[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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.