Even when you know you’re having trouble wrapping your head around a new project, it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that you don’t know everything at work.
I was Exhibit A of this phenomenon a few years ago after I accepted a job for which I had some pretty glaring knowledge gaps. But as hard as I tried convincing everyone that I knew exactly what I was doing, I eventually had to own up to the fact that I was completely lost.
The good news? I didn’t get fired.
The better news?
I learned a few good lessons about admitting you don’t know something at work.
1. Your Boss Probably Already Knows
When I took that gig, I didn’t meet all the qualifications. But I figured I’d found a way to convince the company that I was still the perfect candidate. Even worse, I assumed that the job would be easier than it looked on paper.
I ended up being wrong about everything, and before I knew it, I was spending my nights trying to understand reports that seemed like they were written in another language.
But after a month of flailing around, my boss called me into a meeting. Without mincing words, he said, “You’re not very good at this one thing in particular.” I wanted to deny his claim, especially since it sounded like I was about to be fired.
But then he said, “But I kind of figured that when we hired you.” The truth is that hiring managers usually have a strong grasp of what they’re looking for during the interview process—and sometimes, that even means taking a chance on someone who’s not the ideal person for the job right this second.
2. You Can Only “Fake it ’Til Make it” For So Long
For a few weeks at that same job, I handed in assignments that I figured would be good enough. They showed that I had at least some competency in the role, and I thought the final products would be obvious cries for help to my boss. The only problem is that by handing in incomplete and incorrect work, I was wasting a lot of my colleagues’ time.
One of the biggest lessons I learned was that I needed to ask for help sooner. I probably would’ve gotten the answers I was looking for—and ultimately, I would’ve turned in better work, faster. On top of that, I probably wouldn’t have annoyed all my teammates about so many little details that I was hired to handle.
3. It’s Up to You to Figure Out What You Need to Be More Qualified
After my first few weeks on the job, I figured I’d have more training available to me. At the very least, I thought I’d have a couple days with my boss to learn the ropes of the job and the industry. But the reality was that he had a lot of things on his plate—and to a large degree, he’d hired me to handle the problems I was struggling to figure out.
Eventually he was blunt with me and said, “I know you don’t know how to do this, and I know you need help. But on some of this, you need to identify how you can get the information you need without knocking on my door every few minutes.”
I thought this was harsh at the time, but I know now that he was right. I was using my knowledge gaps as excuses for bad work, and it was showing. While there were very specific things about the company I needed to ask about, there were also online resources, books, and even courses that I could’ve relied on for some of the more general things I was trying to figure out.
If you’re in these shoes, take it from me—make yourself a list of the things you’re not good at, and see how many you figure out on your own. (And if you’re struggling, here are five ways to handle being lost that won’t make you look bad.)
Some of the things you’ll learn about yourself when you admit you’re lost aren’t the most fun to come to terms with. But even the toughest lessons can be helpful, especially when you’re denying yourself the help you need to improve at your job.
And you might not always like what you hear when you own up to your knowledge gaps, but you will grow from the experience. So take the leap and tell your manager that you’re struggling and would like guidance. It’s scary at first, but you’ll ultimately grow by being honest and open. Plus, you’ll almost immediately feel better when you no longer feel like you’re hiding this big secret.
Photo of person thinking courtesy of PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images.
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy or follow his blog.More from this Author