“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” Charles Bukowski
THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE MORE THERE IS TO LEARN
The legendary musician Freddie Mercury said that he did not like playing Bohemian Rhapsody live because he wasn’t a very good piano player.
Jeremy Wade, the star of River Monsters and probably the best-known fisherman in the world frequently comments on how he’s not strong at fly fishing.
Socrates is credited as saying “I know only one thing: that I know nothing.”
Albert Einstein remarked that a true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.
False modesty? I don’t think so. Rather I think the more you know, the more there is to learn.
THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
You have seen this in your professional life. The mediocre developer oozes confidence over their skills and the best developer in your company admits that there is much about the underlying software infrastructure they don’t understand. The middle-of-the-road sales rep bros out at the end of each quarter about hitting quota, while the top performer critiques every word and slide of their own pitches. The best account manager I ever worked with would hang up after a great call and point out ten things he should have done a little better. The worst account manager I ever worked with would hang up from a terrible call and talk about how easy the job is.
Psychologists refer to this as the Dunning-Kruger effect. When you learn a new skill, you go from zero knowledge to some knowledge and you think you are pretty good at something. The better you get, the more you realize the complexity of what you are learning and you realize how little you know. When you first begin to play piano, or fish, or be a marketing manager, or sales rep, or data analyst you don’t know what you don’t know. The better you get, the more you realize all there is to learn.
In my senior year of college, I won a public speaking competition and got an A in my public speaking class. As a kid who was terrified of public speaking before then, I suddenly thought I was pretty good. At one of my first jobs, our VP had a speaking engagement scheduled. His wife went into labor early and I was sent to cover for him. It was a large national conference, an incredibly fun and interesting topic and he handed me a perfect presentation. It went great, my feedback forms were over the top and my ego swelled.
Fast forward a few years and I take a shot at speaking as a main source of income. I spoke at 60+ events in one year. I was getting paid a decent amount for a presentation and traveling coast-to-coast. I was way, way, way, down the conference billing with speakers like Lou Holtz, Howard Dean, and Malcolm Gladwell.
And after seeing how talented a truly great speaker is, I realized I wasn’t a good public speaker at all. But it took getting kind of good at it to realize how much I didn’t know and couldn’t do.
SELF PERCEPTIONS OF NEW VS EXPERIENCED JOB APPLICANTS
Today when we receive resumes from people early in their careers they can be very long. With huge lists of skills, awards, and experiences. Maybe they are writing for keyword density and to cast a wide net. But my suspicion is that they are still figuring out what they are good at. Conversely, a candidate with 20 years of experience will usually have a one or two page resume.
I have also found that when you ask someone early in their career what skills they need to work on, the answers are ambiguous or feel forced.
More experienced candidates tend to share concrete examples of what they want to do better.
I don’t think new employees are arrogant or experienced employees have more to work on. I just think you don’t know what you are good at until you have some experience.
ENTREPRENEURS WHO STILL KNOW EVERYTHING
I’ve had the chance to be on the receiving end of some pitches over the years. Sometimes a first-time entrepreneur comes across as uncoachable. When that entrepreneur leaves the room and the investors huddle, one of the comments I hear often is “Pass, they still know everything.”
Conversely, anyone who has started multiple businesses, even (especially?) if they have failed a few of them, knows what they are not good at. These are the entrepreneurs who are ready to learn and that investors are willing to make a bet on.
The book Traction and the Entrepreneurial Operating System is very popular in the start-up world. A key concept is that a startup needs two roles. The Visionary can see months ahead and sets the company mission. The Integrator gets the day-to-day execution done. When I talk to first-time entrepreneurs and ask which one they are, 90% of the time they say “I think I’m good at both sides.” Experienced entrepreneurs know who they are.
I don’t think the new folks are full of themselves, I just think that until you’ve done something for a while, really done it, you don’t know who you are.
THE LESSONS I’VE LEARNED
What has all of this taught me over the years?
- Stay Humble. If I’m learning a new skill and think I’m good at it, it’s only because I don’t know enough to see what I’m doing wrong.
- Keep Getting Better. When I have a win – like closing a new sale, finishing the year strong, or rolling out a new product- I take a minute to celebrate but ask what could have been done better. What could I have done to shorten the sales cycle? Could we grow by 30% instead of 20% next year? Why did we miss these features on the new product?
- Practice Grace. If a job candidate doesn’t know what they should improve on, a team member in a new role pushes back on constructive criticism, or an entrepreneur doesn’t see where they need to improve, take a step back, show support and recognize that time and experience will be a better teacher than you will be.