As a devotee of Brene Brown and a disciple on the path to Wholehearted living, I’ve come to accept and lean into my feelings of shame and inadequacy in the work I do. As I grow in this practice, I’ve encouraged both my students and my co-facilitators to walk that journey as well, often in small subtle ways.
I do this for one key reason: all learning comes from the acceptance we lack something. This could be a skill, an experience, a fact, a technique, a concept, or even just permission to do something we haven’t done before. The humility of not knowing is what opens the gates to new information. This humility also opens me up to the potential to be transformed by what I learn and the experience of learning it.
But in our world, not knowing something is often seen as a sign of weakness triggering shame and fear, particularly for those of us who’ve been bullied or otherwise made to feel bad, vulnerable, or afraid for not knowing something others deem essential.
Maybe we were the top of the class or just seen as the “smart kid” who always had the answer. Maybe we based our self-worth on knowing and, because of that, felt devalued if we didn’t know something others valued, so we hid our ignorance for fear we weren’t good enough because we didn’t know everything there was to know.
Maybe we weren’t the top of the class and felt inferior to those who were in ways that undermined our self-esteem and self-worth. Maybe we’re members of a racial or ethnic group who’ve often been marginalized and blocked from the paths of learning others walk so effortlessly.
While this may happen often as a child where there’s little expectation of knowing, things change when we become an adult and working professional. The acknowledgment of not knowing can be very painful to the point where some people will do anything not to accept and acknowledge (even to themselves) that they don’t know something. This can be true no matter how small and unimportant the unknown thing can be.
I often see this with the public sector professionals I teach. I focus on data analysts, a title I use broadly to describe anyone who works with and around data. They are often a rare commodity and if you ask in any office of your local government agency “Who’s your data person?”, they will likely point to one person somewhere in the back with reverential awe at what they are able to do with data.
As you might expect, the “data person” isn’t oblivious to the fact that much of their perceived value in the office comes from holding and maintaining this awe and sense of indispensability, particularly in a time of budget cuts and dwindling public resources. But being the “data person” is a lonely identity akin to the Wizard of Oz, putting on a dazzling show of fire and smoke while hiding his normalcy behind a curtain.
In my experience, both personally from having been that analyst and as an instructor trying to help mentor these brave souls, it’s hard to grow when you’re afraid that asking for help or admitting you don’t know something will erode the perception of your value to the organization. It’s hard when you feel you need this value for not only a paycheck to meet your physical needs, but also the recognition to feed your own internal psychological need for validation and acceptance.
This is where our classes come in.
We take people who are on some spectrum of vulnerability from the virtually invulnerable to those who feel completely unable to cope with the not-knowing. Often they try and manage this experience by minimizing their engagement. They don’t ask a lot of questions, will distract themselves with their email to stay engage with the office, or just won’t engage at all.
So how do we deal with this? We embrace it.
- Have compassion. They at least showed up and so have some internal sense, whether latent or manifest in their minds, that they need or could otherwise benefit from what we are teaching.
- Acknowledge their feelings. We do that in our ground rules before class, but also in our approach of expressing gratitude for their contributions, no matter how small, not in an inauthentic, “touchy-feely” way, but an authentic place of gratitude and recognition that what they are doing is hard and they haven’t before had the chance to learn the skills, techniques, and mindsets we are demonstrating for them.
- Make our classes a safe place to fail. In fact, we encourage failure as an invitation to learning, giving each person permission to fail. In our R and Python classes, I get excited and celebrate when someone gets an error message so we can discuss the why and acknowledge how the experience of something failing can be a block to learning. I admit my own “not knowing” very overtly no matter the class I’m facilitating, modeling how I move through my feelings of vulnerability to arrive at knowing, and explicitly share this with them as a model for their own moments of not knowing. I hold their feelings of not knowing tenderly by generously giving them my attention as they explain what they did, why it didn’t work the way they intended, and patiently prompting them to think through the problem on their own. I try to normalize the experience of not knowing and provide them encouragement to continue working, reminding them the solution is within their capacity, giving them the answer only when they are too frustrated or just missing some key piece of information. I move them through the obstacle but then reflect with them on the process, asking for them to reflect on what just happened so they can internalize whatever technique or operation we just accomplished. If possible, I have them teach someone else who has a same or similar question so they can practice their new-found mastery of whatever they just learned.
- Model cooperation and collaboration as a strength. We often say “Don’t data alone” or “Data analytics is a team sport.” We say it as a joke, but there’s an embedded truth that we need to work together in order for the work we do to have the impact we want it to have. Our colleagues can be a source of criticism and blame, but they can also be a source of strength and support. Modeling the latter helps reduce the likelihood of the former, or at least provide better resilience when it unfortunately happens.
If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: failure isn’t a sign of weakness but of strength. It lies at the beginning of all knowledge and is an invitation to the growth we need to realize our potential. It’s our best teacher and only our worst critic when we let it be.