An ancient Greek saying, supposedly inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, read “Know Thyself.” It sounds simple enough, but like many simple instructions it’s much easier said than done. In our interactions with others, we create all sorts of illusory visions of ourselves that we call impressions. It’s impossible to avoid, because nobody can know someone else fully, so they have to fill in part of the picture for themselves. Sometimes, however, we too readily believe the impressions we think we present to others, instead of what we know to be true about ourselves.

Naturally, the more closely aligned your projected persona is to what you really know about yourself, the more you’ll be relieved of the burden of maintaining appearances, and the more effective you’ll be in whatever you’re doing. But people perceive major rewards for minor infractions of this rule, so they happen all the time.

For instance, the new consultant believes that his prospects expect expertise. He (I use the masculine pronoun here because men are more susceptible to this) thinks that he must project not only a confidence in his abilities (which he doubts) but also a greater knowledge and experience level than he possesses. If he stretches that truth enough times, he may come to believe in his own expertise — but that doesn’t keep him from wrecking every project he touches.

Conversely, those who are afraid to make the jump into consulting, or who flee from the field after the first engagement, may suffer from a lack of appreciation of their own skills. “I’ve never been a consultant before — I wouldn’t know what I was doing” may echo in the back of their brains. Never mind that consultants aren’t really a different species of hominid — as much as we make think so. “Someone will find out that I don’t know what I’m doing, and then I’ll have to leave the profession in shame.” That won’t happen unless you misrepresent yourself.

Focusing on your strengths doesn’t mean trying to pass them off as more than they are; it only means presenting what you know you do well. It had better also be what you love to do, because you’re trying to get to do more of it.

Being aware of your limitations also doesn’t mean placing yourself in a humble category with a lid on it, forever labeled as “less than” those superhumans who “really know” the field. No, it means acknowledging that every human has shortcomings and admitting to yours, but not ruling out your ability to overcome them. In any situation, even the “expert” will have something to learn.

Clients often suffer from these illusions, too. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen relatively smart people at a client’s office who shudder in fear at the thought of trying to tackle a particular problem because they think they don’t have what it takes. I’ve tried to paint a picture of how few steps away they are from mastering what they need to know, but in my experience they see it like this:

  • if it’s one step away from what they know, then that’s like climbing a mountain.
  • if it’s two steps away from what they know (i.e., they have to learn one thing, and then something else), then that’s like flying to the moon.
  • if it’s three steps away from what they know, then they might as well be attempting to raise the dead.

That’s why we have to encourage people to take on those one-step projects, even if it’s on their own time. That helps them bring more of those two-step potential projects within one step.

Conversely, many employees (especially CTOs, CIOs, and technical leads) live in constant fear of having their authority eroded by a revelation of how little they know, so they pretend to know more than they do — or that what they don’t know isn’t relevant. “We’re not going to consider Technology X, because it’s been proven to be ineffective,” which is based on one blog rant they gleefully consumed and have been regurgitating ever since because it makes their total lack of unbiased attention to the subject look like they wisely avoided wasting their time.

While people generally like to learn that they have more potential than they realized, nobody wants to be educated about how little they know. But it has helped me in my career to know that nobody else has a perfect appreciation of their own abilities and limitations, and that nobody knows me better than I know myself.

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