Archive for month: April, 2013

Expertise & the Beauty of Not Knowing

Since World War 2, we have lived in a world of experts and expertise, and for an expert, not knowing gets a bad rap. Actually, its worse than that.  For an expert, the very idea of not knowing challenges one’s self-image, one’s entire story of oneself.  After all experts are people who have learned and now know a lot about some particular subject, and experts are judged as good or bad depending on the extent of that knowledge and their ability to apply it.  

There are three parts to this. The first, is the idea of knowing everything (or quite a lot) about something.   The second, is how one comes to know, and the third, is the idea of judging and being judged.  Let’s examine each and also consider two practices that can serve us come to grips with these matters.

Expertise Mission Creep

Built into the idea of being an expert is the idea that one knows a lot about one’s domain of expertise.  This seems natural enough, and much of professional training is devoted to mastering what are generally considered to be the core competencies of the field, the so-called basics.  Of course, any discipline worth its salt requires development beyond entry level skill, and herein lies the rub.  

The notion of being an expert wouldn’t be so troubling if we could contain or bound the notion of sufficient knowing.  That is, if we could limit our appetites for knowing a reasonable amount at a reasonable stage in our development then we would be OK with what we know and our rate of increase in knowledge, both. But human beings being human beings, our conception of our own expertise often suffers from a kind of mission creep; we hold ourselves accountable for more and more until, for some, the idea not knowing anything becomes, itself, unacceptable.  

This unacceptability of what we don’t know can creep either within discipline (we don’t know enough in our domain of expertise) or to include areas of knowledge outside the boundaries of our expertise (what we now need to know goes beyond our declared expertise and we don’t know enough of that stuff, either).


Four Stages of Learning or Competence

Four stages of competence or skill learning were described by Gordon Training International in the 70s by Noel Burch (here) and these are listed below

  1. unconscious incompetence
  2. conscious incompetence
  3. conscious competence
  4. unconscious competence.  

These are often plotted on a 2×2 graphic like the one shown (original link here).

When one is unconsciously incompetent, one doesn’t know–one isn’t even aware–that one doesn’t have the particular skill.  When one becomes consciously incompetent, one notices that the skill is lacking and useful.  As skill is built, one is conscious of the growing capability, and at some point, the skill is mastered to the point that one doesn’t notice the skill any longer.

2 Modes to Blocking Stage 2: Denial & Self-Judging

The key step in this process is stage 2, conscious incompetence.  Becoming and acknowledging the possibilities in new knowledge or practice are the starting gate of learning.  Anything that blocks awareness of the dividing line between knowing and not knowing can be an obstacle to learning, and herein lies one difficulty with expertise mission creep.  

As our expectations of what we should know grow, one way our mind deals with mission creep is to simply deny that we don’t know.  People ask us questions, we make up answers–theories based on what we already do know–and life goes on.  In this way we remain in stage 1, unconsciously competent, relatively blissful about our ignorance, but also not at the starting gate of learning.

A second way we deal with the enlargement of our expectations is to judge ourselves, sometimes harshly, about the things we don’t know (c.f., the choice map, here).  Unfortunately, when we are judging, we are not open–we are not learning–and although we are in the stage of conscious incompetence, being in harsh judgment of our incompetence again holds us away from the starting gate of new knowledge.  

2 Practices for Peace & Learning

So what’s an expert to do?  The very notion of “expert” seems to demand an insatiable appetite for knowing more and more, and yet this logic seems to leave us  (a) unpeaceful or (b) unready to learn.  Fortunately, there are two simple practices that can help:

  1. Practice “I don’t know.” The first practice is simple, yet elegant, and it was suggested to me by Coach Bev Jones (here).  When you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, simply say, “I don’t know.”   That’s it.  By doing this, you immediately become aware that you are in stage 2, and you sidestep the difficulty of denial with the very speech act of saying, “I don’t know.”  If said with a peaceful sense of detachment and calm, “I don’t know” makes it OK that you don’t know and leaves you in a place where expertise mission creep does not take place unless you consciously choose to increase the boundaries. Tip for improving: To help enforce the practice at first, give yourself a daily quota of 3 or 5 or 10 times of saying “I don’t know” during the day.  At first, this may be hard to do, but as you practice, it will be easier and easier to come to grips with not knowing.  
  2. Practice “I am curious.”  Of course, saying “I don’t know” and leaving it at that is not appropriate in all circumstances.  There are times when we don’t know something and we choose to learn it.  The key word is “choose.”  When faced with something we consciously don’t know, we can choose to learn it or not, and the trick when we would like to know something is to keep ourselves out of self-judgment and to get ourselves to take action to learn the thing we don’t know.  A practice that can help in these circumstances is to say, “I am curious.”  That’s it. Saying “I am curious” is powerful because it creates the intention of learning the thing, yet it does so without invoking the judgment, “I should have known” or “I am stupid for not having known.”   Tip for improving: To help enforce the habit of saying “I am curious,” self-observe the frequency with which you say the phrase day by day for two weeks.  A large number is not “good” and a small number is not “bad.”  The idea is not to give yourself a grade or to judge yourself; it is simply to help you become more aware of how often you are consciously curious.

