The weird creep of expertise

Or how I came to terms with being, against all odds, competent

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

This is a story about confidence.

In brief, I’m going into the business of running workshops to teach people how to write. In particular, to teach business owners how to write for their businesses, with special attention to their marketing.

I’m not making this career move on my own, for two big reasons.

I don’t like giving unsolicited advice, which is why I’m an unsuccessful blogger. Let that be a lesson to all of you aspiring bloggers out there: unsolicited advice is popular, or at least notorious. You want to make it as a blogger? Hand out advice like pollen on a bumblebee wobbling through the sunflower fields of life. It’s the first, best, and most enduring piece of advice for succeeding on the internet, and nobody ever says it. The success of blogging is in making your views as widely visible as possible.

And I’ve used up my advice karma for the day. The rest of this blog will be entirely humble, to bring the universe back into balance.

I’m making this career move because I was invited to. For a few years, I’ve been doing a little content writing for a marketing guru I fell in with. This marketing guru decided that she wanted to go into the business of teaching business owners how to run marketing, and she asked me to come along and run complementary workshops on writing and content creation.

I have a policy, a few years old now. Because of it, I say yes to crazy ideas.

To what?

To telling people how I do things and doing so with the purpose of helping them learn.

Teaching, put simply. And I don’t know if you remember your grade school days, but teaching is basically ALL advice. That’s a teacher’s job. All they do, day in and day die, is tell you, as THEY see it, the best way to do things.

Don’t nap now — there’s a BETTER time to nap.

Don’t practice your Batman skills now — there’s a good reason we’re standing in line right now.

Don’t paint with your carrots — there’s a good reason they’re called FINGER paints, and you’ll regret eating the carrots later.

As the man said, do this, don’t do that — can’t you read the sign? Just a bunch of curtailing of freedoms of expression.

The only reason teachers ever get a pass, in my view, comes from their demonstrable authority in the area they teach.

That is my struggle. I think, in order to teach and not come across as a self-righteous dolt, I need some fluency with the knowledge I claim to be capable of expanding.

I’ve often been told I have a good personality for teaching. My students would say so, which is where a little bit of the irony of this whole situation comes in. I used to work in the tutoring center at school, helping people with writing and similar. Those people told me that I have a good teaching personality.

Tutoring at a tutoring center feels different than being “Our Local Expert” and running workshops.

I’m dealing with this struggle. I don’t feel as if I know enough to teach. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the subject of writing. I hold few distinctions that generally confer authority. Although I hold more than none distinctions, at least. I feel as if I’ve gained that level of competence that makes me a really good student: I know enough to actually begin to learn. If this were karate or another Japanese martial art, it would be like I have my black belt, and now I can be taught the real stuff.

And now I have been asked to teach.

My inner conflict rumbles.

The key to the next stage in my journey is that I have been asked to teach. It makes for a different journey to prepare for a job I’ve been asked to do, as opposed to one I’m doing voluntarily. It changes my attitudes just enough to have a dramatic effect on my preparation.

This marketing guru friend, now business partner, of mine gave me goals, deadlines, things to prepare. I’ve interviewed our other partner — a business operations guru — and helped HER with her writing. It’s been a job, with work, with concrete goals to achieve. As such, it’s been a little hard to use something ephemeral (like the battle within me) as an excuse to avoid work. I’m a good worker. (Lesson one, if you ever take my writing workshops: be a good worker.) I have been avoiding like the plague any of the potentially paralytic arguments between me and me against doing the preparations required to get this business started. It’s a good business. There’s a need for it and a use for it, and I’m eager to participate.

One of the kinds of preparation I’ve done has been lesson plans for the workshops. The workshops, remember, that I feel like I’d be a self-important dick if I taught them at all. And it’s…

The thrust of the knowledge we’re teaching in our workshops is “How to Start Businesses Well,” with particular emphasis on their marketing. That’s what a lot of startups do poorly, as it turns out.

We run marketing, my business partners and me. That’s been what we’ve been doing professionally for, between us, a hundred millions years (roughly).

That means that our workshops are meant to turn the lessons we’ve learned by doing back out into the world so others might also do. We’re putting comprehensible skins on real world experiences that we’ve had. Or that’s the idea.

And my part is to create and run workshops on lessons from the area I’ve been working in: written content for marketing.

Writing is the kind of work I know how to do. And when I treat it like work, I can defeat a lot of self doubts that prevent me from finishing. (Ah, would that I could find that power in other areas of life — I weep for my guitar…)

A lesson plan is nothing more nor less than giving a sensible order to an abstraction. (Another lesson you can learn in my workshops.)

I have been writing lesson plans on areas important to content marketing, such as brand voice, or how blog writing differs from website content, or how you can use blogs in your marketing plan.

And…competence is a funny thing. You don’t notice it creep up on you. There’s no dividing line between troll and elf. On one side, you’re a squabbling whelp scraping and growling for your dinner. On the other you’re a ninja of some obscure discipline elegantly ignoring all dross and achieving things nobody else understands.

Because I noticed something about how I’m writing these lesson plans: I’m writing them without reference to anything. I’ll need to go back over them later — check my claims and theories. That’s just good stewardship. Getting a first draft of them done is significant, though.

A lesson plan is nothing more nor less than a sensible order given to an abstraction. Meaning, I have enough grasp of the abstractions to find a sensible shape to mold them into.

Meaning that, somehow, while I was looking the other way worrying, and in spite of my determination to avoid it, I managed to learn something.

I’m beginning to think I might have some idea what I’m talking about when it comes to this writing thing.

I’m impressed with a lot of people. I indulge a little too much in that psychic trap that goes, “I’m not good enough — definitely not as good as…” I can name just about anyone, in any area, at any time. I use this as an crutch. Since it’s it sounds like I’m being nice to other people, I use it to feel better about my self doubt.

Then I use it to convince myself that most people don’t struggle with the same doubt I do. And if they’re not worried and anxious the way I am, then the world is in good hands. I can’t do anything about the problems of the universe, I argue, because of my doubts. Since nobody else, I further argue, has any doubts, then we’re okay.

The secret that I imagine all of you know is this: doubt plagues most of us. Not all of us, certainly, but our story is a story of having doubts and dealing with them.

I encourage all of you with this idea: there’s something you like doing. You’re probably good at it. Maybe you’ve done what I do. You’ve said about this thing, “I’m not good enough — not as good as…” Stop the thought there. Then figure out how you’d teach someone else to do that thing.

I’m fairly confident that, if you do, you’ll discover two things:

  • You know how to do it way better than you think.
  • And you can learn how to do it way better than you thought.

Both are cool. Both are good.

Fear not.

The best part of being a mime is never having to say I’m sorry.

The best part of being a mime is never having to say I’m sorry.