Five cats, one sitting with a dunce cap while one reads from a book to the other three.

You have no idea what you’re doing. That’s OK. None of the rest of us do either.

A friend of mine is CEO of a 200-person, profitable company. When my friend bought the company over 20 years ago, it was a fraction of its current size and was losing millions of dollars each year. He navigated the company, which was in the communications and publishing industry mind you, through the internet bubble-burst of 2001 and figured out how to thrive, not just survive, in the vast new landscape that the Internet created in the industry.

Then came the Great Recession, and while we all came out a bit bruised, my friend knew that recessions were a time of opportunity and was acquiring other companies at the rate of one or two per year.

Go back a bit further and you’ll find out my friend started at the company fresh out of college at an entry-level position. Over the next ten years, hard work and innovative ideas got him promoted rapidly. Eventually, by the time I met him, he was a respected expert in his field who was inducted into the “Hall of Fame” by the top publication in his industry.

This is a man who is only a few years older than me. He is a personal and professional mentor of mine. I look up to and respect him. He is successful by any reasonable measure. You’d think that he has it all figured it out. Yet I know that he has no idea what he’s doing. How do I know? Because he told me so.

On multiple occasions, he said to me: “Every day I come to work, I’m running the biggest company I’ve ever run.”

This was not simple humility, although he is a humble man. This was an admission that I think we would all do well to come to terms with in our own lives, professionally and personally. It would take a lot of the pressure off.

We’re all making it up as we go along

We have a tendency to think that those who are older than us, are farther along in their careers, or have reached some level of recognized success (university degree, public office, industry accolades, wealth, etc.) have it all figured out. They know exactly what they are doing and they know what they did to get there.

The opposite is true.

No one knows what they are doing. We are all figuring it out as we go along. Every day. Every one of us.

The older and more “advanced” in our careers we get, the more this is true, because this is where more uncharted territory exists, more innovation is expected, and more risk is necessary.

Even the President of the United States, every single one of them, wakes up one morning and is President for the first time. And every day after that, they are doing things they have never done, or even imagined. Just like the rest of us.

Experience is vastly over-valued

The second person I ever hired, I did so knowing he could not do the job. The position was for an entry-level web developer, and he had spent the last couple years doing basic “I can’t print” sort of IT work. He had never written a line of code in his life.

What he did have was the right attitude. He was unfailingly positive, excited about this new industry, and he desperately wanted to learn. I gave him a book, the bible of our industry at the time, and told him he started in two weeks.

That was over 15 years ago. He became not only one of the best hires I’ve ever made, but also the best web developer I know, a business partner, and a friend.

To this day, I hire almost solely on attitude. I can teach almost anything else.

Don’t believe me? A growing body of evidence suggest that, as this article in The Atlantic puts it, “success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”

Don’t let inexperience hold you back

Holly Hartman is a high school journalism teacher who is now an inspiring story in the midst of all the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

Unable to sleep as she thought of the devastation and human suffering in Houston, Holly read a story about a walkie-talkie app victims and first-responders were using to communicate with each other. She downloaded the app, and “after two minutes of training, I was talking to people desperate for help.”

Instantly, this high school teacher became the dispatcher for the Cajun Navy.

If the Cajun Navy were a company hiring for the role of Emergency Response Dispatcher, I’m guessing that “high school journalism teacher” wouldn’t have made their list of desired qualifications. Likewise, if you had asked Ms. Hartman if she could fill that role, she would have probably answered, “Hell no. I have zero experience or qualifications to do such a challenging and important job.”

We all feel this way, but most of us don’t have the courage to admit it to ourselves, much less others. Even a super-successful people like Facebook COO, best-selling author, and billionaire Sheryl Sandberg says, “there are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

Ask people to do things they don’t think they can do. They’ll surprise themselves and they’ll surprise you.

That is my management philosophy, and it applies just as much to our personal lives, and in this there may be a way for all of us to feel more comfortable.

We all ask ourselves to do things we’ve never done all the time in our non-professional lives.

Bought a house? Sold a car? Traveled to a foreign country? Gotten married? Had a child?!?

We blaze new and uncharted territory without giving it a second thought. No one says, “I’ve never sold a car before, so I guess I’ll just keep this one forever until it rots in the driveway and someone hauls it away.” Everyone thinks, “Holy crap, I have no idea how to raise a child,” but that hasn’t stopped billions of people from doing so.

You are faced with the task and you get it done. Over and over. This is life.

People and companies alike would do well to embrace the fact that attitude is just as important as experience.

Photo credit: Boston Public Library, Creative Commons License

One thought to “You have no idea what you’re doing. That’s OK. None of the rest of us do either.”

  1. I hired the new manager of my brick and mortar shipping business because while waiting for me to finish helping a customer he went into the parking lot to help a customer bring in a large box to shop; I did not know his name, had not seen his resume or talked to his references; I did later.
    He had the “customer service gene”; that was all I needed to know.
    Lead with your intuition and gut and follow up with your brain and rational processes.

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