I Am Unqualified

Everything worthwhile that I have done started at a place of ignorance and inexperience.

I have to remind myself of this each time I am faced with learning something new. It’s uncomfortable to confront the unknown and the unfamiliar, but it is always worth it—even if the payoff comes from hard lessons.

I’ve always enjoyed riding bikes. Two-wheeled freedom was something I cherished in my youth and also rediscovered later in life. I enjoyed cycling so much that I joined bike clubs. That somehow led to racing, where one of the lessons came from my ribcage being slammed against a granite curb on the side of the road.

I was doing everything right at the time, but that doesn’t really matter when there is a crash in the pack. That’s the sort of lesson that can be conveyed in a parable or a story, or even from watching bike racing. But it hits home in a different way when you learn it from experience. 

That’s the value of doing things yourself. The lessons are clearer and more personal, but they often come on the other side of pain and confusion. Which is why I get a little nervous each time I am back at the training wheel stages with some new thing.

Maybe it’s also because I get myself settled into an identity that is comfortable and then I have to face the fact that I’ve just discovered yet another huge gap in knowledge and perspective. There is no way around it, I can only work through it. I hesitate because I know there will be uncomfortable challenges along the way. But I step into it because I know it will be worthwhile.

My earliest career experience proved the point for my professional growth. I was lucky enough to land an internship and bold enough to work hard at it. I therefore had value to offer potential employers upon graduating college.

Hiring managers recognize the value of experience because they know it teaches crucial lessons that hit home in a way that other lessons can’t. Among the internship lessons are important things like the importance of showing up on time, the need to act professional, and the requirement to be able to learn tasks well enough to repeat them independently. Not to mention the biggest lesson: the way to stand out and get ahead is to make contributions beyond simply doing what I was asked to do. 

At first my focus was technical. I learned how to code things and how to manipulate databases. Early success was getting things to work. Later success was getting them to work faster and more efficiently. Staying up all night to finally find a bug that I caused by a mistake I made and then struggled to find because my documentation was poor helped me to understand the importance of incremental testing and clear writing in a way that textbooks didn’t convey. Painful lessons have always taught me more than when I am spoon-fed bullet points on a presentation slide.

Challenges grews as my work became more complex. As I became more successful, I was given greater responsibilities. In roles as a team leader, project manager, department head, and executive, I had to learn about a number of areas in order to be successful. What is emotional intelligence? Which insights into human behavior are most relevant for managers? What techniques of persuasion and influence are necessary to be an effective leader? How do you make a sale? Who wins a tricky negotiation and how do they do it?

Each topic begins a series of new lessons. And at the beginning I am a bit overwhelmed to discover yet another area that I don’t know about and how much there is to learn. I know that some painful lessons will probably be coming my way, especially as I try to apply what I learn in the real world. I know I will make mistakes. I know I will be uncomfortable. And I do not at all look forward to that. So I wonder for a moment, should I just leave well enough alone? Maybe I can just keep doing what I have been doing and stay in my comfort zone. It sure would be easier.

But then I realized that everything in my comfort zone became comfortable because I worked through difficult lessons. Before I was qualified to do anything, I was unqualified. And the only way I got to be qualified was by trying and learning lessons along the way. The first steps are always confusing and disorienting. Those are good signs, because they mean I am learning. 

But the biggest lesson is to know that I am always unqualified, because I need to know a lot more about the things that I think I know already. There are always new things to learn about anything I think I have mastered. Many times, this means having to unlearn some things that aren’t true anymore or maybe weren’t ever true. In many ways, I am always at a place of ignorance and inexperience—which means that I am always on the cusp of learning something worthwhile.