Success 101: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

by Alli Polin on October 17, 2017

Yes, I hired him because of his strong HR background but also because of his go-getter attitude. The Talent Management consulting practice I was leading was expanding, and I needed someone who was confident, energetic and innovative. After rounds of interviews, I knew I found the perfect fit. 

The first big assignment was to participate in the design, development, and facilitation of recruiting process training with a focus on OFCCP compliance. We had a meeting, brainstormed on our approach, and he assured me he was good to go. A few days later he came back into my office, defeated and deflated. 

“I don’t know OFCCP.”

“I didn’t know the ins and outs either, but now I do. I’ll show you my resources. We can talk it through.”

“I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve built training.”

“But nothing like this…”

“You’ve done other things you’ve never done before, right?”

“Yes, but…”

That’s when I told him the secret to success. Honestly, as much as has been written on success, this is the heart of it, success 101. 

From where he sat, it looked like everyone around him was an expert. They had all been there – done that countless times. Everyone except him. Yes, he was confident out the outside, but on the inside, he had a big-time case of imposter syndrome. 

The secret to success?

You’re smart, creative, and resourceful. You’ll figure it out.


That’s really it. You have to believe that you can and will figure it out. 

Then I made my confession. Over the years I’d created and facilitated countless workshops but never one just like this and never one on this topic. We were in it together. We’d figure it out together. 

Success 101: Getting Sh*t Done When You Don’t Know How

Remain confident

You have to believe you can or you can’t. That simple. When you’re tackling something new, be confident that you’ll get through it even if the path is foggy at the moment. 

Be clear on goals

You have to know where you’re going before you start clearing a path forward. The vision is your North Star, keep your eye on it throughout the process. Ask clarifying questions until you’re crystal clear.

Ask for help

You don’t need to pretend that you’re an expert in absolutely everything. Tap into the experts around you. Help is there, don’t sweat it. 

Research, research, research

You may not have done it before but others have, and their approach may spark your thinking. Also, almost anything you need to learn is at your fingertips. Go digging and educate yourself. 

Celebrate creativity

You’re not locked into “been there before” thinking. Use it to your advantage and celebrate that you can bring your fresh perspective and creativity to the job. 


Get started, create a draft and don’t worry that your first pass has to be your final product. Often the scariest part is staring down a blank page (or screen). 

Be grateful

It can get boring when you’re doing the same thing over and over. Instead of getting overwhelmed, shift your perspective to gratitude. How cool is it that you get to work on a new challenge? (hint: very, very cool)

It’s something that small business owners, entrepreneurs, and leaders have learned to conquer: figuring sh*t out. In this case, together, we created a brilliant training experience that had a positive impact on the organization. He figured it out. 

A long time has passed, and I’m sure he no longer remembers the ins and outs of our client’s recruiting process, but I’m confident that the bigger lesson stuck with him. Everyone’s figuring it out. Never doubt you’ve got what it takes to figure it out too. 

For more resources on success check out:

What’s in Your Success Suitcase?

The Secret to Success (Hint: It’s Not Follow Your Passion)

When have you had to dive into the unknown and figure it out? What got you through it?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Gary Gruber October 17, 2017 at 7:07 am

Oh my goodness, yes, yes, yes. This has to be one of your best ever. Maybe it’s because it hit me right between the eyes. Those seven attitudes, beliefs and behaviors have gotten me from Point A, where I did not have a clue through Points B-S and that’s not B.S. It’s real. Prime example is a start-up that I had never done before, never been “chosen” and never quite dared to do it on my own although afterwards I did. Regardless, I was hired to be the CEO and we figured it out together and I interviewed 100 people to select 8 to start a new organization/institution that people said couldn’t be done, wouldn’t work, etc. That was in 1994 and while a struggle, a challenge and overcoming numerous obstacles, we did it. We figured it out, step by step and garnered a lot of support and investment of time, energy and resources from others along the way. So, one more time you have hit the proverbial nail, not on the head but all the way through to a secure finish. Congratulations. PS One other caveat. Sometimes, what to do when you don’t know what to do, hit pause. Think first. Take some time. Then figure it out.


