When I received an e-mail from the Finding Genius Podcast inviting me to be a guest my first thought was: “Excellent, I get to have an informative and (hopefully) entertaining conversation with an interesting person for a new audience.” This buzz lasted about thirty seconds and was followed by a jumble of anxious thoughts: “I’m not a genius. What worthwhile things could I say? How will I meet the high standard of the guests on the podcast? Why do they want to speak to me? What if I fail?” These thoughts were all annoying, and, except for providing a bit of motivation to work hard, were a waste of time and energy.
After getting my brain back into a constructive state, and realising that I really was looking forward to being a guest on the podcast, I decided that there were two questions I needed to answer: what causes the anxiety in the first place, and how do I consistently return to a calm, productive state?
I started off by doing some research into the concepts of Fake it Till You Make it and Impostor Syndrome, hoping that they would explain my experience. Even though I found both concepts to be interesting and entertaining, they did not satisfactorily answer my questions. In both cases the argument went something like: you will be uncomfortable doing something new until you become comfortable doing it, so just get on with doing it knowing that once you have done it for a while you will become comfortable doing whatever it is. Is it just me, or does this sound like circular logic and/or a self-fulfilling prophecy?
If you are an expert in a particular, relatively stable field, and you suddenly have to do something outside the standard range of your expertise, then applying Fake it Till You Make it and Impostor Syndrome would be a practical response to make sure you get what you want to do done. The greater your expertise, the more you should be aware of the limits of your knowledge, making it obvious when you should worry about what you are doing next. It is sort of like the Dunning Kruger Effect in reverse: while inexperienced people over estimate their ability and under estimate the complexity of whatever they are about to do, people with expertise should have a better understanding of the limits of what they know and the complexity of what they want to do next.
Consequently, as irregularly used tools to be kept in the bottom of the toolbox for emergencies, both Fake it Till You Make it and Impostor Syndrome are sometimes useful, but they add weight and limit space in an already crowded toolbox. Neither concept satisfactorily explains how the anxiety followed by calm cycle works, why it can happen frequently, or exactly what you can do to reduce its intensity.
At this point in my research and analysis I asked myself two supplementary questions: what is it that I do that sets off the anxiety followed by calm cycle, and why does it happen frequently? My answers came quickly and were very informative: I do lots of different things and it is normal for me to jump from something familiar to something new in a short period of time, and to then repeat this cycle without extended periods of consolidation to confirm what I have learned.
In short, my time is generally spent working out what needs to be done, working out what new skills I need, getting the skills and information I need, getting the job done, and then getting feedback on the outcome before moving on to something different. My expertise lies in assessing what needs to be done, quickly dealing with the anxiety of realising that I am going to have to do something new, and then calmly applying the processes for assessment, skills acquisition, knowledge acquisition, problem solving, and presenting the final product that keep this cycle (and me) going around.
I have worked with, trained, and interviewed people with similar sorts of expertise to me, but I don’t remember anyone telling me a name for the things we do. Adaptive Problem Solver would be an apt description and/or title, but it doesn’t do anything to ease the anxiety followed by calm cycle, and it doesn’t make me smile. In this case, I believe a description should make me smile, because when I smile the time from anxious to calm becomes shorter.
The description and/or title I have settled on for my expertise is Minimum Viable Product. I am a Minimum Viable Product Problem Solver, and I am smiling as my screen reading software reads this sentence to me.
More often than not, I have enough skills and experience so that people give me an opportunity to have a go at doing new things that are just outside of my current range and comfort zone. I get anxious for a minute, that I am out of my depth, and then calm down as I remember that my expertise is in working out what to do and dealing with the discomfort of consistently doing new things. My expertise is only ever one or two steps behind where I want to be, and if I look at the historical pattern of my experience, I normally get where I want to go via a bit of anxiety and a block of learning. At the beginning of any new project my skills and experience are good enough to get me started on developing a quality outcome, and in the process of developing the quality outcome I undergo my own incremental and iterative improvements as a Problem Solver. At the end of the project I am more capable than I was at the beginning, and I am ready to choose to work on the next project, which will remind me that I am the Minimum Viable Product for doing the next challenging thing that interests me.
If this sounds familiar, or makes you smile, then try calling yourself a Minimum Viable Product. The smile it causes might ease your anxiety and help you to remember how often you work out how to do things well. At the very least, calling yourself a Minimum Viable Product will make other people smile and help you to reflect on the adaptive nature of your expertise.
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