Curses of Experience

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Having experience or being an expert is socially highly regarded as desirable.

Expertness and experience is, by many definitions defined as unconscious knowledge. There is a need to acknowledge that. However, there are some hidden traps for experts.

Building up expertise

Experience is gained by gradually building up skills by doing increasing difficult or complex things.  You can identify  five levels of skills. Of course, the levels of expertise is a  rigid way of looking upon the acquisition of knowledge and stage approach are littered with problems. Notwithstanding that, it may be helpful to understand the curses of experiences.

  • A Novice relies on using rules  rigidly;
  • The Advanced Beginner has acquired a limited situational perception, however, all aspects of work is treated with equal importance;
  • The next level is that of Competency. There is some perception of action in relation to goals, deliberate planning, and formulation of routines. A person is able to perform multiple activities and accumulate information;
  • With further building up of experience the level of Proficiency is reached. An individual has developed a holistic view on a situation, prioritise the importance of aspects, perceives deviations from the normal pattern, and uses “ground-rules” for guidance. A person may try to fathom the “rules of the game”, but every time they think that they have found the “rule”, the master or expert disobeys the supposed rule;
  • An Expert transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and ground-rules. An expert grasps intuitively situations, based on a deep, tacit understanding and has vision on what could be possible.

Thus, the  novice has become an expert and cannot explain what he or she is doing anymore.  The actions have become intuitive. If experts were able to express the “what and how” they are doing, then we would all be experts. There is something what experts do that is inimitable – that is why they are called experts. Listening to David Bowie or Bach, does not turn us into song writers or composers. It is difficult to describe how Stephan Hawking is thinking about the universe and where he gets his ideas from. Studying artists and copying them does not turn an art student into a famous painter. Who we regard as an expert is not determined entirely upon a person’s knowledge and experience, environmental factors are also playing a role. The right milieu is crucial not only for the expert’s work but also for the acceptance of the ideas and decisions. An expert may have a strong personality that helps him or her to disregard the environment. Nevertheless, this factor cannot be ignored. As humans we are not isolated islands. Our actions and success is a result of an interaction of individual and environmental factors.

An expert nurse will “know without knowing” when to deviate from the standard protocol, because he or she has a hunch that something is wrong, and will against all odds send the patient to the hospital. In contrast, a proficient nurse will follow the protocol.

The expert has become the emperor in the logic of his or her field of expertise; knows all the details without being conscious of that fact. Caught in a logic bubble and often unable to escape.  This is where the curse of expertise comes in.

Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.

In the history of science and  technology there countless examples of experts, who were assumed to have a vision on what would be the cause of a problem, or what would be feasible or not, were later proved to absolutely wrong.

In the 1800s, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that washing hands with an antiseptic solution before a delivery reduced child-bed fever fatalities by 90%. Publication of his findings was not well received by the medical fraternity. The idea conflicted with both the existing medical concepts and more importantly, with the image that doctors had of themselves. That intransigence consigned large numbers of mothers to painful, lingering deaths (Wikipedia: The Doctor’s Plague). The scorn and ridicule of doctors was so extreme – Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean – that Semmelweis moved from Vienna and was eventually committed to a mental asylum where he died. A common fate of Whistle Blowers, as we describe in our book Thinkibility – Positive & Negative).

In 1878, David E. Hughes noticed that sparks could be heard in a telephone receiver when experimenting with his carbon microphone. He developed this carbon-based detector further and eventually could detect signals over a few hundred yards. He demonstrated his discovery to the Royal Society in 1880, but was told it was merely induction, and therefore abandoned further research (Wikipedia: History of Radio Communication).

In “Thin slices”, Gladwell describes how a museum purchases an Art Sculpture. Immediately, art experts looked through the sculpture and decided there was something wrong with it, a gut feeling that exhibited all the wrong signs. Yet under thorough investigation by experts, the sculpture was deemed real because of no solid evidence against the now known fake. But it turned out that was all fake.

A staged process to be locked in

As you can see in the scheme above, a novel goes through a staged process. He or she has progressed from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. When progress is made, the novel attains conscious competence and, by continuously practicing, it becomes “second nature”.  As a result, a person is no longer able to explain actions and decisions.

However, using thinking strategies designed with the purpose to examine intuition could give the expert access to his or her  unconscious knowledge, but still beyond the  ability to explain the whys. In young children, serious infection is often hard to diagnose and can be “like finding a needle in a haystack”. A doctor’s intuition that something is seriously wrong may have more diagnostic value than many symptoms and signs as this report suggests. Medical teaching should make clear that an “inexplicable gut feeling is an important diagnostic sign and a very good reason for seeking the opinion of someone with more pediatric expertise or performing additional testing.

Intuitive thinking is possible to learn. See for example “Learning Medical Intuition”. In our  coming eBook, Thinkibility- Facts & Emotions, we will elaborate how to enhance your intuitive thinking. In the mean time, why not subscribe to our blog.

Photo “Expertise On Screen Shows Experienced Acting” by Stuart Miles

7 Replies to “Curses of Experience”

  1. We make important decisions every day — and we often rely on experts to help us decide. But, says economist Noreena Hertz, relying too much on experts can be limiting and even dangerous. She calls for us to start democratizing expertise — to listen not only to “surgeons and CEOs but also to shop staff.”

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