Behind the curtain

Photo of brick buildings in downtown Portland -- across the top of one of the buildings in tall block letters reads, "Long live the wildcards, misfits & dabblers"

The past month or so, I’ve been having tons of conversations with people formally and informally, short and long, structured and meandering. I talked with former clients, mentors, colleagues in various forms, faculty and classmates in my coaching training cohort, people I had just met at the conference I was attending, and longtime friends.

In some cases, I particularly sought advice from someone—whether I’d specifically reached out hoping for advice or simply asked in response to a topic of conversation. And, tactical questions aside (like, where should I eat in your city), the answer was almost always the same.

“There is no advice.”

That was what my extremely real, dear old junior high school friend said. But that’s basically what everyone else said, too. And these are brilliant people. People I respect and have learned from. People whom I saw as further ahead on the curve. Who perhaps, at most, shared what they did in a similar situation, and then that they really weren’t sure but it had seemed to work. And that they were still figuring it out.

One person I had intended to ask for advice actually opened the conversation by wondering out loud about something with me, and the conversation took a lovely turn I hadn’t expected.

In other cases, I observed someone do something in a particularly skillful manner (ways I wanted to be able to emulate)—only to hear them afterwards share that they had been very uncertain of themselves the entire time. I have taken mental notes of what someone did or how they handled a situation to squirrel away for future reference, and then heard them question how they could have done it better.

To be fair, I’ve also had my share of being on the other side. Getting complimented or having people think that I’ve got it all figured out feels…scary. Like they’re going to find out* that I’m just making it up as I go along. (Even if I have a pretty decent track record of figuring things out.) And yet.

The most valuable conversations were those where we let each other behind the curtain and reveal the rest of what’s really happening.** Where we let go of anyone having the answers—of there being right answers, of answers being some sort of magic passcode that unlocked the door to some secret garden. Where we could sit in those questions together. Be curious. Be real with each other. I am forever grateful to all the people who let and continue to let me behind the curtain. And I am grateful to have worked with a coach who taught me to ask whether there a right answer actually exists when I am exasperating myself in pursuit of one. (Not that this isn’t a lesson I continue to work on!)

No matter how much someone seems to have it all figured out – we’re all just figuring it out as we go along. And in my experience, the people who frequently wonder about how they could have done something better – those have been the people I’ve learned the most from, whom I’ve witnessed be the best at what they do. They are the people doing tremendous things, because they keep asking themselves that question. Because they care to question if they are doing the right thing, and if they are doing it in a way that they can feel good about. But they don’t let it stop them from doing the thing.

Are there people who are, perhaps, objectively better at a particular skill or more knowledgeable in a certain area? Sure. There are certainly service designers who are more skilled at designing digital services or knowledgeable about designing experiences. But I’ve actually implemented programs and services, and specifically within a nonprofit and community-focused context. There are more skilled instructional designers and teachers than me, but I’ve actually had to answer customer support questions and besides, people always come away learning something they can apply—and that’s my goal. Doesn’t mean I can’t get better, or that I won’t.

So I’m going to change tack.

Instead of asking for advice, I’m going to ask people how they would think about a situation. What are the questions they ask? What are the factors they consider? When do they take a particular type of action? Who are the people they learn from? To ask them what goes on behind the curtain in their brains as they work on a problem.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen time and again in coaching others – people know more than they realize. And that includes you and me. The trick is in clearing the other muck out of the way first so we can see it.

What do you think about this approach? Have you had similar experiences? Take a different approach entirely? I’m curious to learn more.

*While, yes, this feeling is the feeling of being an impostor, I no longer believe that impostor syndrome truly exists. Rather, after learning more (I suggest reading “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey), and after reflecting on multiple previous experiences where I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about—sometimes publicly—by people who had significantly more power in the relationship, and the ways in which I’ve seen others knocked down for similar reasons, I’ve come to see this feeling as a preemptive protective measure against the ways in which insecure people attempt to maintain superiority. At least, I know that in my head—but I still feel it!

**(Spoiler alert!) The phrase “behind the curtain” comes from The Wizard of Oz, in which there is a scene where they find the big, scary wizard, and it turns out to be just a regular human guy behind a curtain operating a machine for special effects. While in the case of the movie (I don’t recall if that scene is in the original novel), the curtain is used for deception, I’m not talking about people putting up facades intentionally—although that happens, too, of course, and is simply human. But what I’m referring to here in terms of “what’s really happening” is that it’s easy for any of us to see things on social media or hear fragments of what’s going on with someone in a short, passing chat and come up with an image in our heads that is at best incomplete and, at worst, very skewed or completely misreading a situation. It’s natural to fill in any blanks and to want to connect the dots we can see—but important to remember that there’s always a lot that we can’t see and don’t have access to.