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Joel's Posts

I Have No Idea What I Am Doing

During the journey of building Buffer, I’ve had some truly fantastic moments. I’ve reached some defining milestones. New doors have opened for me, and it has been great.

Looking back to when I started Buffer, even though I had learned a lot from my past startup experiences, I truly didn’t know what I was doing and I approached everything with that mindset. I was out there to learn and I knew that the only way I was going to progress was to adopt a very open mind.

I’m writing this post because when I stray away from this mindset, I lose out as a result.

When success can lead you down the wrong path

I’ve been lucky enough to receive some great press and praise for Buffer. In addition to this, I’ve had some of my blog posts featured in great newsletters and some blogs I truly admire, and I’ve also had the opportunity to speak a few times about how I’ve achieved some success with Buffer.

This form of others directly or indirectly appreciating what I was doing, and a few reaching out to ask me for advice, set me off on a path which I can now say in hindsight is not where I want to be. I love to help others, and I will always do my best to share my own experience, but as soon as I took appreciation as a signal that I knew what I was doing, I had taken a wrong step.

Believing that I knew what I was doing

The key turning point was when I started to believe that I knew what I was doing. I let the comments, the kind congratulations and the small successes affect my mind. I actually thought I knew what I was doing.

As soon as I believed that I knew what I was doing, without realising it, the style of my writing and communication in general started to change slightly. I became naturally drawn to instructive comments and advice where I would have previously communicated simply based on my own experiences.

The biggest mistake: I became less open-minded

It was with this new instructive style that made me realise I had lost my open-mindedness. After a few people asked for my advice, I was starting to treat everything in a way in which I needed to have a definite answer.

That’s when I looked back to the early days of Buffer. At that time, the only way I was going to get somewhere was to be completely open-minded, take every opportunity to learn and make the most of every conversation. This was how I progressed, and it really worked. It felt amazing.

A new start: a beginner’s mind

So the truth is: I have no idea what I am doing. I am taking a leaf from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen. I am going to let go of being an expert:

“We are all experts. Experts in our job, in raising children, in crossing the road, in signing our name. It’s difficult to let go of being an expert. Because it means confessing that we really know nothing. What we know belongs to the past. Whereas this moment now is new and offers its unique challenges. If I let go of being an expert, I can listen to others with an open mind. Then I can find that even a beginner has something to teach me.”

The counter point

This is a challenging subject, because I think it is just as easy to be stalled by “I don’t know” as it is to let “I know” cause you to become less open-minded. I now think there is a middle ground I want to strive for, which is having a curious and inquisitive mind whilst still acting when I don’t know what the outcome will be.

Have you ever felt like your knowledge or experience could cause you to stop being open-minded and learning? I’d really love to hear about your experiences on this topic.

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Photo credit: Eric Hayes

  • Tom Jackson

    This is a great post. Being perceived as an authority feels good but, ultimately, it defeats progress. I see people lose their curiosity and humble approach as they become “experts”. I try hard not to fall into that trap. Semi-successfully.

  • I find the point about the beginner’s mind to be incredibly salient. Setting aside prior experience and prejudices when dealing with people is definitely the most productive way to conduct yourself that will leave both parties satisfied. Great post!

  • Jevon Millan

    Thinking you know it already is the primary thing that barriers learning.

  • I feel like this post is in line with the thought “You never want to be the smartest person in the room.” — If you look around and you’re the only one answering questions, great. But what are you LEARNING? Educate these minds who are asking questions, absolutely — but also be sure to find the rooms where you know nothing and have to be the one asking a thousand questions. I feel like society puts it on us to “be the expert” – as a kid in school I was ALWAYS afraid to speak up or ask even the simplest of questions because of the fear in not knowing and seeming “stupid.” As I grew up, obviously, I learned how silly this was because in not even attempting to ask the questions – I missed out on far greater opportunities. I learned the most when I threw myself into groups, situations, and careers that I knew absolutely nothing about – the ones that threw me off the edge of my comfort zone, and had me wading in fear in search of comfort. Talk about motivation to learn! ;) I wouldn’t have traded those experiences for the world though as that’s where I gained and grew the most in life and found a certain level of confidence you can only truly come to know through adventure. Great post!

