You're Not Stupid

This picture is only vaguely connected to the content of this blog post

This picture is only vaguely connected to the content of this blog post

It’s really easy to think you’re not smart enough, especially when you’re feeling stuck or you’re in a rut. All around there are people who seem really clever. They’re up there on that pedestal, exercising their cleverness, doing amazing stuff. Maybe they’re running a business, or being a doctor or a specialist of some sort. They might be an actor, or a web designer, or your boss. Or they might just be loudly throwing their cleverness around as much as they possibly can, letting the world know how clever they are. Letting the world know they’re cleverer than you.

The thing is, cleverness isn’t static. Some people aren’t born cleverer than others. They just have more information, and they’re not afraid to use it. And the more they use it, the more information they gain through experience and practice. Cleverness is, then, just a reflection of your information gathering activities, and like a muscle the more you seek out information the cleverer you become.

Think about your doctor. Pretty clever, right? All that medical knowledge, and all that fancy language they use to tell you to lose weight, cut down on your salt, get more exercise and eat more greens. But at some point, your doctor wasn’t a doctor. They didn’t have all that medical knowledge. They were a regular non-doctor person like me, and like you.

But in order for them to become a doctor they had to get the information. They read the right books, studied the right subjects in college, went to medical school, and gained the experience. It’s the same with everyone who has a skill, or a degree of intelligence or prowess in a particular area. There was a time, maybe yesterday, maybe ten years ago, when they didn’t have those things. That doesn’t mean they were stupid back then. Just that they weren’t equipped with the information required to be a doctor/scientist/astronaut/rocket scientist/creative director.

Cleverness, then, is just having the right information. Sometimes that information is something that we seek out for ourselves, sometimes it comes from experience and practice, and sometimes it is thrust upon us and we resist it. I resisted chemistry and French in school.

Some people have more access to information than others. When I was growing up only a few of my friends had access to computers, and the Internet hadn’t even been invented yet. Some people get more encouragement to engage with the information. Others have a hunger for it, or more opportunities of access to it.

Some people take longer to assimilate information than others. A colleague of mine doesn’t know how to access the address book on his mobile phone. Another friend doesn’t understand the rules of cricket. Another friend failed all his exams in high school. But that doesn’t mean that with enough time, interest and effort, they couldn’t gain all the information necessary to do or learn or pass all those things. It might take a long, long time, but eventually they could gain that information. It took me four attempts to pass my driving test. Another friend of mine went back to college in their fifties to get their high-school grades – and passed with flying colours.

Some people have access to the information. Some people are more interested in learning than others. And some people just take a bit longer to soak it all up.

But others are scared. That includes me. And I’m sure it probably includes you too.

Ever experience imposter syndrome? Ever feel out of your depth, and that any minute now you’re going to get found out and all the people that surround you, on their pedestals with all their cleverness, are going to look down and point their finger at you and cast you out like the devil? That’s because you don’t have all the information.

Sometimes the information you need might be confirmation that, yes, you are qualified for the job. Yes, you are capable, you’re not lazy, and you’re not an imposter. Sometimes the information you need might be more specific to the role you find yourself in, or the project you’re working on, or the environment you’re in. So how do you get that information?

By doing and asking.

The problem with both doing and asking, ironically, is that there’s a chance we’ll look stupid. If we ask a question it’ll highlight a gap in our knowledge and people will think we’re stupid. But if we don’t ask, we’ll stumble along without the information we need and eventually we’ll trip up or become so insecure that we’ll run away mentally or emotionally. And don’t forget, all those clever people on the pedestals that you revere so much – they all had to ask those questions at some point, or find out some other way.

So ask your question. Perhaps you’ll look stupid, but it’s more likely that you’ll get the information you need to look more like those people on the pedestals. Alternatively, if no-one can answer your question you’ll be a hero for thinking up something that no-one ever thought of before.

And if you’re really afraid of looking stupid, ask someone else. Ask a friend. Ask someone in your network. Ask a book. Ask Google. Seek out the information and equip yourself with it.

I remember starting a role and being terrified that I would seem completely out of my depth. Not because I wasn’t clever enough, but because I didn’t feel like I understood how work worked. I’d been out of the office for a decade and was worried I wasn’t clever enough to ‘engage’ and ‘bring it’ in the modern world of work. So, I asked a friend who seemed to be pretty good at what he did. I literally asked him, “how do I bring it?” I felt pretty stupid, but I got the information I needed.

Other than asking, the other thing that gives you the information you need to prove to yourself and everyone else that you’re not an imposter or out of your depth, is doing. I’m convinced that the majority of people who perform poorly in school or college, do so because they’re not interested, and as a result do not engage with the information they need. That doesn’t make them stupid or out of their depth. They just lack the doing.

By doing we gain experience. By doing we get unstuck and find out for sure whether we’re out of our depth. Doing highlights our gaps in our information, so we know what we need to do in order to ‘bring it’ and prove to ourselves that we’re not imposters, we are clever enough, and we’re not stupid.

By asking the right questions, by doing to gain experience and find our soft spots, we can gain the confidence that comes with knowing that we are up to the job. All we need is the right information, and if we don’t have it we must be brave enough to find it.

You’re not stupid. You just don’t have all the information.