I can honestly say I’ve never suffered from imposter syndrome.
I’ve always been the type of person who likes to work out how to do something hands-on, so I can talk about it with confidence.
I suppose I’ve been lucky in the sense that, throughout my career, I’ve been able to align my curiosity and sense of direction with the needs of the business.
Having said that, I also suppose I’ve created some of my own luck by keeping a few steps ahead of the business.
It is in this light that I read this fascinating article about consultants. Initially I considered it an alarming exposé into the fake-it-til-you-make-it culture of professional services.
Upon continued reading, however, I increasingly sympathised with their discomfort of not feeling on top of their game.
In the knowledge economy we can never know everything. For me, there is always another thing that I don’t just want to get my head around, but also deconstruct and reconstruct to understand deeply. When busy-ness gets in the way, the discomfort grows.
Over time I’ve learned to embrace the discomfort. It’s paradoxically liberating to recognise that I will always feel uncomfortable; that’s the nature of this kind of work.
It’s not like digging holes when at the end of your shift you can forget about it until your next shift. As a knowledge worker, you never clock off. Anywhere, anytime – or more accurately, everywhere all the time – you’re thinking about it. It consumes you to the point that it becomes way more than just a job; it’s a lifestyle.
So yes, I sympathise with the consultants in the article. They’re dealing with multiple clients while under pressure to deliver at speed. To this the client will say “We pay you because you’re the expert.” And to a certain extent I agree, but I also appreciate the expert must adapt his or her expertise to the context of the client’s environment. This takes time and cognitive effort, especially when you need to lay the foundations and start building up to the maturity level the client thinks they are already at!
Friends and peers have been urging me for years to do my own thing – to become a consultant – and while it’s still on my radar, thus far I’ve resisted. The benefits of a steady paycheck aside, I haven’t so much feared knowing everything as knowing enough.
Client needs are so diverse, it puts the fake-it-til-you-make-it construct into perspective. Perhaps it’s nigh on impossible for an external agent to do anything else?
Besides, I love driving the agenda from within – executing thought leadership, getting hands on, experimenting, starting small and scaling up – to effect positive change.
Yet as day-to-day business for regular employees like me gets ever more insane, must we eventually adopt a similar construct?
I sincerely hope not, but I must temper this view with the realisation that on occasion, I’ve had cause to question my own capability. More often than not, that’s been due to unreasonable expectations or poor job fit; nonetheless, I’ve been proud of my readiness to call out the shortcomings of my own skillset whenever the need has arisen.
This apparent courage, I think, is largely due to my confidence in my ability to learn what needs to be learned. And so this leads me to propose an alternative construct for knowledge workers: figure it out.
Instead of being the expert who knows the solution, be the one who solves the problem. This subtle but powerful shift transforms the objective from a noun to a verb. Solving involves thinking, researching, designing, deploying and evaluating.
When we do this to build upon what we already know, all impost is lost.