How to (Not) undermine yourself in one easy lesson
By Su Wild-River.
Today I started a new project with three first-time collaborators. It’s an exciting topic and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Two team members are published experts in the field. The other directs a government program on it. I know quite a bit about other things that are broadly relevant.
I bring other areas of expertise.
When our first draft proposal didn’t make the grade, it was me who found the pathway between what the client wanted, and what we could deliver. When team members balked at a less interesting scope, I gave an upbeat reminder that it’s the client’s prerogative to choose what they pay for. I edited our proposal to ensure a focus on what they wanted. These interventions were key to us being hired to do the work.
Many times I was so out of my depth that I felt like I was reading a different language. At first I couldn’t discern if my partners proposed to measure, model or review parameters. I thought they had misunderstood key terms, but knew it was more likely my own error. I was flummoxed by the difference between spatial and categorical, historical and predicted factors. I knew none of the acronyms. But I kept on reading and redrafting until every paragraph told me a coherent story, repeatedly deleting my initial edits and replacing them with something sensible. With about eight hours work I became familiar with a whole new field of work.
The expertise I applied here is to be comfortable in the dark. I was instructed in this skill by my first year statistics lecturer and it is one of the most important things I have ever learned. It means moving beyond a fear of failure to embrace the unknown. It is learning to love the cramping terror in the pit of my stomach, which is the feeling of creativity. It demands a paced journey through discomfort while knowledge replaces ignorance.
I am grateful that in this project, I had time to move through this process alone at my own computer. By the time I actually met my team members I had some very good questions to ask. So good in fact, that when we met together with the client, I asked the first three questions. I brought some good new ideas which spurred animated discussion. And all this while still largely in the dark about at least half of what was being said.
I made only one major mistake. That was to start a sentence “So you must have noticed by now that I’m not the expert here, but I wonder…..”
This phrase was self-defeating and undermining. It positioned me as a pretender in others’ minds. In hindsight, I think I don’t think anyone had noticed that I was out of my depth until that moment, but in saying this I sowed a seed of doubt about my every contribution.
I started the sentence with an apology because I wasn’t sure if my question had been covered before. What should I have done instead? Not ask the question? Ask a simpler one instead? Ask it without the opening phrase? Any of these would have been better.
So what was my motivation for underselling myself? I think it was fear of having my cluelessness discovered, and a sense that it was safer to acknowledge it up front. But this is wrong on so many levels. My low-level specialist expertise has value so long as I am willing to fit in, learn, and help. Asking an obvious question can show the experts that part of their story is simply not clear. Naming the opacity gives my team the edge in communicating findings effectively. And all of that other related knowledge can help us to fit our project into other the bigger picture.
And for my next trick, I’ll try to remember these lessons the next time it counts.
How do you feel in the dark, and what do you do for a torch?