In the past, I wrote about the “I Should Be Happy” Syndrome, for situations when everything seems great, and yet something feels awfully wrong. I also wrote about different aspects of The Impostor Syndrome for professionals who are experts at their jobs, but can’t shake off the feeling that they are not good enough.
The Expert Syndrome is the opposite of the Impostor Syndrome: it’s an “I Already Knew That!” attitude, when a person considers himself to be an expert in a given field, having only limited exposure and superficial familiarity with the field. So, what’s the big deal?
There are two reasons why you Really want to learn about The Expert Syndrome:
- If you have it, it is impeding your ability to learn and listen. This can damage your career, relationships and limit your life options. (Believe me, I know: I almost crashed a car once because of my Expert Syndrome, but that’s a whole other story. I want to believe that I learned a lot since then.)
- If you work or live with someone who has it, this person can make you doubt yourself until you feel like a walking cliché and an impostor. And I’m sure you don’t need that.
When my son was 6, he took piano classes for a year. He made great progress. After a summer break, when discussing scheduling piano classes for the following year, my son replied: “I already know how to play piano. I don’t need any more lessons.” To support his claims, he proceeded to play a decent [for his age] rendition of Ode to Joy. I counted to ten in my head in order to prevent myself from saying: “You have no idea how little you know!”
It’s common knowledge by now that to become an expert in something, one needs 10,000 hours of mindful practice doing it. My son has had at most 300 hours of piano practice (and not all of it was fully mindful).
Now, throughout my life, I’ve had about 3,300 hours of mindful piano practice. Not anywhere near enough to become an expert, but definitely more than 300.
So, I decided to make a point with my own rendition of Ode to Joy, asking my son if he could hear the difference between what he played and what I played.
“Yeah, it’s a little better…” – he answered unenthusiastically, with a clear implication that my extra 3,000 hours of practice were not worth the improvement.
To be more persuasive, I put on a clip of Michael Strickland’s arrangement of Ode to Joy, with the performer clearly having more than 10,000 hours of mindful piano practice.
Now my son undoubtedly heard the difference. And he dropped the “I already know”.
And he still abandoned piano lessons.
Even though the Tiger Mom inside me had a fit about it, a Life Coach inside me understood that my son shifted from “I already know everything” to “What I know about this is enough, and now I want to learn about something else.”
It’s important to recognize when you do know enough to make a decision about something. The big question, though, is how can you tell a difference between really knowing enough and having The Expert Syndrome?
Here are 4 ways to tell:
– You didn’t invest anywhere near 10,000 hours of mindful practice into the area that you claim to know
– You recognize the right answers when they are presented to you, but would be extremely challenged to create similarly good solutions from scratch
– You are not adding anything new that can be used by other experts in the field
– You don’t recognize innovative solutions and claim that it’s all been done before, because all good solutions look similar and familiar to you
So, if this sounds like you, and you want to become an actual expert in your chosen field, try doing the following:
1. Start logging in the 10,000 hours of mindful practice in the desired field. (It’s about 7 years of full-time work.)
2. Be curious. Rather than assume that you already know everything about your field, ask questions without taking anything for granted.
3. Make an effort to discover new developments in the field: read, talk to experts, and notice how the field is changing. This way, you will always stay on the cutting edge of the field.
4. Put something in. Experiment with creating useful tools, resources or technologies in your field, and let others in the field test-drive them. Putting yourself out there can feel scary, and you’ll probably fail a few times, not receiving the support that you hope for. And that’s ok. If you are not putting anything in, even risking failure, you are not an expert yet.
Now, what do you do with a colleague or a family member who keeps saying “I already knew that!”? Please resist the urge of calling them arrogant, or making them fall flat on their faces.
Instead, take the high road by following advice from Martha Beck, one of my favorite authors, mentors and coaches of all times:
“There are three types of business: my business, other people’s business, and G-d’s business.” (It is possible that this originally came from the teachings of Byron Katie, but I learned it from Martha).
So, if you encounter someone who knows it all, your best protection from being irritated is staying in YOUR business: you know what you know, and let the other person live with what he knows.
It is Not your business to teach them life lessons. Your business is to shine.
When you encounter someone with The Expert Syndrome, count to 10 in your head, breathe, remember a 6-year old’s piano rendition of the Ode to Joy, and go about your business: shine!
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