The Pursuit of Professional Competence


It’s okay not to know things.

Fresh out of grad school, I stepped into my position with the Georgia Prevention Project feeling fully equipped to handle all that this job could throw at me. Admittedly, I had a big head about what I knew and what I would be able to do in this job. It took me all of two days before the anxiety set in and I realized just how little I knew and just how far I have to go.

The prevention field is a complicated one. The confusing acronyms (SPF? What does substance abuse prevention have to do with sunscreen?), the endless lists of prevention strategies and environmental theories and logic models and methods – it’s easy to get lost. As someone who always wants to put my best foot forward, it’s hard for me to admit when I don’t understand something or when something is beyond my expertise.

Throughout the month of August, I am participating in SAMHSA’s Ethics in Prevention Online Training Course. One thing that really stood out to me as I was going through this material was the section on competence. I had not thought of it from this perspective before, but it occurred to me that as a prevention professional, I have an ethical responsibility be to an expert in my field. It is my ethical responsibility to proactively improve my credentials and qualifications, and constantly pursue my knowledge about the population I am serving and the methods used to serve them. On the flipside, I also have an ethical responsibility to assess my qualifications and knowledge, and admit when something is out of the scope of my expertise or when I just don’t know the answer.

The prevention principle of competence takes the pressure off of me to be a “know-it-all,” yet it simultaneously encourages me to be the best prevention professional I could possibly be. I have learned to channel these “I don’t know” moments into opportunities to improve myself as a professional and take in as much knowledge of the field as my brain can possibly hold. If I don’t know the answers right now, I can guarantee I’ll do my darnedest to find out.

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