Everyone who’s paying attention feels like a fraud sometimes, and on some level, we all are. Welcome to the club!
Every few months I have to remind myself of this reassuring truth, with a little help from my friends. This state of affairs is particularly acute in the tech community, where everything is always shifting and there’s more to learn than hours in the day and that 14-year-old just schooled you on how to use Snapchat.
Feeling down today? Just remember, literally no one knows what they are doing.
— Matt Jacobs (@capndesign) June 10, 2015
I started at Postlight about seven months ago. On a daily basis I’m struck by the fact that no number of degrees—or titles, or companies, or years experience, or apps shipped, or books published, or Twitter followers—matter when you’re facing down a situation that’s completely new. You think it through, you consult your trusted advisors, you do your best, and maybe you write down what you learned. That’s just about all you can do. Because you don’t know what you’re doing, and neither does anyone else. It doesn’t really get better.
We’re Bad at This
Not only does no one know what they’re doing, we’re all kind of bad at a lot of things. This might sound negative, but bear with me: cataloguing ineptitude is actually pretty comforting. Here’s a short list of some things we’re all pretty bad at:
- Deciding what to work on next
- Recognizing the root of the problem
- Perceiving all the factors related to the situation at hand
- Saying what we mean
- Advocating for the most vulnerable
- Being honest with ourselves and others
- Contributing to our communities
- Taking care of ourselves
- Shutting up and listening
- Understanding where the other person is coming from
- Knowing what we don’t know
Yep, no one knows what they’re doing and we all kind of suck. Once you reckon with that, there’s nowhere to go but up. This is what I tell people who ask for advice about starting (or pivoting) their career in tech. “Be good at being bad at things,” I say. “You’ll have no idea what you’re doing, so you’ll just keep learning. You won’t get to be the best at everything or even most things or even some things. It’s not possible, and it’s not just you. So get good and comfortable having no idea, but figure out ways to get closer to having an idea.”
It’s All Good
The thing is, it really is good. When you embrace that no one really knows what they’re doing, two things happen. You get to truly appreciate competence and we all get to finally pathologize overconfidence.
There are moments in my clarity about cluelessness when I get to witness a remarkable thing. A coworker makes a brilliant point. My co-parent practices superhuman patience with our angry toddler. A friend performs an act of extreme generosity. When that happens it’s like a flash goes off in the room. You see it. When someone does something truly good when you understand that no one knows what they’re doing, you notice. You appreciate. You feel like you’ve leveled up just bearing witness to the thing. These are the moments you think, Humans are awesome. Anything is possible. I have a lot to learn. It’s a good feeling.
The other benefit of being a member of the Fraud Club? You realize feeling like an imposter isn’t a syndrome. It’s the way thoughtful people perceive their limits in a complex world where a vast number of things in and outside of one’s purview are interconnected and always shift in ways that no single person could ever fully comprehend.
Let’s take that a little further. If we can collectively normalize not knowing what we’re doing, we then get to pathologize know-it-alls and self-promoters. Overconfidence isn’t something to aspire to! It’s an utter lack of self-awareness! Christina Xu suggests we call it blowhard syndrome. I’m on board.
I get it, though. Past-Me would instinctively try to paper over what I didn’t know and fake it till I made it (or made a fool of myself, whichever came first). Now-Me is learning more about the vulnerability power move. There’s a moment when you have a chance to speak up and say, “I don’t understand what you mean. Can you tell me more?” That statement almost always prompts a productive conversation. Admitting you don’t know what you’re doing isn’t giving away power, either. Smart people respect folks who know what they know, and know what they don’t know.
And most of us don’t know much at all. That’s not a problem to be solved or a pain to be soothed. It’s just a good reason to get really comfortable being uncomfortable, and to keep learning.
Gina Trapani is a partner and director of engineering at Postlight.