The Burdens of Expertise

[I post every Tuesday with the top question from AskBerkun – this week I took a pass and shared this instead which has been on my mind]

Are you an expert in something? As you’ve no doubt discovered there are challenges, or burdens, to having knowledge that no one explained to you beforehand. As dignified as it is to have people interested in what you know, there are unspoken annoyances and frustrations too. Somehow despite how knowledge is central to civilization, experts are often graceless in how they handle its burdens.

Here is a list of the burdens of expertise:

  1. Experts are a privileged minority.  Most people you meet on this planet will know less than you about your expertise. You are fortunate to have had the opportunities, however hard won they were, that made you an expert. And as your expertise grows, the distance between your knowledge and the average person’s will get larger. The smarter you are, the easier it will be to look down on everyone else.
  2. You will tend to become annoying to others. From the myopic lens of your expertise the world is a simple place where things would improve if only people would listen to you, and your field, more. This is only partially true. If you consider all of the other kinds of expertise in the world, and the similar feelings those experts have about the world, you’ll realize there’s bias in being an expert: you tend to discount other kinds of expertise. Designers who yell “why isn’t everything designed better?” ignore the doctors who yell “why isn’t everyone healthier?” and the chefs who say “why doesn’t everyone eat better?” Being an expert makes some people become insufferable, self-centered complainers.
  3. You will be asked the same 5 basic questions about your work FOREVER. Despite how sophisticated you think you are, most people you will ever meet will ask the same basic, introductory questions. It’s easy to be frustrated by this and dismiss people who ask you the basics. You’ll feel it’s beneath you. You’re presuming the world should know your field, yet you likely do little to make it welcoming for new people to learn about it. (“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” – Bruce Lee.)
  4. You must be a diplomat not an elitist. If being an expert makes you a minority, persuasion is a central asset. Everyone you meet may be learning about your domain for the first time and the burden is on your to charm and convince them to want to learn more. If you, as the only expert in your field they know, is rude, egotistical or dismissive, they’ll cast those judgements on the entire profession and won’t bother to ask again.
  5. You will slowly learn to fear new ideas. Being a consultant, as most experts are, reinforces confidence in dangerous ways. You will be paid handsomely to answer the same ten basic questions over and over again, and to answer them in much the same way, which slowly reduces the appeal of work that pays less, but is far more ambitious. You’ll resist the emotional challenges of being a novice learner in anything, including ways to rethink your entire profession, which will only increase your mishandling of the burdens of your expertise.
  6. You may believe you know all that is worth knowing. As an expert people will ask you questions you honestly know nothing about. But since you are good at sounding like an expert and giving advice, you’ll hide this very well. It can get harder and harder to say “I don’t know” or “you should ask this other expert” as the rewards for pretending like you do know are much better than being honest. And since you’re spending more preaching than practicing, you’ll overlook how long it’s been since you’ve taken your own advice and put it to the test, further distancing yourself from the truth. [Added 2-3-15]

Related: How To Call BS On a Guru.

13 Responses to “The Burdens of Expertise”

  1. Phil Simon

    I have a very complicated relationship with the term expert. I’ve been called much worse in my life. I don’t aspire to be an expert. Yet, they’re so often wrong. Plenty of research has confirmed that expert predictions are essentially coin flips and even degrade over time.

    I suppose that it is a burden. I’d rather be very knowledgeable about ten things than an “expert” on one.

    1. Scott

      We’re all hypocrites on this – you, as I, give lectures and write books based on your expertise. You’re an expert and think you have something valuable to say, otherwise you wouldn’t write books and give lectures.

      I respect the fact that you’re dubious about the entire notion of expertise and prediction, but that no doubt makes you me better at being an expert than those who don’t.

  2. Michele Price @ProsperityGal

    Scott you are right. It’s interesting how labels can become a burden when we let them.

