Why you know more than you think

Female engineer adjusting noise filter with a fine screwdriverOne of the biggest killers of great ideas (and even greater careers) has to be imposter syndrome.

I’ve met countless professionals who were held back by a lack of confidence in their own knowledge and expertise.

It’s almost always unjustified and it always breaks my heart.


Nowhere to hide

Every year, my colleagues see thousands of people whose progress is stifled by this terrible affliction.

Because nothing threatens to expose a lack of knowledge on a subject more than being asked to write a report, proposal or presentation on it.

We tell ourselves that we’ve got away with it up to now.

Colleagues in meetings confidently spouted jargon that made so little sense to us that it may as well have been Enigma Code.

Yet staying silent and nodding sagely has usually bought us enough time to do some hasty googling before the next one. Before people could see us for the frauds we really are.

But then a report request thumps into our inbox and our heart sinks. Now there’s nowhere to hide – the game’s up.


Keyboard ‘experts’

And yet, as I said, this feeling is usually unwarranted. Most sufferers of imposter syndrome know more than they think they do, in most (if not all) areas of their field.

For this, we can blame a quirk of psychology.

We’re terrible at assessing our true level of knowledge. Social media is full of keyboard ‘experts’ who feel confident enough to pronounce on everything from vaccine safety to macro-economics after a few minutes’ online research.

Yet it’s their very lack of knowledge that gives them their confidence. This illusory superiority is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (after the two psychologists who first described it).

But the opposite is also true.


Curse of knowledge

The more we learn about a topic, the more aware we become of its complexities and subtleties. The more we know, the more we know that there is to know.

So the cruel irony is that we discount much of our expertise almost as quickly as we gain it. The more knowledgeable we become, the more likely we are to feel like a fraud.

This is illusory inferiority.

In fact, it may be our more confident colleagues – the ones who seem to knock out documents without breaking a sweat – who are the real imposters.


You are the expert

The audience for your document almost certainly knows less about the subject at hand than you do. This is true even (and sometimes especially) when you’re writing for senior colleagues.

Yes, they may have more experience or authority. But there will be many things they don’t know that you do – or that you can easily find out, thanks to your existing knowledge.

Why else would they be asking you to write the document in the first place?

The clue is in the name: they need you to ‘report’ or ‘present’ your knowledge. A proposal proposes your ideas, not theirs.


Sure sign

In fact, the bigger risk may well be pitching the document at too high a level by overestimating how much your readers know. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls this ‘the Curse of Knowledge’.

We take our own expertise for granted. We think: ‘Surely everyone else knows this stuff too.’ (They usually don’t.)

But if you feel like an imposter, that’s a sure sign that you know more than you think you do, even if it doesn’t feel like it. So don’t let fear hold you back.

And remember, our Knowledge Hub has a wide range of expert guides to help you write reports, proposals, presentations or anything else.


Main image credit: ThisIsEngineering / Unsplash

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