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It’s Okay to Feel Stupid Sometimes

November 23, 2008

Have you ever been in a meeting, minding your own business, thinking about what restaurant you might want to go for dinner tonight, when suddenly you realize all eyes have turned to you, looking for an opinion? Except that you have no idea what they were just talking about? It’s not that you weren’t paying attention. No, you really were trying to follow the conversation. It’s just that perhaps you are new to the project or to this particular market segment, and these people have been throwing around some god-forsaken set of acronyms and shorthand industry-slang because they are all so familiar with it, but you don’t have a clue what they are talking about, so you drifted off for a moment. What do they expect? You were thrown in to this situation just yesterday! You are trying to provide some kind of leadership and direction to this team, because although these strapping young engineers may have the technical acronyms down pat, it’s all too apparent that they couldn’t organize their way out of your cat’s litter box. This team needs to come to a strategic decision on the best path to move forward, but all they do is talk, talk, talk. That’s why you are there. You are the Big-Picture Guy. And you’ll get them to deliver results.

In situations like this when it seems as if I am in over my head for a moment or two, at first I get all sweaty and red in the face and think to myself how inept I am compared to these geeks. Surely they must think I’m an idiot and a big loser from the ivory towers of downtown Corporate. And how will I ever find the time to learn all of the technical details that they toss around so casually? I even become slightly envious of these subject-matter-experts, the way they have such deep experience in the matters we are discussing, these things that I have never really paid any attention to, nor cared much about at all, up until now.

There’s a name for this, when you come to realize that you don’t know something. It’s called “conscious incompetence.” This condition is a step up from “unconscious incompetence,” where you are in a state of blissful ignorance because you don’t know what you don’t know. Therefore you don’t care. But I have my own non-theoretical term for this phenomenon, when it happens to me. I call it “Feeling Stupid.”

It can be intimidating when everyone in the room knows more than you do about something, or if you find yourseld thrown into a situation where you are in over your head. But it’s not all bad. In fact, I would say that feeling stupid at work can actually be a good sign for your career. Here are some reasons why it’s okay to feel stupid sometimes. 

  1. Feeling stupid means that you are outside of your comfort zone. You are taking on new challenges which will allow you to grow and stretch. The Conscious Competence theory would say that you will eventually move through the discomfort of feeling inept into the next stage of learning. So don’t get too uptight. 
  2. It means you are not arrogant. The days of the puffed up ego-bloated leader is so five minutes ago, in case you haven’t been reading the business news lately.  A little humility and insecurity can actually be a good thing. In fact, a Harvard Business article calls it the “Imposter Syndrome.”  Most up and coming managers will go through a phase of insecurity, where they are worried that they’ll be uncovered as a fraud. So, no, it’s not just you. Take a deep breath. Relax. You’ll figure it out.  And Jesus tells us that the humble are the ones that will get promoted: “..for everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). Being humble is a nice way to stay on God’s good side.  
  3. It keeps you hungry to learn new information.  The quickest way to stop feeling stupid is to learn – ask dumb questions, read books, do research, start networking, get some mentoring, and then get some good old-fashioned experience. This is ultimately how you will grow, develop, and get ahead. 
  4. You’ll be better liked. Let’s be honest, no one wants to work with an arrogant know-it-all blow-hard (or, there is another word you probably would have liked to use. It rhymes with “aerosol”). Someone recently told me that the best manager he ever had was constantly asking for his opinion before making a decision: “Paul, what do you think about this situation? What would you do?” The boss’s respect for his expertise endeared this smart employee to his manager. Go team. 

So, if you are feeling stupid, congratulations! And keep it up! You are probably on your way to a big promotion.

Do you have stupid stories of your own? I’d like to hear about it!

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2008 11:14 am

    Brad,
    I like this post, and I hope to have it featured this week over at High Calling Blogs. Stay tuned for that!

    I wasn’t aware of the Imposter Syndrome outside of reading Brennan Manning’s book, Abba’s Child. The Harvard Business article relates the imposter to our work environment; Manning connects it to our relationship with God. Any thoughts on that?

  2. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    December 9, 2008 9:28 pm

    Hey, thanks Sam!

    I have never thought about the Imposter Syndrome as it relates to our relationship with God, but, why not? We are all so insecure at the core, so even if God swoops in on our lives and promises us salvation and eternal life and that we are his beloved children, etc etc, we might still feel deep down inside that we are just not good enough. And we struggle to really accept, trust and believe it.

    Is that what Manning refers to?

  3. skyesongclubpenguin permalink
    December 10, 2008 6:13 pm

    it is good to be introduced to your blog through the high callings.

    it is an interesting balance to have enough confidence to be a leader, parent, pastor, etc. without getting carried away with ego and control issues.

    i suppose that the best leader is also a follower of Christ who listens to the Holy Spirit.

  4. December 10, 2008 6:49 pm

    After a 30 year business career, I can say hungry and humble is a good way to be in Corporate America. And now that I am in seminary I find that hungry and humble works quite well here.

  5. December 13, 2008 12:48 pm

    “Is that what Manning refers to?”

    Manning describes two ways we live out our public lives – either as the Imposter or the Beloved. The Beloved is my true self who knows and believes that I am loved by God. The Imposter, on the other hand, is a character who helps me cope with my insecurities by letting the world see only my best side. The Imposter is the Me who brags about accomplishments, takes extra pride in having a corner office, practices name-dropping, keeps intimate friendships at bay for fear of having my weaknesses discovered, etc., because all of these make me feel loved at least temporarily.

