Write what you don’t know

Freshman year of college, I signed up for a creative writing class because I had room in my schedule and it sounded like fun. I ended up taking two more, and the professor who taught all of them was one of my favorite professors in college. One of the assignments he gave us was based on the idea “write what you don’t know.” This is, of course, pushing back against the age-old advice to write what you know, and we were tasked with creating a story that centered on a task we had no idea how to do — in my case, replacing the spark plugs on a car.

Little did I know that assignment would sum up one of the most important skills I’ve learned so far: doing what you don’t know. As emerging adults, there’s a lot we don’t know. That’s not a bad thing at all; we’re still learning and aren’t usually given much in the way of a roadmap. But it is challenging.

I’ve been given some really exciting tasks recently at work, but some of them are way out of my area of expertise. But instead of just being intimidated, I’m trying to go through the same process I used for that creative writing assignment in figuring out how to not just muddle through, but actually talk about and contribute towards areas I don’t know. Ultimately, it comes down to about four steps:

Research. Watch videos, look up examples, read articles about the thing. Whatever materials you can get your hands on will be helpful context and jumping off points for the topic.

Consult others. Even if you find phenomenal resources, humans are important. Talk to someone who’s done the thing before, or who knows about similar stuff. Ask them for advice or their perspective. Pro tip: If you can, buy them a cup of coffee (or something similar) for their time, and if you can’t make sure to write a thank-you note or email.

Find a way to process it. For me, this usually means writing things down. I’m a super visual person, and need to see things to understand them. Draw a diagram, make a spreadsheet, do a physical run-through if you’re a kinesthetic learner.

Trust yourself. This means leaning into both what you’ve learned and your own capabilities. Your first try might need revisions, and that’s okay. But chances are it will be better than you think, and you’ll become increasingly confident in an area that’s not necessarily your field.

I’ll be putting all of this into practice even more in the coming weeks, and as much as it is a bit nerve-racking it’s also a welcome challenge because it’s an opportunity to grow.

What tips have you found most helpful for doing what you don’t know? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and good luck adulting!

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