Sea of Troubles

You'll Never Feel Like an Expert

I was fortunate enough to work, briefly, with the Trust Centre. While it was ultimately unsuccessful, during that time I worked alongside some of the most brilliant professionals I have known. Incubated within Westpac, a major Australian bank, Trust Centre had the resources to hire the very best people they could find – incredible technical, operating, marketing and financial experts.

One morning, one of these people walked into the office, and declared “I had that nightmare again, that today would be the day that everyone discovers that I’m making everything up as I go along.” The floor murmured its collective assent. How could it be that these people, at the very apex of their game, lacked confidence in their own abilities?

It turns out that experts don’t generally think of themselves as being so. The more you explore a subject, the more aware you become of it’s true complexity. That awareness deprives experts of a sense of completion; the more you know, the more you’re aware of what you don’t.

A couple of years later, Steve Schwartz wrote an excellent article describing an excellent, related lemma: “No one knows what they’re doing” (mild language warning). The essence of his thesis is that your most important task is not to acquire new knowledge, but to continually reduce what you don’t know that you don’t know. He concludes:

In fact, if you never feel clueless, and you always know better than everyone else, please let me know, so that I can be aware of how dangerous you are.

This interlocks nicely with the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which someone with low skill in a domain overestimates their skill, and the highly skilled underestimate it.

Put together, these three put my mind at ease in my own work. Even though I’m increasingly aware of the things I don’t understand, that’s a positive signal. I’m probably never going to feel like an expert, but that doesn’t mean I’m not.