The Misfortune of Being an Expert

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." -Mark Twain

Recently I spoke with a man who is a highly successful business consultant. He is very accomplished: he has a PhD, has written four books with another in the works, has been involved in various capacities in many professional organizations, has started and sold businesses and is on the board of several more. He is a true consultant, rather than one of those who do bits and pieces and call themselves consultants. He is able to go in, do a deep assessment, and use a multitude of models (by his own admission he is a "model man") that can facilitate the change necessary. He works in that rarefied air in companies--in board rooms with senior executives, pulling whatever rabbit out of his hat necessary for the development of individuals, teams or a company to be successful. He has achieved a lot, and I was very impressed.

As I walked away from our conversation, I found myself reflecting on the path I have taken through my career. I don't have a PhD, I'm just starting to write a book, and I've dabbled in consulting. I am, however, an outstanding presenter, trainer and coach, and I design training content well. I have done some consulting but not with the breadth and depth of the man to whom I'd just spoken. I have not (yet) created my own body of work and have spent most of my career supporting others in the roll-out and execution of theirs. Does that mean that I am not accomplished? Does that mean the work I've done isn't as important as his?

I am part of the generation that came of age when "follow your bliss" was birthed. I took that idea to heart and have been extremely fortunate to have done work that is meaningful to me and has provided meaning and value to others. I took some of the academic route, but when the opportunity presented itself to do the work I wanted to do, I jumped on it. I've never had to look for a job--my work always found its way to me. Over the years I've noticed that academics, degrees and credentials have become more and more important. It seems like for some, degrees are becoming the new designer accessory. As a result, getting a higher degree (or multiple degrees) has become the norm before daring to apply for a job, and woe to the person who does not have one.

Now, don't get me wrong. I understand the importance of demonstrating skill and knowledge in certain disciplines--I wouldn't want a surgeon who didn't finish medical school take a knife to me. I admire the work of thought leaders who have conducted studies and created new theories and methodologies through the research they've done at universities. I like models and find they can be very useful. I've completed a master's program and have participated in a five-year curriculum in spiritual science. I love to learn-- I just haven't followed a traditional route of learning.

What I've noticed coinciding with the demand for degrees or certification is the assumption that the more you have acquired, the smarter and greater your ability must be. While that is often true, I've also come across people who have a lot of letters after their names and who maintain a position that they "know" when in many instances they don't. They make assumptions about others or about life that fit into the model or framework they have learned because they (and often others) consider themselves experts. Sometimes this packs more punch because it's backed up by the evidence they've accumulated to emphasize how right they are. I experienced this with the man I had just spoken to.

I was sharing about an area of study I've been engaged in for several years, and he quickly asserted an assumption about what I was talking about based on a model he knows. I told him that what I was studying wasn't based on that model. He looked at me quizzically and said, "Oh," and proceeded to talk on about his knowledge of the topic. No inquiry or interest in learning something that was outside of what he knew because he thought he already knew it all. My experience was dismissed because it didn't fit within his framework. And he unfortunately missed out on an opportunity to expand his knowledge.

When people think they know everything, they stop learning. Thinking we know keeps us safe and comfortable in the familiar. While we may be experts, when we are unwilling to learn more, our world becomes very narrow and we become dedicated to maintaining the image of what we know. . Over the years, I've coached and presented workshops to the "best and the brightest" in Fortune 500 companies and found that the most effective leaders are those comfortable admitting when they don't know something. That's when deep learning and a thrilling journey of discovery can begin.

Are there any areas of your life where you consider yourself an expert? If so, do you also have the willingness to admit you may still have something to learn in that area? Can you approach it with genuine curiosity and be open to the possibility you might learn something unexpected that could surprise and delight you? I often ask myself, "What do I think I know that could be limiting my learning?" That's when my innate inquisitiveness is free to come forward, and new worlds begin to unfold.