Competence, confidence, and impostor syndrome

Fresh Greens
Tewodros was born and raised in Algeria, in the hard sands of the Sahara desert. So when he and his family moved to France when he was seven, at his first sight of the lush and verdant French countryside, Tewodros literally fell down. He was gobsmacked.

And so a fascination was born.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, he chose to study biology after school, gaining his masters and his doctorate in the field of grasses – a pun his father could never resist. (It’s a pun that works equally well in French as English, you know.)

Tewodros wrote, he pioneered studies, he met a schoolteacher named Jean during a speaking tour, he and Jean signed a civil union, he identified new strains of grass, and he was happy.

Tewodros even achieved a small amount of celebrity. His Berber mother and Amhara father had produced three stunningly good-looking children – tall, dark, with white smiles and amazing cheekbones. The attractive scientist who spoke so well about grasses became the go-to expert for the media, and Tewodros became somewhat well-known, much to his embarassment at airports.

Of course the story doesn’t end here, because that would be very dull.

More and more, Tewodros had become fascinated with the idea of changing an ecosystem. You could use grasses to tie down sand-dunes – he’d founded groups to do that very thing in Algeria. But could you encourage a desert to return to the verdant plain it had once been?

This new focus required much more understanding of geology, soil chemistry, biomass increase and a hundred other topics than he currently possessed. Tewodros, undaunted, started hitting the books and getting involved in this new field of study. (His dad’s joke was even more apt, much to his delight. “His field of study? He’s studying fields! Ah ha ha ha!”)

He started writing papers on this new topic, pioneered more studies, and attended different scientific conferences.

While on the panel at one of them, he contradicted himself – and one of his rival scientists, jealous of all of Tewodros’ television time, cut him to ribbons.

Tewodros smiled politely, corrected himself, and shook it off.

But Jean came downstairs that night to find Tewodros pacing around the kitchen.

“Mon Dieu, cheri,” yawned Jean. “It’s 3am! Why don’t you make us some coffee and tell me what’s wrong.”

Over coffee the story came out. “I think that maybe I was wrong to choose this new focus. I was so good at grasses, and ecology-changing is impossible. Maybe it’s just not right for me.”

“Is this about that stupid panel?”

“No. Well, a little. But also it’s about other things. I mean, it takes me one month to write a research paper on rhizomes. But this new one on first-stage soil reclamation has been going for six months, and I still don’t think it’s solid enough to publish yet! And everything in this new works feels like that – hard. And uncertain.”

“You’ve been much more quiet in debates, I have noticed that.”

“Yes, because I’m not sure that I’m right! I feel like I wandered into the wrong discussion, and if I make any comments then I’ll just stand out as the big idiot that I am.”

“It’s lucky for you, cheri, that you have a schoolteacher for a partner. Because I know what’s wrong.”

The conversation gets theoretical.

“In teaching, we talk about the four stages of competence.”

“Theories of learning? Now? If you insist.”

“I’m ignoring that. *ahem* We’ll use your grasses as an example. In the first stage, unconscious incompetence, you don’t know about grasses, and you don’t know you don’t know.”

“Yes, I’d heard of them, but I’d never seen true grasses. I had no idea what they were.”

“Exactly. In the second stage, conscious incompetence, you know that you don’t know.”

“And I wanted to know! I was totally fascinated.”

“So you studied and moved to the third stage, conscious competence. You know that you know, and with conscious effort you can start to make things happen.”

“My first experiments? They were so satisfying.”

“And finally, you moved into unconscious competence. You don’t know that you know, it just happens on autopilot.”

“How do you mean?”

“Explain how stoma work.”

“Oh, that’s simple! There are a pair of guard cells…”

“Yes, cheri, you don’t actually have to tell me. But did you see how there was absolutely no delay in your answer? You didn’t need to think about it at all. That’s unconscious competence.”

“So what does this have to do with my current problem?”

The conversation stays theoretical.

“Okay, when we talk about grasses you are at stage four of competence: it’s supremely easy for you. But in ecology transformation you’re only at stage three. You’re competent, but only with conscious effort. Which is why it feels hard, and why you can make small mistakes when your concentration wavers.”

“I accept that. Actually, that’s kind of a relief. So I’m not bad at my new study?”

“No, it just feels hard by comparison. Because by comparison, it IS hard – it requires a lot more effort from you.”

“And that’s why I feel like a fool in the panels?”

