Ronald Reagan is credited with saying the problem with a certain group of people is that so much of what they know isn’t true.
In the interest of bipartisanship, I’ll refrain from mentioning the group he targeted in his remark. But the essence of the remark is pointed: so much of what we think we know ain’t so. Experts aren’t immune to this disease. In fact due to the mantle of infallibility draped on some experts, they may be more susceptible to error than other mere humans.
“The disease of experts” is a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell. This morning, leadership guru Michael Hyatt called attention to Gladwell’s phenomenon in his blog as it relates to leadership, and it bears discussion here, as well.
To quote Hyatt’s blog, “Gladwell called overconfidence ‘the disease of experts.’ They think they know more than they actually do. In fact, they make mistakes precisely because they have knowledge.”
Experts are often accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, and this can lead to overconfidence. Certainly expertise in any field by definition requires extensive study. Some say it equates to 10,000 hours of study in one area, which translates to about five years in a full-time job or the years put into gaining a PhD. That kind of work lays the foundation for earned credibility and respect in your field.
Hyatt often talks about the value of humility, and this subject is one that gave him an opportunity to remind his readers, “What we really need are leaders who are humble and willing to listen.”
Beyond that prescription for leaders, I would like to add some advice for experts in any field who are called upon to transfer their knowledge to others.
- Question everything. Yesterday’s truth is tomorrow’s myth. See “flat earth meets Galileo.”
- Stay current in your field. Some say we now collect as much knowledge in two years as we had from the beginning of human history until today. People around the world are always building on each others’ knowledge. Remain tapped in to other experts in your field so you are aware of the latest developments.
- Remember your humble beginnings and treat learners’ questions with respect. Honor the next generation who will build upon your work. They will carry your hard work forward and create the next great leaps in science, technology, education, the arts, business and industry.
After all, it is that student with the perplexing question who leads to the next great leap in your field. Honor the learners and leave a foundation that you have helped build so they can move your field forward to the next levels of innovation.
Answer learners simply and sincerely. Tell them the truth as best you know it, so what they know is so.