves to a perfect ideal.
Unrealistic ideals and faulty comparisons are another dangerous combination.
8 Strategies to Grow in the Real World
Here is a list of eight strategies to keep you grounded and to help you live and work as productively and effectively as possible. In the real world.
1. Embrace the wisdom paradox — The wisdom paradox suggests that the more knowledge you gain on a particular subject, the more you realize how much you have to learn. This challenges you to ask more questions and to consider new ideas, different points of view, and apply fresh data to your understanding.
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” — John Wooden
2. Build your self-awareness — Tasha Eurich’s book Insight refers to a survey of 15,000 people, and 95% believed they had a high level of self-awareness. When tested, less than 15% had a high level of self-awareness. Don’t automatically assume you’re in the enlightened group. You need to get feedback from your peers (and those close to you) about your strengths, weaknesses, how they experience you, what they value, and what they’d like you to stop. Consider joining a peer or mastermind group, where members can provide you honest, unvarnished feedback and advice.
3. Commit to lifelong learning — approach every day as an opportunity to learn something new. Learning leads to growth, opportunity, new relationships and new perspectives. Your ability to keep pace with change and thrive in the process, requires you to learn and adapt. This is the basis for the growth mindset in Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.
“Continuous learning is the minimum requirement for success in any field.” — Brian Tracy.
4. Be a lifelong teacher — I’m not necessarily recommending you package your knowledge (real or imagined 😳) to sell stuff. The best way to learn is to teach. You gain a deeper knowledge of the subject matter in the preparation, the questions and the discussion. When you teach, you not only deliver value to others, but you also learn how to communicate and you gain a better understanding of how others learn.
5. Occasionally, challenge the image in the mirror — Every once in a while, challenge what you believe. Take a contrarian stance and prove that you’re not an expert. Or an impostor. Prove the gaps in your narrative / beliefs. This forces you to challenge confirmation bias and to consider different perspectives. This is not an exercise to beat yourself up. It is an opportunity to look at yourself objectively. It allows you to confirm that you’re a work in progress, but you are growing and contributing. It also allows you to accept that alternative perspectives and interpretations exist.
“In all my affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” — Bertrand Russell
6. Stop comparing yourself to others — If you are going to pursue an ideal, let it be the best version of yourself. Some people feel the need to compare themselves to stay motivated. Striving to become the best version of yourself should keep you sufficiently motivated — and plenty busy. Other people have different backgrounds, environments, skills, and aptitudes. Comparisons are subjective and unhelpful.
7. Recognize that the pursuit of perfection hurts you — You’re a flawed person (like every other human on the planet) and there is much about life that you cannot control. In that context, expecting perfection on any kind of sustained basis is an exercise in futility. It will demoralize you. Pursue excellence. Strive to work to the best of your ability. Take the time to celebrate your successes…and then keep going.
8. Maintain a bias for action — Dunning Kruger can create a sense of complacency. You quit pushing and you stop growing. Impostor syndrome can cause people to freeze, because action might make visible their perceived faults and inadequacies. In both cases, err on the side of taking action. Before you talk yourself out of it. Before you put it on cruise control. Before you stop growing and start rotting.
Keep Your Feet on the Ground, Your Eyes to the Heavens…or in a Book
We sometimes get a distorted view of our expertise and our contribution.
We don’t know what we don’t know and bask in our blissful ignorance. The Dunning Kruger Effect has us way out over our skis. The crash when we collide with reality is inevitable.
Or, we compare ourselves to idealized perceptions of others and the Impostor Syndrome has us doubting ourselves. We get timid. Insecure.
Both of these conditions are common. And they’re not real. They’re in our heads. They can negatively impact our effectiveness and productivity.
And there is something you can do about it.
You can build your level of self-awareness.
You can approach life with curiosity and seek to learn every day.
Take your performance seriously. Take your responsibilities seriously. But don’t take yourself seriously. Breathe.
Remember that you’re a work in progress. Hopefully you’ll be better today than you were yesterday. And you’ll be even better tomorrow.
Pursue progress, not perfection.
Don’t compare yourself with others, but with the best version of yourself.
If you hit your 10,000 hours of practice at your skill, let me know and we’ll have a cup of coffee or glass of wine / beer / whiskey to celebrate. My treat.
And then we’ll get back to work. We’ve still got a lot to learn. A lot to accomplish.
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” — Bertrand Russell