I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

head scratchingSome people call me an expert. I even call myself one on occasion, usually when I’m trying to win work or funding. But I don’t feel like an expert – or perhaps I don’t feel like I expected an expert to feel.

When I was younger, I thought of an expert as someone who knew pretty much everything about their subject. It’s true that I know a lot about research methods, probably more than most people on the planet, but I don’t know anywhere near everything. Research methods is such a huge and fast-moving field that nobody could know everything, but I don’t think I even know as close to everything as possible. In fact I think I’m a long way from there. Lots of people know things about research methods that I don’t know and, however much more I learn, that will always be the case.

But I do know how to be confident, even when I don’t feel confident. I don’t mean I’m falsely confident: if I don’t know the answer to a question, I’ll say so; if I don’t understand what someone is saying, I’ll ask for clarification. When I was younger, I thought doing that would make me look stupid. Now, quite literally, I know better.

I can even be confident about working on a project when I don’t know what I’m doing. That is a stretch for my confidence – sometimes it wobbles a bit – but I can do it. For example, I’m writing a book on research and ethics. The working title is Biodegradable Research: Nourishing The Next Generation. I’ve been working on it since last summer. So far I have read half a dozen books and made notes from most of them, bought another 25 or so, interviewed eight people, and written 676 words. I’m at the exploratory stage and I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have a structure for the book, or its voice, or a writing style. I don’t really know what I want to say, beyond something about how research ethics is linked with institutional, political, and global ethics; that it doesn’t exist in a bubble of its own.

But I have faith in the process. It’s what I tell doctoral students: keep on reading, thinking, and writing, and you’ll get there in the end. I’ve done this a few times now, though each time is different. And I do have a glimmer of a plan: when I finish making the notes from the books I’ve read, I’m going to plug those and my interview transcripts into NVivo, do some emergent coding, and see what falls out. I hope that will help, though of course it may confuse me further. But if I’m lucky, I’ll start to spot some connections, relationships, and patterns, which will help me find the way.

This is how creativity often works in practice. Bumbling around, doing what you enjoy, whether that’s picking out tunes on an instrument, messing around with paints, or stringing words together to make sentences. Lots of fiddling and noodling, also known as practice, while you work out the song you want to sing, the picture you want to paint, or the book you want to write. Not really knowing what you’re doing. Even when you’re an expert.

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

  1. I started reading this thinking ‘Hmmmm – is Helen describing her experience of Imposter Syndrome?’ and finished it thinking ‘Hmmmmm – this sounds like Helen describing a process, where part of the process is about trusting yourself and trusting the process’. Great piece, thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂


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