The myopia of expertise

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.
— Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Those who advocate certainty are not credible.
— Charles Handy in conversation with Steven D’Souza

Human desire for certainty is unshakeable, noble, incorrigible, highly dangerous.
— Isaiah Berlin in conversation with Michael Ignatieff

In the world of hyperspecialism, there is always a danger that we get stuck in the furrows we have ploughed. Digging ever deeper, we fail to pause to scan the skies or peer over the ridge of the trench. We lose context, forgetting the overall geography of the field in which we stand. Our connection to the surrounding region therefore breaks down. We construct our own localised, closed system. Until entropy inevitably has its way. Our system then fails, our specialism suddenly rendered redundant. The expertise we valued so highly has served to narrow and shorten our vision. It has blinded us to potential and opportunity.

It does not have to be like this, though. The maintenance of connections, the exercise of curiosity, the desire for continuous improvement at both a micro and a macro level can all energise, sustain and help evolve new practice and behaviour. Some of my favourite stories about receptiveness and openness to alternative methods and ideas have come from healthcare. They include the pioneering German surgeons who recognised the scientific nature of medical practice, and understood the need for sterility symbolised by the white laboratory coats they opted to wear. They also include the joint endeavours of the Great Ormond Street Hospital surgical team and the Ferrari F1 pit-stop team who partnered together to improve the hospital’s post-surgery handover procedures. Then there is the tale, documented by Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto, of medical staff seeking to reduce the incidence of post-surgical infection by learning lessons from the aviation, construction and finance industries. All are examples where highly skilled individuals, however temporarily, removed the blinkers of their expertise.

Stories of positive deviance also offer up examples where experts have chosen to put their own knowledge and experience on hold. Instead they have selected to learn from emergent practices demonstrated by community members who have diverged from or modified standardised behaviours. The aim is not to impose or blend outside knowledge, as was the case in the Great Ormond Street-Ferrari example, but to amplify what already exists within the community. To uncover and broadcast it for the benefit of all.

The experiences of Jerry and Monique Sternin working on behalf of Save the Children in Vietnam have been well documented by the likes of Sternin himself, David Dorsey and Chip & Dan Heath. Tasked with addressing child malnutrition in a short time frame, the Sternins opted to observe both common and deviant practice. They learned that the healthier children tended to be members of families that provided smaller but more frequent meals than was the norm. In addition, these families tended to add other ingredients to their traditional rice dishes. Dependent on where they lived, this might include shrimps, crabs, snails, sweet-potato greens, peanuts and sesame seeds. Sources of protein and vitamins to supplement the children’s intake of carbohydrates.

The publicising of the results of this positively deviant behaviour, and the sharing of knowledge by parents who had been adding variety to their children’s meals, led to broader adoption and ongoing experimentation. Not only individuals but villages too learned from one another. They were exposed to different practices, internalised them and adapted them to suit their own context. The solution to child malnutrition was personalised, home-made, evolutionary, communal. It emerged from within rather than being imposed from the realm of the alien expert briefly parachuted in to espouse a colour-by-numbers quick fix.

For the neo-generalist, there is something hugely appealing about the notion of taking themselves out of the expert’s comfort zone and plunging headlong into the unknown territory of a new discipline. The realm of Not Knowing, explored in a recent book by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, is one of opportunity, exploration and the acquisition of new knowledge for such an individual. It is a place where they can give vent to their curiosity, exercise personal knowledge mastery and experiment continuously. It is a chance to broaden one’s horizons, to make the canvas on which one paints even bigger, rather than exchanging one ploughed furrow for another.

Sport supplies several examples of multi-disciplinarians. In athletics, decathletes and heptathletes have to be adept at a broad range of track and field events, and outstanding in at least a few of them. Similarly, medley swimmers, pentathletes, biathletes and triathletes have to be competent in a range of disciplines. These sports people learn constantly from others, collaborating with coaches, liaising with former high achievers in their various events. More fascinating still are those individuals who exchange one sport for another and excel at both. Dennis Compton, for example, was a test match cricketer who also played football for Arsenal. Rob Andrew was a rugby international and a double Cambridge Blue who also had experience of first class cricket. Both Chris Boardman and Bradley Wiggins were specialist track cyclists, highly accomplished Olympians in the pursuit discipline, both of whom went on to enjoy success on the road. Wiggins, for example, transformed himself from a 4,000m board specialist to winner of the mountainous Tour de France. Perhaps less well known is the story of Rebecca Romero.

Romero was a member of the quadruple sculls rowing team that won the silver medal at the Olympic Games held in Athens in 2004. Four years later in Beijing, she again represented Great Britain, this time winning gold in the women’s individual pursuit event held in the velodrome. In so doing, she demonstrated what can happen when someone moves from a realm of expertise and, with an open mind, embraces the unknown. By being receptive to new ideas, combining them with existing knowledge and experiences, working collaboratively with others, she was able to transform herself into an expert in another discipline. She demonstrated the curiosity and generalism of the fox, rather than the specialism and prickly defensiveness of the hedgehog.

By opting to specialise in multiple fields, the neo-generalist helps correct the myopia that is characteristic of expertise.

The lively plurality of voices sometimes can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts.
— David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined

The idea of self-realization is one of the most destructive of modern fictions. It suggests you can flourish in only one sort of life, or a small number of similar lives, when in fact everybody can thrive in a large variety of ways.
— John Gray, The Silence of Animals

We have access to a growing network of expertise from people, like bloggers, who are willing to share their knowledge for free. Expertise is becoming ubiquitous through the Internet and professional social networks. One’s position in the hierarchy is no longer an indicator of one’s influence or knowledge.
— Harold Jarche, Finding Perpetual Beta

5 thoughts on “The myopia of expertise

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