Why ‘not knowing’ can be your greatest strength…

I used to think ‘not knowing’ something made me weak. I’ve always adopted the Richard Branson mantra of “If someone asks you to do something and you don’t know how, say ‘yes’ and learn later.” (Although perhaps I shouldn’t admit that quite so publically). That being said, it doesn’t mean you aren’t absolutely petrified you’ll mess up. Quick learner, yes. Able to acquire decades of experience in a matter of days, not so much.

“If someone asks you to do something and you don’t know how, say ‘yes’ and learn later.”

This fear of getting it wrong and being discovered as a ‘fraud’ – although that feels quite a strong term when it’s written down, because I have never been entirely ignorant – led to me constantly seeking out as much information as possible to fill these gaps of knowledge. From reading every article and every book I could find, to talking to people around me to get their expert insight, draining all possible experience from them in the hopes of filling my reservoir, I did it all.

not knowing business competitors

Still, it never felt enough and I found myself contemplating applying for jobs in areas that I considered my ‘weakness’ so I could see how the ‘experts’ worked. (Also with the fear of how could I possibly do everything I needed to do in one lifetime?). Here was possibly what I saw as my greatest lack, if we can call it that. I hadn’t seen how lots of other businesses of different shapes and sizes had responded to the same needs and challenges, and therefore didn’t know how I compared to them. How could I be any good if I didn’t know how the competition worked? How could I offer the same services and results if I hadn’t seen how others did it before me?

Needless to say, I didn’t get the jobs and, as life would have it, was left to forge ahead on my own. Petrified, yes, quite often. However, when your life raft is cut from you and you’re left to swim, there’s nothing else for it but to front crawl as though your life depends on it. I have luckily spent many years growing up and working in a culture where learning for yourself was heavily promoted, so I came up with my own solutions to these gaps of knowledge. If I didn’t know how the experts did it, I was going to have to come up with my own methods and techniques and hope that they came up pretty similar when positioned side-by-side. You could call it strategic guesswork.

“Surprisingly though, for someone who is incredibly self-critical, I found the complete opposite started to happen.”

Nervously I started to utilise these new-found ways of working, looking for feedback whenever possible to improve and grow (or have someone call me out as a complete dunce). Surprisingly though, for someone who is incredibly self-critical, I found the complete opposite started to happen. The response I began getting was on the lines of – ‘Of all the people I have worked with, I have never seen anything as detailed, actionable or precise’ and ‘This is, without doubt, the best type of work I have ever seen. If only everyone else could do this too’.

I don’t say that to blow my own trumpet – although, while we’re here, let’s have a ‘doo doo doo’. But I mention it because, suddenly, I realised ‘not knowing’ had become my greatest possible strength. Indeed, as Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, has also been quoted as saying, “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.” I couldn’t agree more. Sure, we may fail. It’s a risk. But by failing, we learn more too. We also come up with a way of working that is unique, and by default, interesting.

“Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.”

No one wants copy-cat work. It doesn’t stand out as original, and certainly doesn’t give anyone a reason to pick you over a competitor. It also means you may be adopting a way of working that actually, behind closed doors, isn’t working for the original person either. Just because it is being done, it doesn’t mean it is the ‘right’ way of working with successful outcomes. Whenever people tell me to look at how their competitor is operating, I tend to ignore it until I have established how I think they should be working, based on my own knowledge and experience. Only then do I look at their competition, and often this is fleeting at best.

Too many people focus on the existing market first and just replicate what they see. The thing with competition is that, while it’s good to have, it shouldn’t be what you’re concentrating on. It causes all kinds of anxiety and, for many, can be paralysing. If you spend too long watching what everyone else is doing, you won’t be concentrating on your own business. I believe strongly that there is room in this world for everyone (I mean, come on, there are 7.6 billion people on this earth at the last count!), so rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing, we should simply work hard at watering our own patch of grass and, in time, it will naturally grow. That’s how success happens.


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