Why It’s Okay if You Have No Idea What You’re Doing at Work
The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?” is written by Evin Shutt, chief operating officer and partner at 72andSunny.
It was 2011, and through strokes of bad luck, politics, and reorganization, we had lost three of our biggest clients—all in one month. We were about 60 people. As I sat with Matt Jarvis, now 72andSunny’s CEO, trying to sort out what we should do, he said, “Oh, right. You are still at the point where you think everyone knows what they’re doing. Guess what? No one knows what they’re doing. And the sooner you take that stance, the sooner you’ll be able to navigate through the world’s changes, and doors will open for you.”
I can tell you exactly where we were sitting when he said this to me. Up until that point, I’d always navigated life with a bit of an “underdog” approach. I was hungry to learn from everyone around me and I perceived everyone as way more experienced or way more certain on how things work than I was. Maybe it’s a youngest-child thing, but I always assumed others knew more about things than I did. Even as a teacher, early in my career, I assumed the other teachers around me (even the new ones like me) knew what they were doing more so than me. And given my delayed start and roundabout way into advertising, I assumed everyone around me knew way more, regardless of their age. Enter Matt’s advice.
I was never fearful of speaking up in a group, so long as I felt safe and had proven my value. But from that point forward, I had a renewed sense of confidence that really helped transform who I was, get me on the journey I’m on now, and make the transition to leader while still being a learner.
I became more confident in asking questions, whether they were directed at clients, production partners, or colleagues, both about work and why we were doing something. I became more confident in addressing issues—whether it sat under my role or not. And ultimately, I became more of a leader within 72andSunny and to our clients because I was helping us solve problems by not assuming others were more experienced. I realized I had a relevant perspective to bring at times when I wasn’t bringing it before.
This doesn’t mean I stopped listening. If anything, it required even more listening in order to learn from others’ experiences. One of our core values at 72andSunny is to approach work and life as learners, not experts. Experts approach the world looking backward and with a closed mindset, while learners approach the world looking for possibility and new ways to do things. Acting like experts stunts both our own growth and our company’s growth.
This doesn’t mean that no one has a clue what they’re doing. In the advertising industry and many others, repetition and experience helps in navigating new challenges. We need to learn from those, but we also need to bring fresh approaches and not assume others always know the answers. And, just because one answer worked in the past, we can’t assume it will work again. Fresh ideas and perspective bring real progress.
The nuance of when to speak up and when to listen is an ongoing learning experience and changes by situation, but going into situations ready to listen, and also assuming you have something to contribute—regardless of your level or years of experience—is a fearlessness we need from everyone to continue to make an impact in business, and ultimately in the world.