Monday, April 16, 2012

Learning from Experts

Many of us have a love/hate relationship with “experts.” By experts, we mean those people who have both extra-ordinary knowledge, and a proven track record of success, in some field of expertise. We are not talking about people who just pretend to be experts; we are speaking about those who actually are. They may excel at sports, business, plumbing, auto-mechanics, psychology, ministry, or any number of other subjects, but some people are just extra-ordinary in their skills. Some of that expertize comes from natural giftedness, some of it comes from an intentional effort to learn new techniques and expand their skills, some of it comes from unique experiences that put them in the right place at the right time to become something more than they could have been on their own, but clearly some people are outstanding in their field.

We love to be around people who are great in their field because they can teach us a lot that we may never figure out on our own. A few afternoons spent with an expert at a sports camp can move a middle school athlete to the top of his game and help him make the varsity squad in high school. A few months learning under an expert can make the difference between a “jack of all trades” and a master electrician or master plumber. A one year internship under an expert mentor can help a recent college graduate actually land a job in their chosen field instead of landing in their parents’ basement with a pile of student loans they are unable to pay. Spending time with people who are great at what they do just makes sense.

But if we were honest, we would also have to admit that sometimes we hate to be around experts because they reveal things that we are doing that may not be working very well. They point out weaknesses in our skill set. They expose errors in our thinking. They tell us we must not rely solely on our natural skills, or simply hope to be in the right place at the right time to discover our big break. They remind us how much we still have to learn in order to excel at whatever it is we are trying to be. They push us out of comfort zone and make us stretch ourselves in ways that we may not like.

When we spend time with someone who is an expert in their field, we have to decide how we are going to respond to what they are trying to teach us. Though it will probably be useless to attempt to imitate every aspect of what others, do since we are all individuals with our own unique set of skills and ambitions, if we approach learning with an open mind, we can become better at whatever we want to accomplish. We will learn to incorporate various aspects of what we learn into our regular routines and continue to make improvements and enhance our thinking and our skills. We may well become the experts someday in whatever it is that we are trying to accomplish.

However, those who think they already know it all will spend all their energy explaining why the expert has no idea what he or she is talking about. Those who refuse to learn from those who are more experienced will be less productive and most often try to blame their lack of productivity on someone else. They will dismiss whatever the expert says, even if that expert has proven that the concepts and skills taught will work in real life. Those who refuse to learn from more experienced people will often say, “I have my own style” or “My way works for me.” Sadly, most people who are observing such a person would not agree. Perhaps the company sent the person to a training program precisely because their “way” was not working or their “style” was ineffective.

Though none of us like to admit it when our system is ineffective, sometimes it is, and it is better to admit it, correct it, and then move to a place of effectiveness instead of clinging to a way that is not working. People who fail to learn from those who are more experienced, or grow in their skill set, will never be seen by others as experts. In their own arrogance, they may think of themselves as experts, but no one else will share that thinking. If they persist in their unwillingness to be stretched by those who are more knowledgeable, they may lose their position completely and not only not be an “expert,” they may not even be “good” or “fair” or even on the list of competent practitioners.

If we want to become something more than we are and improve our skills in some area, we need to spend time with people who have already done it. We should listen to what they have to say, try to use some of their techniques, and improve our own abilities. We should avoid thinking too highly of ourselves and instead have a learning spirit. By doing this, we can improve our own abilities and someday be in a position to teach others, just as we were taught.


  1. I think the word "expert" is in the eye of the beholder. I have been to plenty of football trainings where the expert didn't know as much as they thought they did. Sometimes people's perception is more than they are and the expert learns as much from the discussion as the attendees. Discussion is good for everyone regardless of the quantity of their knowledge.

  2. While it is true that many people who think they are experts, are in fact, not so great, the article above clearly identified a person as an expert only if they have a proven track record of success. And while everyone can learn from a good discussion, sometimes it is good to listen to what the expert says first, before we start picking it apart with our own more limited knowledge. Somehow, that person was able to put together that track record of sucess. We should learn why. Then adapt what they learned to our own situation. But when we discount what they say because we think our own opinion is better, we short change ourselves from valuable learning.

    Let me put it another way, who would we rather listen to, a sky diver who has successfully made 100 jumps, or five people sitting in a circle discussing great methods they brainstormed about sky diving but whom have ever actually sky dived? I know which one I'm jumping out of the plane with!

  3. It drives me crazy when someone in group acts like a know it all. Especially when they keep interupting the leader because they think they are so smart. All they are really doing is showing their immaturity.