Practicing these two practices together can be a powerful way to tame expertise mission creep and keep on learning.

The Beauty of Not Knowing

We live in an age that values expertise, yet expertise often brings with it certain side effects around not knowing and learning.  This post has discussed certain aspects of the logic of the story of expertise and considered two practices that can help short circuit some of the deleterious consequences of that logic.  The practices are straightforward and they can help bring more peace and learning to life.  They also can be a gateway to increased vulnerability and wholeheartedness (here) in ways that can also be beneficial. The practices are easy to try, and not difficult to sustain. Why not give them a whirl and see what they can do for you?

This blog post has been featured on the Huffington Post here.

The Joy of Vulnerability: Public, Personal & Otherwise

After finishing up a post over at Big Beacon on Educating Wholehearted Engineers & Educators (here), I was reflecting about the notion of vulnerability and the ways in which we are vulnerable both publicly and privately.  To summarize, the blogpost was a riff on Brene Brown’s Power of Vulnerability video (here) and the ways in which our willingness to be vulnerable–to be open & honest in the face of uncertain response–is a key to educational reform.   Here, I’d like to make a distinction between public vulnerability and private or personal vulnerability.

Public Vulnerability

One thing I’ve noticed in my work with faculty and students as well as in my coaching practice is the ways in which public steps of vulnerability appear to be relatively easy to take.  A key to such ease is given by Don Migel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements.  The second agreement is key in situations like this and it states, “Don’t Take Anything Personally.”  This agreement is useful in a number of ways, but the sense that it is helpful in being publicly vulnerable is captured by Ruiz in the following passage:

If you keep this agreement, you can travel around the world with your heart completely open and no one can hurt you. You can say, “I love you,” without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. You can ask for what you need. You can say yes, or you can say no — whatever you choose — without guilt or self-judgment. You can choose to follow your heart always. Then you can be in the middle of hell and still experience inner peace and happiness. You can stay in your state of bliss, and hell will not affect you at all.

Ruiz, Don Miguel (2010-01-18). The Four Agreements (Toltec Wisdom Book) (Kindle Locations 622-625). Amber-Allen Publishing. Kindle Edition.

In this way, we can stand up, make public declarations straight from the heart, and be relatively free from fears of anonymous others and what they might think.

Personal Vulnerability

In personal relationships, a shift in language and growing willingness to be vulnerable with others also has an effect.  In the forming of new relationships, it seems as though vulnerability attracts those willing to be vulnerable.  Clients report that when they are willing to be more open that they attract those who are themselves willing to be vulnerable and this is, to them, a blessing undisguised.

Of course, existing relationships can pose additional complications, however, because a shift in language and vulnerability  can be discomfiting to old friends and loved ones.  Your willingness to “open up” is no guarantee that those close to you will be able to do so.  Moreover, this vulnerability gap can be quite irritating.  Your gremlin says “Don’t these people know how hard it is for me to be open like this?  Why can’t they just dig it; why can’t they reciprocate and dare to be vulnerable themselves.”   Our tendency to reciprocate is a fairly deep biologically based response (here), but this is not the whole or even most of this story. 

Attachment and the Personal

Our difficulty with newfound personal vulnerability with existing friends and loved ones stems, I think, from our personal connection with the person, and “not taking anything personally” with someone with whom we have a connection is harder than with someone we don’t know very well.  Both are difficult, but our attachment to the friend is the greater.  Clearly the choices we face with the friend are the same as those we face with an anonymous public.  We can be authentic and vulnerable–risking the vulnerability gab with the person–or we can vulnerability match with the person–be vulnerable unto them as they are able to be unto us.  

Personal Integrity & the Relationship 

The integrally aligned solution would suggest two thing: (1) being vulnerable yourself to the extent necessary to be authentic in context with the friend and (2) concern for the relationship as you make your way on your vulnerability journey.  Let’s look at each one of these.