“Mostly. I’d also call it a small case of imposter syndrome. You’re at stage three in a room of mostly stage fours – people who can answer questions much more quickly, with deeper access to context, with more synthesis of unrelated concepts, all of those skills you can use better with unconscious competence. It’s not surprising that you feel somewhat dense in their company.”

“So I should stop attending the conferences until I get more competent.”

“What? No! This is HOW you grow your competence, cheri. If you stop attending these conference and submitting papers and all the rest, you will never get to stage four. It requires experience.”

Tewodros frowns.

“I don’t remember it being anywhere near this hard when I was studying grasses.”

“Well, it probably wasn’t, cheri. For one thing, you were much younger. For the second, you were completely infatuated with your first ever field of study. And thirdly, you didn’t have as much face to lose. You could screw up much more often without feeling that anyone noticed, or cared.”

“So why the hell am I doing this, instead of staying with my grasses?”

“Because you were getting a wee bit bored. Because you thrive on challenge. And because you want to make the deserts bloom.”

Tewodros smiles and his shoulder relax. “Of course, you are right. Any advice, wise teacher?”

“I do love to give advice, cheri.”

Jean gave his advice, and Tewodros took it. So of course the story ends happily.

The moral of the story, and the advice.

There are two ways to not feel that uncomfortable consciousness of our competence: never learn anything, or achieve mastery.

I assume you’re choosing the second option, otherwise why would you be here? So here is the distillation of Jean’s advice.

When you’re in stage one – unconscious incompetence.

You don’t even know you’re here, so there’s no advice needed.

Enjoy that blissful ignorance.

When you’re in stage two – conscious incompetence.

The itch is driving you crazy. Research like a mad bastard. Drink in video, articles, books. Press pause, theorise about what comes next. Try explaining it to the dog.

Be confident: to admit that you don’t know. No-one came out of the womb knowing all of this, and there’s nothing more powerful than being strong enough to admit ignorance. (Nor is there anything more likely, combined with respectful requests, to get you help.)

Don’t: passively imbibe. Draw frameworks of how this information fits together, and improve your models with your understanding.

Enjoy: the lightbulbs snapping on inside your skull.

When you’re in stage three – conscious competence.

You’ve got an excellent grounding. Time to start doing the work. Write articles, create offerings, make your own theories. Explore new ideas, and re-explore old ones from your own perspective.

Be confident: to admit that you do know. It doesn’t feel easy all the time, but you have value to offer. Be strong enough to announce your competence. Start making offerings.

Don’t: compare yourself with the stage fours or believe that you suck at this because clearly it’s easy for that guy. Once they were where you are now, and the only reason they’ve made it to Easyville is because they persevered through this stage. Learn from that, and keep plugging away.

Enjoy: the first successes of competence.

When you’re in stage four – unconscious competence.

You’re amazing at this. Change the playing field. Question the unquestioned paradigms, explore new territory, synthesize concepts in new and illuminating ways.

Be confident: to go it alone. The beaten path isn’t going to cut it any more, and you have more to offer. Be strong enough to follow your instincts. Start building new methods.

Don’t: get wrapped up in your title. You haven’t reached the end of learning, and you will still make mistakes. If you create a persona of perfection, you won’t be able to experiment – stagnation and scandal are waiting close by with sharp scissors and grins.

Enjoy: the sweet glory of mastery.

That Jean sure is a smart fella. If you have any counter-advice for him, or other thoughts on the subject, add your comments below.

And if you’re in stage three and ready to start making offerings that succeed, then Cash and Joy Foundations is here to help. Learn more about how you can build your business.

Creative Commons License photo credit: VinothChandar


The teleclass recording and thoughts on benefits.

Yesterday's Call
Yesterday was my first ever teleclass, and it was awesomepants.

Firstly, to keep my new commitment to myself, I won’t hint at the bottom but instead I’ll open with the announcement that I launched a new resource during the call.

It’s here to transform struggling bloggers into business owners – from “I have a website” to “I own a business”. If you’ve been plugging away at your website for months or years without making much money or impact from your work, then please go check it out. It’s called Cash and Joy Foundations, and it is waiting for you.

Now, to the teleclass! Right-click here to download the audio, or listen by clicking underneath:

Audio MP3

A few further thoughts

At the beginning of the teleclass, I semi-jokingly outlined the process for identifying the deeper benefit of your work.

  1. Find a friend that loves you but won’t pull their punches.
  2. Give them a Wily E. Coyote-style sign that says, “Why does that matter?”
  3. Talk about what you do, while the friend keeps digging.