  • Legendary Dad

    Good thoughts but I think you have to be selective with those you are open minded to. There’s little value in being open minded to everyone.

    Instead you should seek the thoughts of those who are further along the journey than you are.

    Also there comes a point when you are an expert. Don’t shrink from that because you don’t want to appear arrogant. You’ve earn that expert title!

  • Karah Youngs Bradshaw

    Excellent article!

  • Aroha Wikotu

    I can really relate to this, thanks for sharing <3

  • Haha, great post thanks! I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Tweet.

  • I wish I could not know what I’m doing as well as you do.

  • Hugh O’Byrne

    Being open makes you vulnerable but at the same time gives you the chance to learn and I love the buzz I get when I’m learning something new. I read this other more complex article from HBR which echoes some of your thoughts. If I was to net it out I’d say it says think of yourself always as ‘work-in-progress’, always learning, always adapting

  • Marcond de Marchi

    IMHO there are some important points to remember. Knowledge doesn’t make us fail-proof. The more you advance, more gray, error prone areas grow. They were there before, but we had not enough knowledge to recognize them. When you discover you are in the wrong path – big time wrong – you are becoming more self-aware (or you wouldn’t at least feel it). You need to know the world, but you need to know yourself, what you really want. The wrong path in a project is sometimes awful, while the wrong path in life is really painful. The more you know, I think, the more open-minded you are. Just don’t forget that knowledge is all about yourself too. This is what really opens your mind. How you react to the new. How you work under stress. What you really want – be it fame, fortune or family. Knowledge about things are your eyes. Knowledge about yourself is your own compass, your personal map – nothing substitutes this. Be brave. Dealing with knowledge about yourself requires a degree of courage. And go on.

  • Most definitely, Joel. I think it’s a life’s work to hang on to our humility…especially when one is “succeeding.” I’d like to offer a view from a different perspective… “hanging on to humility when not succeeding.”

    I find myself trapped in a world between humility (the beginner’s mind) and arrogance. And I would appreciate any feedback.

    My heart, soul, and spirit embrace humility. It is a life lesson learned the hard way as I began my journey into sobriety 24 years ago. In sobriety, if one loses sight of their humility, relapse will be waiting.

    I crave the unknown and embrace the journey. I truly love life….and yet I’m buried in internal stress and strife because I rebelliously protect my right to humility and to “not know” and it’s crushing me financially.

    From what I can feel, the anxiety I’m describing (and feeling) originates when a person who embraces humility and the “not knowing” mindset finds themselves at the end of their financial rope (without exaggeration) seeking employment (to support just the basic necessities) in a society primarily operated by ego-maniacal, command and control, hierarchies. It seems most of these hierarchies seek, and are willing to pay for, peacocks with their chests puffed out. The concept of humility, in hierarchies, seems to garner more lip service than being a trait they hope to genuinely foster.

    I find myself in a conform (strut my stuff) or go under situation with my nostrils just above the surface. I would guess there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of folks just like myself…trying to hang on to their humility in a world which seems to talk about humility but pays for arrogance.

    Stir in a heavy dose of “Impostor Syndrome” and… well… it’s terrifying.

    I just want to be the best “me” I can be so I can help others be the best “them” they can be. And, of course, helping others helps me be a better me. Those statements come directly from my heart and are, unfortunately, counter-intuitive to the culture within the command and control environments I’ve been part of. ANY feedback would be warmly welcomed.

    “People all say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell

    On the upside… companies like Buffer, Medium, and Zappos are paving the way to a brighter future for all by operating a distributed work environment using alternative, humane governance systems. And, of course I’m working towards a position within an org like that as that’s would be the ideal solution. However, the number of organizations embracing this mentality are so low, the reality I described above must be faced on a daily basis.

    So how does one hang on to their humility and remain open-minded and learning in a world only willing to pay for “experts?”

    I’m anxious to read your replies.

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