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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my clients tell me they feel like they’re faking it, that some day they will be found out and it will all be over.

My response is: “Excellent. We all feel that way. This is a good thing.” I explain that if you are not sure you know how to get something done, and this makes you a tad uncomfortable, then you will try that much harder, and you will likely achieve that much more.

On the other hand, if you think you have it all together and you call yourself an expert, then the implication is that you are satisfied with where you are and are not looking to learn or grow. And what’s more, if you tell people you are an expert, then you are probably quite annoying. Tell me you can solve the problem — that’s fine. But tell me you’re an expert so not to worry — I will worry. I might be concerned that you’ll be “phoning it in.” However, when someone else compliments you on your expertise, you can graciously nod and say, “Well, I do my best.”

So let’s talk about how to get closer to that frame of mind. Always aim to be learning something new. Always be curious about how you’re going to deal with the next challenge. Don’t just follow the template. Don’t assume that new assignment is just another one exactly like the others. Notice how things work, how things look, and figure out how to make them better. Always be trying to improve on your last solution. Don’t assume that what that expert told you is definitively correct. Ask questions and think for yourself.

On my first day in the TV production department of a London ad agency — it was my first job out of university — the “experts” sat me down and explained to me how the payments to actors in TV spots were figured out. They were paid “repeat fees” based on how many times the spot was aired and to how big an audience. We had in front of us this little official booklet that explained the formulas. My new colleagues explained it all quite confidently without referring to the booklet. But I couldn’t help myself; I followed up by reading the text. And they had it quite wrong. When they were done, I said, “I don’t think that is what it actually says in the booklet.”

The response: “Oh — er — just a moment — let me see. Okay, we have to go check something.” And off they went to fix things. Turned out they had been doing it wrong for a couple of years by then, and as a result, a good deal of extra money had been paid out. (At least we could say it went to actors who surely needed every penny of it.) Quietly, their formulas were adjusted and nothing further was said. You heard it here first! Faker, 1; Experts, 0!

Being curious about how things work is good. Noticing stuff is good too. I was walking once in the woods with my son and saw that he had an amazing knack for spotting animals, birds and mushrooms and so on. They were camouflaged and hard for me to see in the dappled light. “You are so good at spotting things. How do you do that?” His answer: “I trained myself to notice.” So train yourself to notice and you will be rewarded — at work and at play. If you take the complacent view that you are the expert, you will lose the drive to improve and the knack of noticing.

Still concerned that you’re faking it? Ask yourself: Am I getting results? Am I making things happen? Am I advancing the ball? If so, then it sounds as if your abilities are real. But could there be another way to achieve your good outcomes? Almost certainly. Thinking that you are faking it implies that you think there is only one right way — but that is rarely the case. So work with your fakery. Be proud of it. You have very probably found the new right way.

This article by Michael Pollock was first published, sans image, on Forbes.com




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