Alli Polin October 18, 2017 at 7:44 pm


Love your story and can feel the energy of your team. I’ve been in situations that are similar… worked a ton, was engaged as was everyone on the team, and we went from idea to reality. Not one of us had been-there-done-that but we figured it out. Grateful that you brought this to life with your experience.

Also, totally with you on the pause. Diving in without forethought may mean we’re at the shallow end of the pool and we’re meant to be at the deep end. All we’ll end up with is a bump on the head.




Jon Mertz October 17, 2017 at 8:14 am

Exactly, Alli. We are resourceful individuals, and we have talents. We dive in, figure it out, ask for help, and work with others. Success is doing the work and learning along the way. Jon


Alli Polin October 18, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Well said, Jon! One of my favorite things I’ve learned from my coach training and experience over the years is that we’re all naturally creative, resourceful and whole. We’ve got what it takes to get through where we are to where we want to go.



Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ October 17, 2017 at 8:45 am

Home run Alli. So many people believe that successful people have everything all planned and researched. Not true! It’s those that can think on their feet while using all their insights that truly succeed.

GREAT post. And I love the “do it with grace” message.



Alli Polin October 18, 2017 at 7:48 pm

Thinking on your feet can feel scary at first. You don’t have to have every answer at your fingertips to do it either. It’s a willingness to make decisions and move forward despite your discomfort based on what you already know from your learning and experience.

Many thanks, Kate!



Terri Klass October 17, 2017 at 9:32 am

Fantastic article Alli! One of my favorite subjects to talk about. Throughout our careers and jobs we are continually facing situations that are unfamiliar. I dare say that many of my workshops are on topics that I have some deep understanding but still need to be updated and reconfigured. I love all your steps especially- iterate. I’m with you. Once I get beyond the blank tablet I am ready to experiment and act.

Thanks for writing about this important and true topic. I will definitely share today!


Alli Polin October 18, 2017 at 7:50 pm

I think that’s part of what makes you an expert, Terri – a willingness to rework and update as you shift your thinking and expand your experience. You know what you know and know when you learn too.

Here’s to getting beyond the blank tablet! (that’s where all the fun is…)



John Bennett October 17, 2017 at 10:21 am

What a great list of suggestions. When you carefully Consider the list, I believe the important items are represented; FOR ME, the important ones are distributed over a few points in that list. I believe you must be comfortable that you can learn enough AND connect with enough KNOWLEDGEABLE individual people to develop YOUR initial steps and to self-assess and refine the next step(s) in theplan until getting to a USEFUL outcome.
The keys I believe are to NOT do it “the way I’ve / we’ve always done it” and to NOT “believe we can devise the overall optimum plan BEFORE taking the first steps.”


Alli Polin October 18, 2017 at 7:52 pm


Appreciate your synthesis of this post. I agree that a pitfall of leaders is the “one size fits all” mentality. I’d rather figure things out than try to squeeze new circumstances into a tiny box. We need to have our goal, initial steps and the courage to step into the unknown.

With thanks!



LaRae Quy October 18, 2017 at 1:25 am

Great advice…and very practical! Success is inevitable if we just apply our God-given talents to move forward. I’ve been in the situation where I didn’t know how/where to move next but I was creative and started picking away at the problem. When I saw a place I could leverage my ideas, I quickly applied them to see where they would take me. I think one of the best pieces of advice is to keep “iterating” until you find something that is good enough to succeed.


Alli Polin October 18, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Thanks, LaRae. The keep iterating bit does take mental toughness too (as you know and teach us on your exceptional blog). We can give up or persist to figure it out even when the path is unclear.



Chery Gegelman October 19, 2017 at 10:18 am

This is such an important reminder Alli! As I read it I kept thinking about Einstein’s quote, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge.”

If we are confident in our ability to learn, collaborate and communicate there is so much that we can do!


Alli Polin October 23, 2017 at 10:29 pm

That’s a quote to keep top of mind for sure. We can figure things out. We can. We will.

Thanks so much, Chery!


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