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Why you Should Never Call “the Expert”

You are safer in the hands of an inexperienced doctor…

You may have seen an article that came out a couple of years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association about how mortalities among heart patients reduced during national cardiology conferences – when all the senior-most doctors were away (if you didn’t you can read it here). Basically, this research suggests, if you want good care you should leave yourself in the hands of a novice, there is less likelihood of death (the authors don’t say this themselves).

Why is this? There are a number of possible reasons. One likely, but counter-intuitive, one is that the “expertise” of the senior doctors is what caused medical errors and ultimately, mortalities. As we build expertise, we also build cognitive shortcuts – established ways of doing things, that mostly work. We are less creative. We take less notice of our specific surroundings. We are less likely to listen to others. This is called the Einstellung Effect. (You can see it described in this article)

The expert trap

In my experience, this basically manifests as arrogance – and we see it as designated experts (sometimes self-designated) dominate meetings and conferences. It’s an easy trap to fall into, it’s seductive to think of yourself as an expert. It can be energizing to really feel like you know your way around a topic, to feel certainty, based on your hard-won experience, your rigorous training, in what you are saying, doing and advising. It’s nice to see juniors listen to your every word and lap up your advice.

An ode to humility

However, in my experience, the most effective quality for getting things done to a high standard is humility. The humility to listen to all sorts of different stakeholders, the humility to look at things with fresh eyes, the humility to see a specific context afresh. Of course, you should apply your established knowledge and lessons learned – but with caution – each situation is new. For me, humility is something I have to work towards and cultivate (I am arrogant by nature, I <3 the sound of my own voice), but it’s a worthwhile effort every time. It’s also ethical: as a foreigner working in India, it’s imperative I adopt a humble approach – the alternative is neo-colonialism.

The frustrating thing is that in most professional contexts, people want to hear the certitude of an expert. Any kind of openness or humility is seen as “junior”. For me, this is an ongoing balancing act – to make sure I am listened to by my peers, I am convincing to my clients, but I am also humble in my problem-solving approach for the best possible outcome. I would love to hear from others about how they approach this….

Furthermore:

I really enjoyed reading Leonard Mlodinow’s book “Elastic” about analytic, fixed thinking versus elastic or flexible thinking. I have also written here about how spending time with kids can help boost your creativity and cognitive flexibility – see here.

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