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Why The Most Successful People Know When To Admit They’re Clueless

You can’t be “all things to all people,” but connecting people and sharing the credit can make you look a lot better than bragging.

Why The Most Successful People Know When To Admit They’re Clueless
[Photo: Flickr user Yasser Alghofily]

Many of us strive to be experts in our fields. But, to set yourself apart as a true professional, you don’t have to be an expert in everything. Actually, I would argue that it’s impossible to do so many things well. And claiming expertise in all things can mark you as a dilettante.

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A good spy (private investigator, entrepreneur, etc.) is defined not only by what she knows, but who she knows–her Rolodex of assets, whose expertise she calls on when need be. A good spy has an ever-growing list of chits to call in. He’s The Guy Who Knows a Guy, and that makes him look smart.

This is true of all fields, here’s how to stop worrying about being all things to all people and start using your resources.

Trick # 1: Let go of knowing it all

The judge swears in Jonathan Factotum*, our expert witness in a criminal case. The problems begin the minute he hands his resume to the judge. On his CV, Mr. Factotum has listed more than 15 areas in which he feels competent to testify with authority.

The prosecutor has a glorious time with Mr. Factotum. “Exactly how many things are you an expert at?” he asks. “And which one pays the best?” As the jury looks on, the DA peels back fifteen layers of ineptitude and exposes Mr. Factotum as a bit of a charlatan, a proper Johnny Do-It-All.

Specialize. When you try to be all things to all people, you stand the very real chance of looking like an idiot.

Trick #2: Give credit. Give it often, give it freely, give it with gusto

Bill (the boss) asks Kevin (an employee) to put together a research project. There’s a prospective client sniffing around, and Bill needs a report that will impress her.

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Kevin spends two non-billable weeks researching primary and secondary sources. He crafts a compelling narrative, 25 pages of well-written original text. He builds an interactive presentation that shows relationships, market trends, and supportable projections. It’s a good piece of work, and Kevin is proud.

The day of the client meeting, Kevin practices his presentation for hours. When he walks into the office, Bill introduces the client and says, “Kevin, would you go get us some coffee?” Kevin deflates. And when the presentation begins, Bill takes credit for Kevin’s work, and ignites a slow-burning resentment that has never gone out.

Today, Kevin heads his own busy research firm. Bill closed his business and is now employed at a small consulting office. The two do not do business together.

What if, instead, Bill had told the new client, “Kevin has done an amazing job. I’m going to let him tell you what he’s found.” In this alternate history, Kevin gets to shine. The client is impressed with Bill–he looks like a guy who surrounds himself with smart people and coaxes the best out of them. Bill gains a new customer and the loyalty of a talented guy whose star is on the rise.

Trick #3: Share the wealth. Refer work.

Frank, a sharp young attorney and client of mine, has a defendant who’s in a pile of trouble. The defendant’s computer contains key evidence that could be helpful to our case. Frank asks me if I can image the hard drive and conduct a forensic analysis.

I am a person who feels victorious when I manage to gain access to gmail on my iPhone. I’m not entirely sure what “image the hard drive” even means. I can’t do this particular job for Frank, but thanks to my Rolodex, I can see to it that it gets done, and gets done extremely well.

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I suggest to Frank that he call my friend Eli, a private investigator in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in forensic analysis of Mac computers. Everybody wins: Frank gets the services of one of the best computer forensic guys in the country. Eli gets a well-paying gig. Both of them get a new connection that’s likely to come in handy many times.

On the surface, I get nothing. I don’t charge a referral fee or subcontract it out so I can take a cut. Why not? Because I don’t think chasing a one-time fee benefits me in the long term. “You can have everything in life you want,” said Zig Ziglar, “if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

What does benefit me in the long term is creating relationships based on mutual respect and trust. I believe that introducing my client to a real expert earns me a lot more trust than feigning skills I don’t have. And when someone else can better serve my clients, it doesn’t hurt me to facilitate that connection. Even though that connection is a gift, with no real expectation of repayment, I know that everybody ultimately wins, including me.

Be all things to all people, and you’ll fail. Instead, focus on what you do best, shine the spotlight on people who give you their best, and pass on great work to people who are the best in their fields. Do these things, and your Rolodex will swell with assets.

You can’t always be the guy, but you can be the guy that knows a guy.

*Names have been changed.

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Hal Humphreys is founder/lead investigator of [FIND] Investigations, a PI agency in Nashville, Tennessee, and the executive editor of Pursuit Magazine. When he’s not interviewing witnesses or training professional investigators, he’s also a writer, radio producer, hiker, and fly fisherman.

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