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It’s Okay to Feel Stupid Sometimes

August 17, 2010

Have you ever been in a meeting, minding your own business, maybe thinking about what  you might want to have for dinner that night, when suddenly you realize all eyes have turned on 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, well, perhaps you are new to the project. And these people have been throwing around some god-forsaken set of acronyms and industry-slang shorthand because they are all so familiar with it.

But you don’t have a clue what they were talking about, so you drifted off for a moment.

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 as I 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 conscious incompetence phenomenon, when it happens to me.

I call it, “Feeling Stupid.”

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Photo by A Simple Country Girl.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 5:30 am

    Yes, I have been in that situation many times, but the funny thing is that I’ve put others in that situation even more. Why is that funny? Because many times both have been occurred at the same time! I’m always surprised when someone opens up later in our relationship and tells me how intimidated they are of me or that they feel stupid around me. It’s never the people I would expect either.

    When these feelings come over me, I try to remind myself of how likely it is that someone at the table is feeling the same way. I’ve even learned sometimes it’s best to just admit how I’m feeling to the group. It’s never backfired on me, but I’m always afraid it will.

  2. August 17, 2010 8:30 am

    Hi, Bradley – good post.

    Great way to describe conscious incompetence – love the image, because, like Brad above, I’ve been there)

    BTW, check the spelling on your tag.


  3. August 17, 2010 10:58 am

    In my job I often have to write about technical subjects which I don’t have a clue. I simply “go forth boldly”. I tell the experts up front that I don’t have any idea about what they do and am here to help them tell their story. They are always gracious. However, when I try to ‘fake’ my way through a situation, it always backfires.

    “Be honest, David!”

    • August 18, 2010 4:53 am

      Two great principles for our careers:

      1. Go forth boldly

      2. Be honest about what you don’t know

      Then, everything else kind of works itself out, right?

      Great reply, David.

  4. August 17, 2010 12:13 pm

    as someone who suffers from this in all aspects of life,
    I love how you spun this.

    behind in all things blog, last week was a two daughter drop off. sigh.
    you will cry.
    I was crying last night on Skype.

    I love that I can look like a bumbling fool in front of my children . And they still look to me . That’s faith , no?

    • August 18, 2010 4:54 am

      My daughty is off to her first year at college this Sunday. I don’t know if I’ll cry. I’ll probably go into a long spell of melancholy, like my heart is being pulled hard from far away.

  5. August 19, 2010 12:08 am

    I love this. Conscious Incompetence. I’m now going to write that on my hand for tomorrow’s business meeting and remember that when I feel stupid, I’m actually being conscious incompetent. 🙂

  6. August 22, 2010 6:17 pm

    i’m 14 and all i gotta say is, at times you think you’re older and won’t drift off at work. But, I’m sure in high school you and your friends were talking about how hot jimmy is and how cute annie looked in her new shirt. Well, my friends and I always drift off and the worst part is when the teacher asks you to share what you were saying to the whole class. Now at that point I feel like it’s enough to kill myself.

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