The Cult of Expertise & How the Words “I don’t know” Can Save You

or, How to become a web developer without losing your mind

I’m a teacher in the front-end engineering program at the Turing School of Software & Design.

Our students come from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds. Some worked in DevOps and are intimately familiar with the developer life. Some have never touched the terminal. Some have tried out a few free courses online, others don’t know what JavaScript is.

They’re all making a leap into a new career that they don’t fully understand, but are excited to try. And, regardless of background, we find that they are all equally capable of not only making it through Turing, but of becoming seriously impressive developers.

Remember, you’re only bad at this AT THE MOMENT

We talk a lot about growth mindset at Turing, not because it’s buzzwordy and hip and looks good on paper — but because learning to be a developer is difficult. It’s easy to hit a wall and start to think, “Oh dang, I was wrong, this is not the career for me, I’m too stupid to get this, what even are computers!”

Compounding this is the fact that development, like many other STEM fields, tends to attract people who like being experts. I’m saying this as a complete and total know-it-all myself: with love and understanding and also with “smh” floating aggressively above my head.

Don’t let the insecure Experts cramp your style

Being surrounded by Experts™ can be tough when you’re in a learning environment, because there’s a certain breed of Expert that really hates to admit that they don’t know absolutely everything about everything.

Whether you yourself are an Expert, or if you’re surrounded by them, the net result is the same: you’re too afraid to ask for help or admit that you don’t understand something.

What I’ve seen from my students is that the Experts in class don’t like feeling like rookies. They learn until they get the concept, and then they stop, secure again.

But the students who don’t really care about being Experts are comfortable knowing how much they don’t know. The Rookies keep pushing. They get a concept, and then they test the limits of their understanding. They keep trying to poke holes in their knowhow, trying to expose their own ignorance so they can learn even more. They’re not afraid to look foolish, or to sound stupid — they know that asking questions will lead to more answers.

It takes courage to ask for help

The Rookies always wind up stronger than the Experts. Their understanding always ends up clearer and better-connected to other concepts, because they weren’t afraid to say “I don’t know.”

So give up the fragile mantle of the Expert, and embrace “I don’t know” and the doors it opens.

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