As one moves from fear of openness to wholeheartedness and vulnerability, authenticity requires alignment between interior and exterior to the extent necessary in the context of the relationship.  This is not carte blanche to dump all the crazy new thoughts you are thinking or what we might call gratuitous vulnerability.  It suggests an intelligent approach to sharing and being vulnerable to those close to you in a manner they can accept and adjust to. This suggests concern for the other person and the relationship and not assuming the person understands the changes you are going through without communication. It also requires you to communicate your new, increased willingness to be vulnerable in ways the person can understand.  

Over time, this new way of being in the world becomes your new normal, and living wholeheartedly with greater joy and less fear the payoff for the risk you took by opening up.  In this sense, a willingness to be vulnerable is an investment in the universe, which returns to you and the others around you in surprising and sometimes beautiful ways. 

This blog post has been featured on the Huffington Post here.

Bev’s Tips on strengthening your career by building your leadership brand

Strengthen your future career by

 building your leadership brand now


Want to start today to prepare for success later?  Be methodical about creating a stronger brand. 

Your brand both shapes and influences how people the talk about you, how they evaluate you, and their willingness to trust you.  It says something not only about who you truly are but also about what others think you can accomplish. 

A good way to prepare for both challenges and opportunities is to build your brand as a leader.  Your reputation as a leader begins long before you are managing a team or holding a fancy title.  Even if you’re a solopreneur or a junior staffer, you can be known as a leader.  You’re showing leadership any time you spot a problem, create a plan to solve it, and then execute your plan.

Your leadership brand sets you apart from the competition.  In part, it’s based on your special strengths and accomplishments – the way you actually solve problems.  Beyond that, it reflects the personal qualities other people see in you – their expectations about your problem-solving and other abilities.

To build your leadership brand, identify the personal qualities you want to be known for.  Then take steps to develop and display those qualities.  This process can help you define and build your brand:

Step one:  create your leadership vision.

A simple way to create a vision of the kind of leader you want to be is to list the personal qualities you’d like to be known for. 

To start, identify the personal qualities that matter most to you.  These steps can help you craft a list of leadership characteristics that feels authentic:

  • Notice consumer brands you love.  Think of several brands you trust and would recommend to a friend.  For each one ask yourself: what makes this brand great?  For example, I am a Starbucks fan, although their coffee isn’t my favorite.  What I love is that Starbucks is reliable, friendly and generous with perks like WIFI and comfortable seating.  So I would add qualities like consistency, friendliness and generosity to my list.  Consider which brand qualities you want reflected in your reputation as a leader.
  • Think about leaders you admire.  List five leaders who have influenced you, whether they were teachers, colleagues or historic figures.  Then list their important personal characteristics. Here are words and phrases many people use in describing leaders they admire:
    • Positive
    • Energetic
    • Supportive and empowering of others
    • Self aware
    • Reliable
    • Organized
    • Always learning and growing

        Consider which of these descriptors you want to add to your brand.

  • Ask what would feel good.  Imagine several colleagues are talking about the quality of your work and the kind of contributions you’re making on a project.  What would you like to hear them saying about you?  Add those words to your list.

Step two: study your list. 

When you have a list of the leadership qualities you want to be known for, post it in a conspicuous place. And carry around a copy.  Look at your list frequently, including each morning. When you’re faced with a challenge or decision, study your list and see if these qualities might simplify a decision or inspire action. 

One technique I like is imagining what I’d be like if I did possess all the qualities on my list.  I summon up a mental picture of a sort of UberBev, much stronger and wiser than the Bev I see in the mirror.  And when I’m faced with a tough decision, or maybe I’m just feeling lazy, I ask: what would UberBev do?

Step three: practice acting this way

A key to building your brand is practicing the attitudes and behaviors that will earn the reputation you want.  If you’re working on a few characteristics, try a flavor-of-the month approach.   Go to your calendar for the rest of the year and note a characteristic that will be your theme for each month.  Let’s say, if it’s May you’ll work on reliability.  Write “be reliable” on your May calendar in whatever way works best for you. 

Now here’s the most important part. Think of a specific behaviorial change that could demonstrate and bolster the characteristic of the month.  And take at least one step a day to create that change, perhaps in the form of a new habit.

I client I’ll call John heard in a 360 review process that his colleagues didn’t feel they could count on him.  They liked him and admired his creativity, but were annoyed by his tendency to lose track of the time.  “You never know if John will show up,” someone said.

Understanding that his reputation could be blocking his way to a promotion, John wanted to become known as a guy you can rely on.  He decided that for one month he’d attend every staff meeting and arrive at each meeting on time, as a way to demonstrate reliability.

Because tracking performance helps turn a new behavior into a habit, John created a log. He noted each meeting scheduled in the month, whether or not he attended it, and if he was on time. If he was late he said by how many minutes.

