How to do what you’re not good at

I’m interacting with some new groups of people lately.  More often than I like, I can feel self-conscious.  I was thinking this morning about what I’ve done to deal with that, and came up with:

1.  Look both ways before crossing

Especially in virtual groups, where you don’t have body language and facial expressions to help out, don’t be in too big a hurry.  I like the Quaker maxim, “Proceed as the way opens.”  Most of these other folks weren’t born with the expertise you see in them.

The uncertainty you feel means that your brain’s on alert, trying to spot patterns.  In other words, you’re already figuring out how people ask questions and respond to them.

Game designer Darius Kazemi has a succinct post on effective networking.  Step 1 is “shut the #$&@ up.”  Step 3 is “shut up again.”

2.  Move toward the light

It won’t take long for you to think that Malcolm knows what he’s talking about or that Elena asks really good questions.  That means you’re interested in what they say, which means you’re primed to say something to them.

Don’t rush; don’t gush.  Give your eyes time to adjust to the light, and find a natural opening.  It may help to keep the next point in mind as you do:

3.  Let your weakness be your strength

You learn that Elena asks those great questions because she’s a longtime practitioner in an area where you’re not.

Trust me, Elena’s likely to figure that out quickly.  So cast off the ill-fitting  Overcoat of Implied Wisdom and go with the nearly-always-appropriate Shirtsleeves of Genial Candor:

I’m just getting started with Whatever.  I thought it might be one way to help with [this situation I’m dealing with, described in just enough detail that you can ask for more if you like]…

4.  Mind the gap

There's a lot on those plates.In any community of interest, you’ll find varying levels of skill, experience, intelligence, and (let’s face it) common sense.  If you have a connection with someone who deservedly is highly regarded, be mindful about the sheer number of messages he might be getting.

The gap isn’t (necessarily) expertise; it’s attention.  By definition, the better-known you are, the greater the mismatch between what’s coming in and what can go out.  Stephen Fry may have 190,000 followers on Twitter, but he’s not sending them direct messages.

The gap extends in other directions, too: people who’ve worked in different settings from you, or whose experience seems less than yours.  You probably shouldn’t bite the newbies, and you might want not to call them that.

Sometimes it's both what you say, and how you say it.5.  Look at yourself.

In a new setting, especially if you’re not yet feeling comfortable, you pay so much attention to what’s around you that you may not notice yourself.

I mean that on two levels:  First, how might you be coming across to others?  Does your networking come across as connecting, or as nonstop self-promotion?  I’m glad that peoople share what’s going on, but if all the links you put out link to your own stuff, it’s going to seem like you don’t get out much.

The second level goes back to my notion of  “follow disgruntle.”  Pay attention to your discomfort and consider the reasons for it.

Me, I hate to seem uninformed.  I especially hate it when I am uninformed.  Although I wish I had a quicker path to enlightment (The One-Minute Genius?), a good way for me to do what I’m not good at is to ask people who are good at it.  And then listen to them.

6.  Lather, rinse, repeat

Back when I developed computer-based training (that’s what “distance learning” was before it was distance learning), I decided that the worst course you’d ever write would be your second.  On the first one, you’re still learning, so you’re careful.  On the second one, you know it all and throw in every special effect you can.  (Blogs, by the way, are not immune to this.)

With luck, when you got to the third course, you sobered up.

But these things are cyclical: once you immerse yourself in something new, you get lathered up–either with enthusiasm, or with instant criticism.  Eventually you wash off the excess–but you’ve changed.  You’ve integrated the experience, and it influences you from that point on.

The same with things you’re not good at.  At one time, you weren’t good at anything.  Well, a couple of instincts, maybe.  Otherwise–you had to do things that weren’t comfortable so you could take in more information.  That’s how you learn what your options are.

They're not kidding about the alternative.

Photo of Keye Luke as Master Po from Wikipedia Commons.
License-plate photo by msmail, used under a CC…um…license.
“Money talks” photo by Kevin Labianco, used under a CC license.
“Universe closed” photo by brianarn, used under a CC license.

6 thoughts on “How to do what you’re not good at

  1. Great insights, as usual Dave. I used the word self-conscious today to describe a Tweet. Such public conversation we all are having! So exposed! So rife for judgement! If I write the wrong thing, will you think less of me? If I write the right thing, will you love and accept me and possible give me a high-paying job?

    It’s good to look both ways before you cross the street. But I think it’s also important to let go of some of that self-consciousness, otherwise you’ll never join in the fray.

  2. There’s a lot of wisdom in “proceed as the way opens.” The sense is that you can begin to act without being clear on every detail. The Friends believe that divine guidance will help you find your path as you go.

    It’s not ignorant blundering; it’s trust. And sometimes you have to trust that your own shortcoming are no more fatal than those of others.

    I’ve always enjoyed Garrison Keillor’s observations on shyness. Shy people are always being told to “get over” their shyness. He’s not convinced shyness is necessarily something that always needs getting over.

    In fact, many people in the world could use a lot more shyness than they have.

  3. I love this whole post Dave. Favorite part: Step 1 is “shut the #$&@ up.” Step 3 is “shut up again.” So true. With so much work being done in networks and with so much more on the way, these would be great “rules of the road” to share with network newbies. I’ve said for awhile that we need some Miss Manners-sorts of guidelines for community. These are a great place to start.

  4. Dave, I’m really glad you liked it.

    Darius’s audience is probably edgier than mine (certainly edgier than me), but he’s serious about his business and how to work satisfyingly with his peers.

    If you follow the link to his blog, you’ll see in the sidebar a big list of posts on effective networking in the game industry. (Hint to others: you don’t have to be a game developer to profit from his ideas.)

    My list is far shorter; it’s worked for me. Bob Powers (author of Instructor Excellence, one of the least-read and most-useful books for trainers) taught me that acknowledging your discomfort dispels an awful lot of it.

  5. Kia ora Dave!

    Who decides what you’re good at? Good is a relative term. A newcomer to a community does well to shut the #$&@ up as you suggest. That’s not to say the newcomer is a newbie even if they don’t mind the term.

    The newcomer who knows more and is more skillful than those in the community entered, does well to also shut the #$&@ up. That way the passwords and culture, strategies and protocols can be learnt – things the newcomer is not good at in the beginning.

    Like the Trojan horse, enter the gate by invitation, always learning the new. When in Greece, do as the Grecians do, and know that it doesn’t work in Rome.

    Catchya later

  6. Ken, in my title, I was thinking of things you yourself don’t think you’re good at. In part that’s because I can be very self-conscious. Some people don’t seem to have that problem, though I’m not sure they’re good at everything.

    Darius’s slightly tongue-in-cheek advice about shutting up says to me: take some time to see how things work here. By definition, you’re new to this community.

    That doesn’t mean the community is hostile to outsiders, just that it’s not what they’re accustomed to.

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