That is really the core of what you need to do.

Why do you need to dig?

You are in love with your work in a way that is different from the people who buy it.

They love it as a consumer of the work: the person who can’t wait to wear your piece to the next party, or to be able to confidently say, “No thanks” when someone offers them a cigarette. They love the experience of using your work and what it brings into their life.

You love it as the crafter of the work. You love the technical mastery, the fascinating interplay between ingredients, the thrill of creating a result that was beyond your skills a year ago. You love the experience of creating your work and what it brings into your life.

If you don’t dig, you will describe the aspects of the work (how it’s delivered, the materials used) that you care about most, instead of the ones that your audience cares about most (will this work for me, will it deliver the outcome I desire).

And you aren’t buying your work.

Let that brew for a bit.

Feature, benefit, benefit of the benefit

Here’s one of MANY ways to use this deeper understanding of what you’re really selling.

There’s a classic marketing recipe: feature/benefit. It comes in this hard-wearing case, so you will always be able to find the pieces. It does this, which means that.

I like taking it a step further. Here, for example, is my description of this business:

I help you uncover, amplify, and communicate your best work so you can make squoodles of cash and joy from your business. Because when you do that, your business is a blessing to you, and to the world.

See that? Here’s the breakdown.

I help you uncover, amplify, and communicate your best work – what I do.

so you can make squoodles of cash and joy from your business – the benefit of the work.

Because when you do that, your business is a blessing to you, and to the world. – why that benefit matters.

Did you get tingles reading that?

I sure did.

And that’s the point.

I hope the call and these extra notes are useful to you. I enjoyed the heck out of that teleclass and am thinking of running another one for kicks in a month or so. Suggestions on topics are welcome, and let me know – do you like the machinegun-question-answering style of this teleclass, or would you like more of a mix of theory and practice next time?

And don’t forget – if you were frantically taking notes during the call in the hopes that somewhere in it is that one spark of wisdom that will get the orders coming in, then do yourself a favour and consider investing in Cash and Joy Foundations. It’s affordable transformation, my darling, and I want to help you shine. (See mission statement above.)

Creative Commons License photo credit: Vincent van der Pas


Magnificence and the raising of standards

Level Up (260/365)
Jilaine was a carpenter and a woodworker. Okay, most of the time she was really a lawyer – but she wanted to spend her days with sawdust instead of solicitors.

No time like the present!

Every workday Jilaine arrived home, changed out of her suit, ate some steamed vegetables and chicken, and marched into the shed to start crafting chairs. It was rare that she managed to get started before 7pm, and she had to be done before 10pm or her neighbours would probably call the cops.

Three hours isn’t a lot of time to build a chair in.

Jilaine said to herself, “Okay, I’m going to make this easy on myself. My only goal is to make chairs that are stable. They can be ugly as fuck, as long as anyone can sit on ‘em and not have them break. I can do that.”

Month after month, Jilaine built chairs.

Her first chair took a week and a half to finish, and was indeed ugly as fuck, but it was stable. She drank a glass of red in celebration, then immediately started on the next one.

Month after month of diligent work, and she had more plain-but-stable chairs than she had room for. She found a men’s group that needed chairs and appreciated their unaesthetic charm, donated her creations and kept crafting.

Soon she could churn out two chairs a week in her own little assembly line, and her designs were attractively simple instead of clunky. A mountain resort made an order for their conference room that had Jilaine skipping into her office to quit.

Now Jiliaine was a woodworker full-time.

Instead of three hours of hasty night-time work, she had as much time as she needed. She built twenty simple stable chairs a week and Jilaine had the profound satisfaction of selling them to people who told her how they admired the craftsmanship and stability of these chairs.

After six months of simple and stable, Jilaine got bored.

She could now build simple and stable in her sleep (and had, that day when she accidentally took a double dose of flu meds).

She started experimenting.

She made chairs with engraved backs.

She built chairs that looked impossibly thin but were beautifully sturdy.

She built chairs that looked like one piece of wood. And when people saw those chairs in her workshop they gasped.

So Jilaine started building those chairs, too.

They sold faster, they were talked about far more, and they were much more satisfying to create.

But she soon realised that she couldn’t build anywhere near as many of them as the stable simple ones. They were much more difficult to craft, they didn’t always work, and they required a much higher level of craft and skill.