 At the end of the month John felt he’d made progress but was still struggling to organize himself to get to meetings.  So he expanded the log, creating room for comments on why he was late or unable to attend, and how he handled the situation so the team wouldn’t be inconvenienced. After a few more months John was comfortable with his new patterns and felt people were taking him more seriously.

In my next blog, I’ll talk more about  building new habits.


Bev’s Tips have been arriving as a zine on Tuesday mornings about 20 times a year since 2004. For more Tips, sign up for the zine, go to the zine archive or visit Bev’s blog. We’d love to hear your comments here on, or email Bev at:

Follow Bev on Twitter. Connect with Bev on LinkedIn.


Bev’s Tips on Looking for needs, as you seek your next act

 Gen. Robert E. Lee,

higher ed innovator,

 inspires encore careers

Has the tumultuous job market got you fretting about what to do next?  You’re not alone.  And among the folks wondering about their next career are millions of Baby Boomers.  Many don’t plan on early retirement, but they worry age discrimination or technological shifts might block their way to a new phase. 

Now me, I’m an optimist.  Not only have I weathered several reinventions, but through my work as an executive coach I have a close-up view of people finding satisfying second and third acts.  I was contemplating the new phenomenon of encore careers a few months ago, when we visited Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  

As I mused, we wandered into the lovely Lee Chapel & Museum, where we saw the office in which Gen. Robert E. Lee actually worked during his last years.  It struck me that encore careers aren’t all that new, and Gen. Lee is a fine example of how reinvention is possible no matter how badly your current career may endAfter suffering an extraordinary defeat, Lee became a peacetime visionary and stimulated the reform of American higher education.

Just 20 weeks after surrendering at Appomattox, Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia.  As Charles Bracelen Flood describes in his moving book, Lee, The Last Years, the general had hesitated for several weeks about whether to accept the job.  He didn’t know whether his health could stand the strain.  He hated aspects of the role, like fund-raising and public speaking.  And he thought he still might be charged with treason.

The college was a shambles, emerging from the war years with no money, buildings still occupied by Federal troops, and only about 40 students.  Lee didn’t take the job because it seemed like a promising opportunity.  What moved him to sign on was his understanding of a larger mission.

 In urging Lee to accept the job, the college trustees had appealed to his sense of duty, arguing that the future of the former Confederate States of America depended on its ability to train its young men. On the day after his inauguration, Lee wrote, “I think the South requires the aid of her sons now more than at any period in her history.”

So within months after his crushing defeat as the general in command of all Confederate forces, Lee looked to the future and launched his encore career.  In the last five years of his life, he revitalized and reorganized the College that, after his death, would be renamed “Washington and Lee University.”  Moving beyond the traditional approach to higher education, he envisioned a program of “practical education” that would train young men to rebuild the South.  An innovator who knew how to recognize and implement others’ good ideas, Lee redesigned curriculum and introduced new fields of study, like business and journalism.

Lee’s achievements in higher education influenced universities throughout the nation.  At the same time, he became a model of how to accept defeat.  Lee’s extraordinary career transition, following crushing defeat, exemplifies one of the most important attributes of resilient careerists: When one path leads to a dead end, they dig deep, focus on a big goal, and start taking steps.

Encore career lessons from Gen. Lee:

  • Don’t obsess about the past.  Instead of giving in to sorrow about all that was lost, within weeks after Appomattox Lee shifted his focus to the future.  Flood says: “To a Confederate widow who was expressing hatred for the North, he said, ‘Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States.  Remember, we are all one country now.  Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans.’”
  • Look for a way to make a difference:  Lee didn’t set out to win personal kudos as an educator.  He looked around the post-War South and saw a pressing need: a new generation of engineers, manufacturers, journalists and others with the skills to rebuild the economy.  If you’re contemplating an encore career, think about the issues that really get your juices flowing.  Is there some way you can contribute to change, and make the world a better place at the same time you earn an income?  (For more on creating an encore career with social impact, visit
  • Connect with others.  Lee knew he needed help to rebuild the college, and he quickly reached out to friends and even strangers throughout the United States.  His first big supporter was Chicago inventor Cyrus H. McCormick, who sent a check for $10,000.


Bev at the entrance of Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, December 2012.

Bev at the entrance of Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, December 2012.


Bev’s Tips have been arriving as a zine on Tuesday mornings about 20 times a year since 2004. For more Tips, sign up for the zine, go to the zine archive or visit Bev’s blog. We’d love to hear your comments here on, or email Bev at:

Follow Bev on Twitter. Connect with Bev on LinkedIn.