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Expertise and the Beauty of Not Knowing

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Since World War II, we have lived in a world of experts and expertise, and for an expert, not knowing gets a bad rap. Actually, its worse than that. For an expert, the very idea of not knowing challenges one's self-image, one's entire story of oneself. After all experts are people who have learned and now know a lot about some particular subject, and experts are judged as good or bad depending on the extent of that knowledge and their ability to apply it.

There are three parts to this. The first, is the idea of knowing everything (or quite a lot) about something. The second is how one comes to know, and the third is the idea of judging and being judged. Let's examine each and also consider two practices that can serve us come to grips with these matters.

Expertise Mission Creep

Built into the idea of being an expert is the idea that one knows a lot about one's domain of expertise. This seems natural enough, and much of professional training is devoted to mastering what are generally considered to be the core competencies of the field, the so-called basics. Of course, any discipline worth its salt requires development beyond entry level skill, and herein lies the rub.

The notion of being an expert wouldn't be so troubling if we could contain or bound the notion of sufficient knowing. That is, if we could limit our appetites for knowing a reasonable amount at a reasonable stage in our development then we would be OK with what we know and our rate of increase in knowledge, both. But human beings being human beings, our conception of our own expertise often suffers from a kind of mission creep; we hold ourselves accountable for more and more until, for some, the idea not knowing anything becomes, itself, unacceptable.

This unacceptability of what we don't know can creep either within discipline (we don't know enough in our domain of expertise) or to include areas of knowledge outside the boundaries of our expertise (what we now need to know goes beyond our declared expertise and we don't know enough of that stuff, either).

Four Stages of Learning or Competence

Four stages of competence or skill learning were described by Gordon Training International in the 70s by Noel Burch (here) and these are listed below

2013-05-14-fourstagesofcompetence.png

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

These are often plotted on a 2×2 graphic like the one shown (original link here).

When one is unconsciously incompetent, one doesn't know -- one isn't even aware -- that one doesn't have the particular skill. When one becomes consciously incompetent, one notices that the skill is lacking and useful. As skill is built, one is conscious of the growing capability, and at some point, the skill is mastered to the point that one doesn't notice the skill any longer.

Two Modes to Blocking Stage 2: Denial & Self-Judging

The key step in this process is stage two, conscious incompetence. Becoming and acknowledging the possibilities in new knowledge or practice are the starting gate of learning. Anything that blocks awareness of the dividing line between knowing and not knowing can be an obstacle to learning, and herein lies one difficulty with expertise mission creep.

As our expectations of what we should know grow, one way our mind deals with mission creep is to simply deny that we don't know. People ask us questions, we make up answers-theories based on what we already do know -- and life goes on. In this way we remain in stage one, unconsciously competent, relatively blissful about our ignorance, but also not at the starting gate of learning.

A second way we deal with the enlargement of our expectations is to judge ourselves, sometimes harshly, about the things we don't know (c.f., the choice map, here). Unfortunately, when we are judging, we are not open-we are not learning-and although we are in the stage of conscious incompetence, being in harsh judgment of our incompetence again holds us away from the starting gate of new knowledge.

Two Practices for Peace and Learning

So what's an expert to do? The very notion of "expert" seems to demand an insatiable appetite for knowing more and more, and yet this logic seems to leave us (a) unpeaceful or (b) unready to learn. Fortunately, there are two simple practices that can help:

  1. Practice "I don't know." The first practice is simple, yet elegant, and it was suggested to me by Coach Bev Jones. When you are asked a question to which you don't know the answer, simply say, "I don't know." That's it. By doing this, you immediately become aware that you are in stage two, and you sidestep the difficulty of denial with the very speech act of saying, "I don't know." If said with a peaceful sense of detachment and calm, "I don't know" makes it OK that you don't know and leaves you in a place where expertise mission creep does not take place unless you consciously choose to increase the boundaries.

    Tip for improving: To help enforce the practice at first, give yourself a daily quota of three or five or 10 times of saying "I don't know" during the day. At first, this may be hard to do, but as you practice, it will be easier and easier to come to grips with not knowing.

  2. Practice "I am curious." Of course, saying "I don't know" and leaving it at that is not appropriate in all circumstances. There are times when we don't know something and we choose to learn it. The key word is "choose." When faced with something we consciously don't know, we can choose to learn it or not, and the trick when we would like to know something is to keep ourselves out of self-judgment and to get ourselves to take action to learn the thing we don't know. A practice that can help in these circumstances is to say, "I am curious." That's it. Saying "I am curious" is powerful because it creates the intention of learning the thing, yet it does so without invoking the judgment, "I should have known" or "I am stupid for not having known." Tip for improving: To help enforce the habit of saying "I am curious," self-observe the frequency with which you say the phrase day by day for two weeks. A large number is not "good" and a small number is not "bad." The idea is not to give yourself a grade or to judge yourself; it is simply to help you become more aware of how often you are consciously curious.

Practicing these two practices together can be a powerful way to tame expertise mission creep and keep on learning.

The Beauty of Not Knowing

We live in an age that values expertise, yet expertise often brings with it certain side effects around not knowing and learning. This post has discussed certain aspects of the logic of the story of expertise and considered two practices that can help short circuit some of the deleterious consequences of that logic. The practices are straightforward and they can help bring more peace and learning to life. They also can be a gateway to increased vulnerability and wholeheartedness (here) in ways that can also be beneficial. The practices are easy to try, and not difficult to sustain. Why not give them a whirl and see what they can do for you?