    I learned that lesson a few years ago when I did the same thing that I found annoying about designers. (their constant complaints about why people ask them to change their work when they deliver it to clients: example their logos – make it smaller- make it bigger). Listening to designers I wondered why they did not create a white paper, ebook or blog post to give potential clients, to help them navigate the best way to work with them. It would reduce their annoyance factor and give prospects the confidence for how to approach them for their help. Everyone likes being an informed consumer and making smarter choices.

    My lesson was when I got annoyed at the constant question of “What channel is Breakthrough radio show on?” I get it, it’s not their fault for asking and relying on the comfortable assumption of old delivery platforms, terrestrial radio. It bothered me to feel that perturbedness. What I did instead was to reply like this: “Great question, one I get often. We are an internet based radio show because we knew we wanted to build a global, national, regional and local business audience.”

    This simple statement allowed us to respectfully communicate the difference while subtly educating them on the importance of knowing why to choose your communication channels.

    The word “Expert” has become like the label “Social Media Guru”, an unknown insult that tends to miss it’s mark.

    I’d ask instead, how can we focus on the spirit of the communication VS the law and we’d be happier entrepreneurs.

    1. Scott

      Thanks Michelle. Your story of annoyance at constant questions makes me think it’s not just about being an expert, it’s also about being famous, and handling that graciously.

      You also made me think of another layer to this. Maybe part of the reason I, you, or any expert keeps getting asked the same question is our answers aren’t as good as we think they are. That’s why I mentioned the Bruce Lee quote – if we’re really so wise even a silly question has something to teach us, even if it’s just about our marketing or our audience.

  3. Kathleen

    There’s yet another -filling in the blanks.

    I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I am grateful that I avoided “filling in the blanks” despite tremendous pressure to do so (failing to provide an answer tends to annoy others). If you’re a guru, people expect you to have an opinion on things that you know, have nothing to do with the focus of your expertise. The temptation is there to step out of bounds and frankly, it’s the easiest way for me to see that another “expert” is a fraud. Well, that and their proliferation of their marketed frauducts.

  4. Vinish Garg

    This is interesting. When we are beginners, we aspire to ‘be like’ a few experts. When we grow and gain experience, others start calling us ‘experts’ we feel the joy. However, this joy is shortlived as we soon realize that with position comes responsibility and accountability.

    This is like the best player in the team because the audience is always looking at him to perform. However, I will not always call it a burden because we enjoy certain privileges too! :). The catch is to keep raising the bar for ourselves!

  5. Scott

    There are many pleasures of expertise too, but those are easier to recognize.

    I like the sports analogy – the best player on a team will find ways to make other players better too. Same should go for experts perhaps.

  6. Danny Haipola

    Scott, your writing is dead on, this is a great list. As a consultant I fear 4-6 the most (not to dismiss 1-3) with 5 really being the biggest concern, it seems like one should go back to being a novice learner as often as possible.

    1. Scott

      Perhaps the best way to stay a novice is to have hobbies and pastimes that have nothing to do with professional expertise. It’s away from work, with a different circle of people, that the expectations and egos can relax and minds can open.

  7. Theo

    I am far from being an expert, i simply try every day to be better in what i do, however excellent write up and i love this quote: “…the best player on a team will find ways to make other players better…”

    I don’t know if you saw this video on being an expert:

    Thank you for another gret read.

  8. David

    There are different standards of being called an expert’s what makes you an expert to one person may not make you an expert to another.

    I am an expert according to academic standards. I am frequently told I have the burden of sharing knowledge with others and contributing to my field. In the end, out odd sometimes easier to know less.

  9. Eric

    This is brilliant! I work in a position in our company where we are often called the “experts”. It’s easy to think that you’re something special when people are frequently treating you that way. However, I’ve found a good talk with someone in a different department – like software development – will help bring me back down to earth and realize that there’s an entire world of expertise that I know very little about. We’re all dependent upon one another’s knowledge, skill and wisdom…even experts learned their expertise from somewhere. It’s not self-created.


Leave a Reply

* Required