Jilaine experimented with building a mix of the stable-simple and the one-piece chairs, but she noticed something:

The easy chairs weren’t fun any more. And next to the one-piece chairs, they looked… well, plain.

Jiliaine grieved. She’d loved that first stable, solid, simple design! It had done so well and allowed her to learn so much! How dare she abandon it for the much riskier one-piece chair?

But then she remembered her words on the first day she locked herself in the shed. “Okay, I’m going to make this easy on myself. My only goal is to make chairs that are stable. They can be ugly as fuck, as long as anyone can sit on ‘em and not have them break. I can do that.”

She had made it easy for herself to start, and that was the right choice. She’d smoothed the path to building momentum, and she wouldn’t be here now without that.

But she didn’t need to make it so easy for herself now. She was far, far more skilled and practiced. The easy choice was too easy now.

So Jilaine sat down with her bottle of red and toasted the hundreds of simple stable chairs that had gotten her to this point. And she toasted the end of an era.

The moral of the story

The best way to start is by making the victory conditions very, very easy: almost impossible to fail at. Consistent small victories build momentum, and momentum builds experience (and skill and depth and the possibility of bigger victories that feel just as easy as the first one).

But eventually you have to increase your victory conditions.

You must continue upping the challenge to stay aligned with your growing skills.

Otherwise, the easy victory becomes boring. Stale. You start to stagnate and half-ass it. No joy, and probably less cash, too.

If you have work that used to put you in flow, that once felt magnificent but now feels oh-so-pedestrian, then you need to review your standards. Put them up in tippy-toe reach and watch how your work comes alive.

The practical demonstration

Anyone who’s been reading along with me for awhile knows that I am Jilaine.

When I started my first website, almost two years ago, I had one very simple standard for writing articles: it had to be useful.

Whatever I wrote, there had to be a very strong potential for someone to gain a benefit from reading it: maybe the know-how to get some task done they’d been avoiding, or the realisation that they’re not alone, or the opening of a new possibility.

A few months later I got Serious about building my website and starting writing daily articles. For ten months I wrote every single day, with only one pass-fail standard: it must be useful. (I also wanted it to be entertaining, but it didn’t HAVE to be. Any budding comedian knows the pain of the, “Hey! Quick, say something funny.” bear-trap.)

I took my first ever break from daily writing while I was in Vegas for BlogWorld, where I took some time by the pool to think about what I really wanted for my business, where my most magnificent work was, and how I wanted to be changing the world.

This website was the result of that thinking. I went from daily articles to two a week. I started telling fairy stories about marketing. I kept experimenting.

I’ve started reliably producing articles that people are still telling me about and sharing four months later. I’ve finally gotten consistently reliable about knowing in advance which articles are great, and which are decent. (I got there, Liz! Thanks very much for your help.)

But those articles take a lot longer to produce. They require much more idea-percolation, and about three times as long to write as a useful article. Right now, I can’t do more than one a week. I’ve been trying to fill out the rest with decent, but it’s just not satisfying any more – to either of us, I think.

So from now one there will be less articles. I’m aiming for one every Tuesday (that’s Monday for a lot of you), but if I don’t have anything that meets my new standard to deliver, then I won’t write anything at all.

My old standard: must be useful.

My new standard: must be transformative.

We’ll see how that goes.

*raise a glass of Diet Coke in a toast*

The practical demonstration, part two

My standard for creating and launching offerings has been “Just get it out there, already.”

And when I was teeny tiny and shit-scared, that was good enough.

I made my very first product over a weekend and just put up a link. Zero promotion. I had Gotten It Done, and that wasn’t a small thing. I sold one three weeks later, and I was thrilled! Look, ma, I’m in Business!

But I’ve been in full-time business for more than a year, and I’m still essentially using that “Oh hell, throw it up there and see if anyone buys it,” standard.

And that’s not good enough. I make FUCKING AMAZING offerings, and to short-serve them by not giving them the resources they need to thrive is wrong. Dumb and wrong.

I don’t know yet what my new and higher standard will be – I’m still working that out. But I do know that the new resource I’m launching in just a few days – there’s a completely monster amazing teleclass, you should check it out – will be the very last time I use this standard.

*deep breath*

Wow, that was scary and hard. And that’s a good thing, my darlings: I’d hate to be settling for less than magnificence.

Are your standards too high for where you are? Too low? It’s the work of a minute to adjust ‘em, and the work of three to tell us about it in the comments.

Creative Commons License photo credit: andrewrennie