Why Calling Yourself an Expert Will Almost Always Backfire in Your Job Search

Why You Shouldn't Be An

“You’ve never heard of Chile Pies!?!”

Ugh! I can feel the hot blush of embarrassment burn onto my cheeks. It’s not like I’ve lived in the city that long (and I happen to be lactose intolerant) and yet my not being privy to this pie and ice cream dessert is totally humiliating.

In an age of Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, IMDB, and the internet in general, it can seem like we should know just about everything (who here hasn’t been snarkily sent a link to “Let me Google that for you” on at least one occasion?). We have so many more resources than the past generations had. Gone are the days of heading to the library, checking out large volumes, and reading thousands of pages just to get an answer to the most simple question. Instead, you head over to the oh so handy-dandy Google, type in your keyword, and press search.

Ta-da! You’re presented with multiple links that will give you basically all the information you could ever need.

Pretty magical, I must admit.

Do we give too much importance to information?

But there may be a danger to this easy access to information.

According to Maria Popova, there definitely is. Maria explains that we live in a world where “one of the worst social sins is to appear uninformed. Ours is a culture where it’s enormously embarrassing not to have an opinion on something and in order to seem informed, we form our so-called opinions hastily, based on fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding.”

She explains how easily we tend to skip steps as she breaks down “true understanding” into three categories which she then places on a metaphorical ladder; the ladder of understanding.

At the bottom of the ladder is information. Information is just the basic facts about the world.

Above that is knowledge. Knowledge is an understanding of how different pieces of information work together to “reveal some truth about the world.”

Finally, there is wisdom. Wisdom comes about when you add in a moral component. This takes the information and knowledge you have and answers the question, “Why does this matter?”

Climbing up the ladder, from information to wisdom, is the key to understanding something completely. But, in a world that demands to be given what it wants when it wants it, we’re tempted to stay at that first rung. After all, we have easy access to that part of the ladder. And it’s embarrassing to not know what we think.

As Maria puts it, “Information is cheap; wisdom is expensive.”

If a coworker asks my opinion on a movie or even a more serious topic like the gentrification of San Francisco, it can be really difficult to admit that I don’t really know what I think. It’s so much easier to type those words into Google, scan through a couple articles, and spout out imitations of the views I have just finished reading.

What’s scary is that I will probably start believing that those are my views even though I haven’t fully investigated the argument.

Did you ever take any speech and debate courses? If you did, you’ll remember that you were asked to make arguments from both points of view. This helped you to understand the question as a whole, to look at it from all angles, to take the information you’d been given and then turn it into knowledge and produce wisdom. You climbed Maria Popova’s full ladder of understanding.

But in our fast-paced world, we often don’t “have time” to go through this process. And what makes it all the more dangerous is the fact that we have so many outlets on which to pontificate our hastily made opinions. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram—these are all places where we can advertise our views immediately after we form them.

We share our thoughts on topics with hashtags and “like” those from others.

So what does all this have to do with the job search?

What we’re left with is an influx of information and a lack of wisdom. We think we know a lot more than we actually do. Both our former VP of Products as well as our VP of Engineering agree that this lack of self-awareness is one of the biggest mistakes a job-seeker can make.

Our former VP of Products highly recommends showing your eagerness to learn rather than your “expertness” (especially when first starting out). During a memorable job interview, one candidate expressed the desire to be the best in her field, but then failed to answer some of the most basic questions about her industry.

Similarly, our VP of engineering shares an experience he had interviewing a candidate who rated themselves at a five or six competency level in a certain programming language, but then when asked to solve a problem in that language, failed to do so without the help of a programming book.

Both candidates would have been much better off admitting they still had a ways to go in their fields. Better yet, rather than just gaining the basic knowledge of their industries, the candidates could have taken it upon themselves to delve further in, research more, practice, and really gain the skills necessary to be considered at that higher level or on the way to getting to that level.

Yes, confidence is important in the job search, but that confidence means nothing if you can’t back it up. You have to be thorough when learning about the company and field you’re applying for—and the skills you claim to have.

This need for a “quick fix” and the fear of coming across as anything but an expert is really dangerous when it comes to the job search and our lives in general.

How storytelling can save the day

Maria shares a solution to this problem in her video. She expresses a need for more great storytellers.

Talented storytellers have the ability to take information, turn it into knowledge, and then create wisdom for themselves and others to understand. Storytellers take the information, connect it into knowledge, and then add in the context to give their audience the WHY. Why this is important. Why we should care. Why this matters. This “why” is what plants the seed of action. It causes people to do rather than just talk about doing.

I totally agree with Maria’s call-to-action. Yes, we need great storytellers! But I want to take it a step further.

I want to challenge each and every one of us to become those storytellers. We don’t have to be journalists, documentary filmmakers, or editors. We just have to slow down. Take the time to really explore a topic. Use your critical thinking skills. How could you argue both sides? What does it mean? Why is it important?

Face your fears of being considered “uninformed.” If a topic comes up that you don’t know a lot about, that you don’t have an opinion on, don’t be afraid to say so. Acknowledge the fact that you haven’t researched it enough and then go out and do that research!

Homework time! Before applying to a job, look at what the company does. Think about it critically. Ask yourself, what is its mission? Why is this important? Why is it important to YOU? What part can you play? How are you going to take this information and add to it, build up to knowledge, and then really create a story that means something to you? Climb the full ladder of understanding.


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