Posted in Advice

Curse of Low Expectations

In a lot of situations, you can benefit if other people underestimate you. If you can get your opponent in a chess game or a tennis match to be over-confident, you can be a tortoise to your opponent’s hare. If people have low expectations of a candidate going into a presidential debate, it’s easier to come out looking like a winner. That’s what the campaign aides suggest, anyway. We know we try to calibrate expectations on the job all the time, regarding what we’re able to do by a certain deadline. We want expectations to be low enough that we can exceed them without killing ourselves, high enough to maintain a general aura of confidence and respect. No one wants to be thought incompetent!

So why are low expectations a curse, if we stand to benefit when they’re on the low side? The curse develops if we let them affect our own self-image. I read an article in the Intercom a while back. I don’t remember much about the subject matter of the piece, but one statement confronted my brain and stayed there. The author said that technical writers can’t ever know as much about the systems they document as the engineers who design the systems. Well, that’s true enough. The disturbing thing was the author’s extended premise that writers are so knowledge-poor that they depend almost entirely on engineers for their content. That section of the article might have been titled, How to Manage the Spoon Feeding Process.

When I read that part, I thought man, that’s just what bothers me about our trade. We don’t feel like we can do anything without subject matter experts, or SMEs. The first time I heard that term, it repelled me right away. Sure engineers are smart and they know a lot, but I can’t think they like being called SMEs. We shouldn’t adopt the term, either. Engineers are colleagues, people we collaborate with to create useful products. If you think of your collaborator as an SME, you’ll never feel like an equal. You’ll just return from the engineering division to the doc department, the ghetto of the non-experts.

So how do we exorcise this curse, given the benefits we can realize when engineers don’t expect too much from us in the way of technical knowledge? A psychological remedy is to keep other people’s beliefs from affecting our own beliefs. If engineers don’t expect much technical expertise on our part, we don’t have to lament their occasional condescension. Let them think what they like. The difficulty lies in lamenting their belief and believing that they’re right. A degree of dependence becomes total dependence.

Here are some practical ways to escape the dependent state of mind:

~ Make stuff up. Yes, you read that correctly. I was working on a pretty tight schedule in an area that was new to me, and my document still had a lot of information missing. When I told the project manager that my technical contacts weren’t returning my calls, he told me to make things up. I told him I couldn’t do that. He said sure you can. So I tried making some educated guesses and plugging them in. It turned out that my guesses were pretty close, and the people who knew the answers to my questions could easily correct my inaccuracies once they saw the material written down. As we all learn so often, we know more than we think we know.

~ Treat your engineering colleagues as equals. Don’t over-estimate their knowledge and skills. Then you become, in your eyes, a high-tech stenographer waiting to take dictation on matters that are largely beyond your comprehension. Treat collaborators as you would like them to treat you, and you’ll find that you treat yourself better as well.

~ Be as active as you can in seeking new knowledge. I know from long experience that it’s difficult to find time to do much of that. Building up technical knowledge about the systems you work with, though, is a sure source of job satisfaction. Yes, we can claim a lot of expertise in the tools of the trade, and that’s a source of some satisfaction, but I think the truly attractive thing about technical writing is the opportunity to learn about lots of interesting technologies, innovations and methods. We get to learn how things work.

Being active in knowledge acquisition means just what it says: read everything you can, talk with lots of people – not just SMEs, write thorough notes before and after your meetings, think about what you don’t know and how you can learn it, think about what you do know and how you can extend it. More rapidly then you expected, you’ll absorb more about your subject matter than you thought you could. Your active search and integration of new knowledge with old will make you an expert, too. Then let the SMEs think whatever they like.



Grew up in the Upper Midwest, now live in greater Boston. Taught politics in a previous life, now work as a technical writer and illustrator. Other interests: athletics, flying, outdoor activities, writing about politics.

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