    The Beloved is loved and knows it, and this keeps the public accolades from turning into idols. The Imposter feels unloved and uses public accolades to compensate.

    So, while the “imposter syndrome” can help keep us humble (a good thing), it can also be a sign of compensating for the doubts we have about God’s love.

  6. October 13, 2009 6:33 pm

    Okay. I’m feeling stupid…

    What rhymes with “aerosol”?

  7. Rizz permalink
    July 5, 2010 7:22 pm

    I really needed this right now, thanks.

    Just started a new job, and as competent as I know I am I had this lingering nauseousness over the smallest things.. Like not knowing my way around and swallowing all the information thrown at me and not being able to spit it back up upon request after a couple of days of training. I have a shrink in the family that I spoke to about it who stressed me out even more with a lot of psych babble.. This was simple, but nailed it.

    I think the worst thing about it is feeling stupid about feeling stupid, but when someone says “hey, it’s totally ok that you feel this way (everyone does), and here’s how you can overcome it”, you sort of snap out of it and it’s easy to relieve the negative symptoms and carry on.

    I’m going to panic again in the morning, but will remember that the feeling will pass and I will redeem myself wherever I understandably fall short now.

    Thanks again

  8. July 7, 2010 4:45 pm

    Glad this helped, Rizz. You are the prime candidate for this type of advice, with a new position and all. Hang in there – in a couple of months you will be laughing about it. Well, maybe not laughing. But I’m sure you will get right in to the groove. Just relax, don’t panic, and give it time. You’ll do great.

  9. Mike Gaughan permalink
    May 24, 2011 7:04 pm

    I have been feeling this way for about a month and a half now … overwhelmed by the sheer volume of very complicated technology, systems, and tools that are required of me to fulfill my role on this new project. For years, I have been operating on my own – figuring things out and devising my own solutions. I am once again left basically alone, but I need more help now than at any other time in my career. Folks are good about helping and I am most appreciative.
    A couple of weeks ago I had been having trouble sleeping. I’d wake up at 2am … stomach churning … couldn’t get back to sleep. This lasted for 10 days. On the 10th day I woke again at two … couldn’t fall back to sleep … so at 2:30 I got up and decided to go for a run! I left the house and started my warmup walk when I encountered another “walker”. (I live in a pretty rural area in NH) I just started laughing my ass off. I think this other poor fellow thought I was craz!! I laughed at him … pointed my finger at him and said “You ca’t effing sleep either!” Well, he started laughing as well … I continued my run for about an hour and have felt better since (at least no more waking at 2am). I am still feeling stupid … but less so every day! I guess I’m comin’ around.

  10. Kate permalink
    September 7, 2011 2:57 am

    Great blog post thanks. I have been at my new job for 12 days and it’s one of those ‘hit the ground running’ types, but I feel completely overwhelmed with all the information I have to take in and cannot come up with articles and reports requested immediately as I just ‘don’t get it’ and hence feel stupid. Even the young 25 year old assistant with a Generation Y attitude is annoying me because she talks to me like I’m stupid. People do say ‘hang in there you’ll get it’ but it’s tough when you have to come up with the results but can’t deliver confidently. I’m confused and stressed and miserable. I’m trying hard to read as much as I can about the business so I can learn it eventually. Argh.

  11. Nathalie permalink
    January 25, 2012 2:41 pm

    Dear Mr. Moore,

    Thank you for this encouraging article!

    I have been feeling stupid and upset lately. Thanks to your article I can see my situation in a new, hopeful light now. I am outside my comfort zone. Fear of failing hindered me to try and learn, so I got stuck, which enforced the feeling of being stupid.

    I am going to inform myself, learn and approach this new zone.

    Kind regards,

    Nathalie

    (I’m foreign-language so don’t wonder about possible mistakes… )

  12. Miss Roxie permalink
    February 29, 2012 2:12 pm

    A thanks from me, too. I just started a new job. I am 64. I got hired because I knew the contractor, but hey, it’s all New To Me stuff… (I stumbled upon your blog from a relative who had posted the link on a FB page. Glad I followed it.)

    The gentlemen who is training me keeps saying, “ahhh, you’ll get it, don’t worry about it…” – so after reading this, I’m thinking, maybe, perhaps, oh well, yeah, he is right! Hah!

  13. December 12, 2012 8:16 pm

    Thanks for this! Been in my line of industry for 10 years. and until now i feel stupid sometimes or maybe lately more than sometimes. 🙂 hehe But yeah, at least I’m conscious about it and that’s a step. The first step to wisdom is admission of ignorance. Now, I am on to my next step! Thanks for the encouragement!! 🙂 God bless you greatly!

  14. Keith permalink
    March 24, 2014 8:47 pm

    Great article … I’ve been feeling a bit inadequate and unsure of what is expected of me at work lately. This gives the positive spin that I needed. Thanks!

  15. Dawn Skeates permalink
    June 6, 2014 2:45 am

    I constantly feel over my head at work. Been doing the job for a year and still feel incredibly stupid compared to everyone else there. I told one of my co-workers that I feel like a fraud the other day, I guess thats conscious incompetance. I prefer unconscious incompetance.

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