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I know it all. Really, I do.

Breakthrough Blueprint

The how-to guide to your career success

I know it all. Really, I do.

Recently, someone asked me what the biggest mistake was that I’ve made in my career. I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t had any headline-grabbing clangers – no insider trading charges, no theft, fraud or anything likely to be turned into a movie. But, when I reflected on this, I realised that there were certainly subtle actions that ended up being career-limiting moves.

I knew it all
When I was in my 20s, I thought I knew it all. Of course, this is an affliction that can happen at any age. For me, it was my 20s.

The reality was that I didn’t know it all. In fact, I realised much later that I hardly knew anything at all. You might have a proficient technical skill but if you want to progress your career, you need much, much more than that.

No doubt, my attitude would have been a pain in the arse to employers and colleagues alike. It had its benefits; it came with a gung-ho attitude which meant that I would get things done and feel that no task was too daunting. But that attitude would have served me a lot better if I’d kept the proactive energy – and lost the ego.

Don’t be the smartest person in the room
Fortunately, I grew out of this and realised that it’s actually much better NOT to be the smartest person in the room. Because then you can learn so much and collaborate in ways where the sum of your efforts can create magic. Sure, there are still some things that you need to forge forward with on your own. However, there is so much that can be learnt from the people around you. From that moment on, I became a sponge. And to this day, I’m still learning, absorbing and trying to figure out how I can improve my business, career and life. I definitely don’t know all the answers – and I have no problem saying that.

Not long ago, I met a 20-something person with the same gung-ho attitude I had in my 20s. It was like looking in the mirror – and it was a little bit scary. I wanted to shake her and say “Trust me, you’ll do better if you lose your ego and understand that you can actually learn something from everyone.” And I did try to convey that – but some people are receptive to advice and others aren’t.

Unfortunately, this young person wasn’t receptive. And, despite her many talents (because she IS talented), her career progress has not matched her capabilities.

Be a sponge
On the other hand, I recently got to know another 20-something who probably doesn’t have the same innate talent as the first one. But he is a sponge. He is curious, asks questions – and realises the benefit of NOT being the smartest person in the room. In less than a year, I’ve seen him progress in leaps and bounds.

This is not a gender thing. It’s about attitude. And the affliction of when you “know it all” will guarantee that you’ll take longer to get to where you want to go.

Seek NOT to be the smartest person in the room. Learn. Absorb. And be a sponge. You’ll be amazed at where this can take you.

Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo is CEO of the Australian Writers’ Centre, one of the world’s leading centres for writing courses. She contributed to Fairfax for 13 years and has held senior editorial roles at ACP (now Bauer), Pacific Magazines and EMAP. She was editor of Business Chick’s Latte magazine for five years and regularly writes for corporate and consumer titles. Valerie began her career in chartered accounting at PwC before moving into public relations, journalism and then entrepreneurship. She is co-host of the podcast “So you want to be a writer”, recently listed as one of the top 30 podcasts for writers in the world, and “So you want to be a photographer”. Valerie is also a mentor with the Australian Businesswomen’s Network.