Often times, writers take a bit of valid research and apply it to an entire topic on which we think we’re knowledgeable. It happens to the best of us, and I’ll willingly loop myself into this statement:

Writers must be more self-aware of what we think we know.

As writers, we can easily recognize when we know nothing about a topic. We openly acknowledge that knowledge gap and spend time researching the topic to better understand it, ahead of a writing piece or just out of curiosity. However, I’ve noticed something far more sinister lurking in the content that some GigLoft students are producing: it’s about 50–80% right, but with some fundamental flaws in the subject matter understanding.

Writers who stay humble do an incredible thing for the world: we curb our own propensity for disseminating “slightly wrong” information.

I’m inspired to write about this because I recently read an article supposedly about startups, but with one core flaw: it implies that startups are home-based businesses, and treats the two as practically synonymous. The problem, for anyone unfamiliar with this classic misconception of startups, is that, simply put,

Startups aren’t home-based businesses.

Outside Silicon Valley and a few other select ecosystems, there seems to exist a rampant, widespread confusion about what a startup actually is. Startups are not synonymous with small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). They’re not just any early-stage company trying to find its place in the world. They’re not consultants acquiring clients and building a personal brand.

Startups are a special breed of entrepreneurship.

Y Combinator cofounder and startup guru Paul Graham gets credit for the most widely adopted definition of a startup. Rather than paraphrase, I will quote his essay on growth directly:

Not every newly founded company is a startup. Millions of companies are started every year in the US. Only a tiny fraction are startups. Most are service businesses — restaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on. These are not startups, except in a few unusual cases.
A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. A barbershop isn’t designed to grow fast. Whereas a search engine, for example, is.

Without getting on my soapbox, I’ll keep it simple here: startups are an excellent example of an innocent misconception that has taken root in countless minds. It’s a relatively harmless example, but this misunderstanding is perfect for the real topic of this writing:

Stay humble, especially about what you think you know.

Again, we human beings — and especially writers — are generally great at recognizing and admitting what we know we don’t know. For everything else, we tend to vaguely subscribe to the adage that “you don’t know what you don’t know” and turn to our safe, proven research process to give us the information we need to come off as experts.

Why is this approach is inherently flawed? Because it assumes our research will tell us everything we need to know. Our research is limited by our cognitive bias — we often only research what we think we don’t know.

Instead, we have to be brutally conscious about the things we think we do know, and constantly humble ourselves to clarify and expand our own understanding. Only with this mindset can we break free from the invisible chains of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Image: Mike Dudley/Medium

The phenomenon that occurs because we’re naturally inclined to think we’ve quickly learned a lot about a topic, when in reality we’ve barely scratched the surface. We write on subjects with a high confidence level, yet in reality we have so much more to learn. This kind of behavior can mean losing clients, and could even be the downfall of a career — or death — if we’re not careful.

Death? Point in case:

New drivers are most dangerous when the novelty has worn off.

When I was 16, my dad drove the point home: as soon as the novelty wears off and you start getting confident, drive even more carefully. Your experience as a new driver is next to nothing, but the first few weeks/months have a way of tricking us into feeling like we know what we’re doing — and it’s a trap that leads to fender-benders and worse.

car crash resulting from lack of self awareness
Photo by Gareth Harrison on Unsplash

Choose to constantly RE-learn what you think you know.

It takes a long time to become an expert in something: 10,000 hours if you ask Gladwell. But it only takes eight, says SkillUp Academy’s Danny Forest, to learn enough to get started. And even after those first eight hours, we should humbly consider ourselves amateurs on that topic and strive to check our own confidence when writing for clients or publications.

Of course, many writers do not set the goal to become renowned industry experts in every field we write for — instead, we just need to understand the topic better than the target audience for whom we’re writing. Despite my overall argument that we must strive to remain humble in all but our most deeply intimate knowledge, we should also stay optimistic and confident in our ability to learn.

Marketing guru Seth Godin shares some insightful thoughts for overcoming the Valley of Despair in his short classic, The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick).

Humility pushes us to produce better work.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, I won’t beat the dead horse. The bottom line is, writers who stay humble do an incredible thing for the world: we curb our own propensity for disseminating “slightly wrong” information.

By remaining highly aware of what we only think we know, we can push ourselves to become better writers, more powerful propagators of truth, and forces for change in the world.

young freelance writer reading a book learning about self awareness
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