The Things You Don’t Know You Know

It is very easy, at any stage in a career, to look at your peers and think they have everything solved while you are wandering around in the dark. This is, of course, an illusion. They will be looking at you and, as likely as not, thinking exactly the same in reverse. That’s true, I believe, of everyone apart from an obnoxious few who have no idea of their (in)capabilities, and assume that everyone else is looking at them in awe. For myself, given my fellow heads of house (heads of the Cambridge colleges) come from a wide range of backgrounds, the majority of which are not academic, I find it all too easy to think ‘well they went on a change management course’, or whatever particular facet of leadership one currently feels one is lacking, and hence feel relatively ignorant about the case in hand. Of course, being an academic, I haven’t been on such a course but, in reality, they may be struggling to grasp the academic cycle or something similar which is, by this point, second nature to me. How would I know?

I was brought up by a mother who always suffered under the belief – as she frequently told me – that there were rules that she alone didn’t understand. I think this came from being a teenager in the Second World War, someone who got roped into adult situations without any instruction. For instance, she was a rare female member of the Royal Observer Corps as soon as she hit 16, but was also the daughter of the local head of the district team, so had an awkward path to negotiate. But she instilled in me this belief there were ‘rules’ I needed to find out if I were to succeed. And of course, I failed, because as often as not there are no such rules and everyone else is also muddling around trying to make the best of some complex situation or other.

Whatever stage of your career you’re at, therefore, it behoves you to remember things that others apparently know but are a closed book to you, are not the only things that matter. You will have a battery of knowledge up your sleeve that others are looking at and being impressed by. It may be that you have green fingers when it comes to making some particularly recalcitrant piece of equipment fire on all cylinders; perhaps it’s because in a previous role you had come across some obscure paper that has the precise answer to the question your team are struggling with. Maybe it’s that you’ve spoken at a conference before and can reassure the newest member of the team about what to expect, or perhaps it’s further removed from your research and concerns information on local schools or nurseries. The chances are you an ‘expert’ in something who can pass on that knowledge to someone who is feeling adrift. But it is all too easy to take this ‘expertise’ as given, and not notice that you have many skills to hand that others perhaps lack but would like to learn from you.

Nevertheless, at a moment in time when it’s you that’s feeling adrift, it is important to realise that a feeling of being out of your depth is not likely to be a permanent state of affairs. And yet, just as it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of only remembering the negative comments (those that stick like Velcro) when perhaps you got something not quite right, and forget the times when you were the one with the knowledge others were seeking.

One of the behaviours that we should all worry about is when a belief in our own excellence becomes inflated. As fellow head of house Simon McDonald (Master of Christ’s) puts it when discussing the process of making appointments with fellow senior diplomats

‘We behaved as if we were a circle of perfection. Assuming ourselves to be perfect, we looked assiduously for candidates in our own image. We labelled such candidates the ‘full package’…. Of all the odd ideas expressed in our talent meetings, this seems to me the oddest. No one is the full package.’

So, remember that. You may be ignorant about some aspect of your current role, but no one around you is perfect, nor the ‘full package’. You are not alone in sometimes, even frequently, feeling you don’t know what is going on. Equally, you almost certainly know more than you, yourself, recognize.

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