Falling into the Trap of Expertise

A couple of years ago, I made a huge mistake. And in this case, huge is likely an understatement.

Preparing to travel to Mumbai, I followed the wrong set of instructions on my visa form and found myself being turned away at the Indian border.

So, I flew an extra 10,000 miles, missed a very important event, caused untold inconvenience to others, and spent too many hours in a pressurized cabin, which cannot have been a good thing.

I am not a rookie. I have been traveling internationally for 40 years, have lived abroad for 13 of those 40 years, obtained innumerable work and study visas, and have crossed hundreds of borders. So this was not a rookie mistake. In fact, it was an expert mistake.

Yes, you heard right. It was partly because of my comfort with travel that I made this mistake.

What happened was that — armed with experience — my mind performed a sort of “mental autocomplete”. It filled in the blanks. The visa requirements were similar (but not identical) to other visas I had received multiple times. And, well, autopilot just took over.

“Similar” is not a word you want to use for visas. Or, flying a commercial jet. Or, for that matter, performing brain surgery.

This is what experience — and expertise — can do. It makes you comfortable. Certain. Sure of things. And comfort is dangerous. It lowers your vigilance. You become sloppy and then mistakes happen.

What’s more, the comfort associated with experience and expertise is a positive feeling. Performing something known, using skills which are second nature, relying on a vast corpus of experience or knowledge feels good.

We get a little surge of dopamine every time we rely on a known, comfortable routine that produces a positive result, and that gives us a sense of mastery. And while mastery is a good thing, the comfort of mastery, well, not so much.

[You can learn more about this in my video: Positive Threat, Risky Comfort, and the Challenge of Rank in Learning. ]

What are the traps of expertise?

You Rely on Incorrect Assumptions

When you have a ton of experience, you don’t need all the data, because your brain fills in the gaps. You hear a story, look at a piece of data, or face a decision, and your brain draws upon the thousands of times you have seen this, faced a similar decision, heard the same story, and it races ahead to a conclusion.

This makes you better at differentiating between important and less important information. You sort better, recognize things faster, and draw conclusions faster and more easily.

While this is often a good thing, filling in the gaps is also about making snap judgments, relying on stereotypes, and making faulty assumptions.

When we make an immediate (and often false) assumption about a person based on race, gender, age (or how they are dressed), this is your mind filling in the gap. But it’s also a stereotypical judgment, an unfortunate consequence of our mind’s tendency to “autocomplete”, resulting in unconscious bias.

You over-apply the role of expert (a fancy word for mansplaining)

When it comes to expertise, sometimes we over-apply the role of expert. We transfer our sense of expertise into domains where it doesn’t apply. We cling to the role of expert, even in areas where we lack requisite expertise.

Entrepreneurs, for instance, are known for thinking, incorrectly, that their expertise as an inventor or as a founder makes them an expert in other areas of running the business.

The role of an expert is a comfortable, ego-satisfying position in which to find oneself. People defer to your opinions. They seek out your advice and counsel.

And before you know it, you’re dispensing advice to everyone — about everything! Even in areas in which you aren’t qualified. Your expertise in one field becomes a license to act as an expert in every field. And just like that, you have become a mansplainer.

You stop learning unfamiliar things

Being an expert means you’ve gone very deep in a field. Your knowledge base is vast, but it is deeper than it is broad. And even though you may be learning new things in your field all the time, learning in your field is not the same as learning in general.

In fact, your learning has become limited, and you are at risk of being cut off from new technologies and new ideas, and stuck in your ways and in your thoughts. You apply the same solutions, the same way of thinking to new problems, and suddenly find that it doesn’t work out so well.

For instance, I am an avid reader, and it keeps me learning, but while reading expands my knowledge, it doesn’t challenge my skills. It does not force me to perform different cognitive tasks. It does not push me outside my comfort zone.

Real learning needs to involve something unfamiliar — and uncomfortable — to the brain. And that discomfort is what keeps us sharp and awake.

You overestimate your capacity

Upon reflection, my mistake was due in large part to stress. A good friend of mine, when she heard the story, said: “Well, you just have no margins.”

I thought about it, and realized that actually, my mistake was not due to my stress, but to the fact that I failed to recognize my stress.

In Lawrence Gonzales’ book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, he explores the personality types most likely to survive catastrophes — shipwrecks, plane crashes, and the like.

Why do some survive and others don’t? Gonzales found that the classic hero type actually does most poorly in a survival situation. Heroes overestimate themselves — they don’t recognize their limits, and this put themselves, and others, in danger.

[For more on limitations and heroism, read my post, The Hero Trap.]

When you’re an expert, and when others see you as one, you overlook your limits — limits to energy, capacity, and even intelligence. You become overconfident, more in love with your ideas, more confident of your capacity to achieve success.

You become dangerously close to overestimating your chances of success.

The moral of the story is that it is not only important to recognize and respect limits, it’s also important to realize that you might not actually see them.

Even if you don’t feel them, you have to assume you have limits. Even if you don’t think you need help, you should assume you do. You need to start looking for signs that you have reached a limit and learn to recognize your own personal limits as they arise.

Expertise is a very good thing, but like everything that makes us feel confident, content, and comfortable, we have to watch out for the tendency to overdose on it.