In our careers there are various skillsets that we will be required to develop over time. Whether that is carrying multiple plates at a time, while working in a restaurant, or something more technically challenging, such as learning a programming language or learning to write good. Regardless of the skillset, there is always a learning curve that must be conquered.
It is tempting to think of this learning curve as a steady slope where knowledge is accumulated over time, or perhaps a steep initial slope that flattens out. In my experience though, this is rarely the case. I believe there is a reoccurring pattern in the way most people move from beginner to expert in a given subject, with distinct phases. What’s more, I believe many others will identify with these phases.
If you do identify with these phases, you will also realize there are risks that emerge at different times, and that being aware of those risks can help you avoid them. These risks typically occur where a persons’ belief in their mastery of a given subject diverges from their actual abilities. Sometimes it will be a lack of confidence that causes more experienced people to not speak up when they should. Other times, the person will exhibit there far too much confidence relative to their knowledge. The latter case is so common it has become cliché: A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
To help illustrate the various phases of the journey from beginner to expert, I am going to tell the story through a fictional character, Fred, who is learning Economics.
1. Initial Optimism
When Fred first begins to learn economics, he has a large burst of excitement. Everything is new and interesting, he is learning new ways to think about problems, and he can’t seem to get enough. He knows very little about the subject but is enthralled with how quickly he is absorbing all this new information, and how quickly the pieces seem to be fitting together.
For Fred though, the best part is that he can clearly see the point at which he believes he will be an expert.
2. The Summit of Mount Delusion
Finally, after months/years of working hard, Fred reaches the peak of Mount Delusion. He finishes his degree and he can feel the knowledge coursing through him. Fred loves spending hours enlightening his friends and family about the intricacies of interest rate policy and why minimum wage increases are wrong headed. He feels great. He set out to master something and did it. Already his mind is turning to what is next on the list of topics to master.
The problem with standing on the summit of Mount Delusion is the fog often blocks the view.
Fred, like many who have stood on the summit of Mount Delusion, espouses advice without realizing the risks of that advice. He provides clear, unambiguous recommendations because he lacks the experience and/or knowledge to realize what caveats are needed. Ironically, this often makes Fred all the more convincing to his colleagues. While the true experts are hedging their responses, Fred is completely convinced option 1 is the best. People like decisiveness and, as a result, they like and trust Fred.
3. The Clearing of the Fog of Ignorance
For Fred (and most people), a moment comes when the fog clears. Someone who is much further along this journey than Fred clears the fog completely unintentionally. With an innocuous comment and a simple question, this person – who does not even regard themselves as an expert – completely shakes Fred’s confidence to the core. For a horrible moment, Fred is left looking out over the vast expanse of knowledge and concepts he had not even known existed until 30 seconds ago. All the knowledge and experience accumulated to that point only seems to highlight how little he really knows. From here, it is a long way down …
It should be noted at this point that, for some people, the fog never clears. They simply lack the level of self-reflection required to ever critically review their performance and continue their development. They will go through life claiming they are an advanced user of X or an expert on Y without ever realizing just how misguided they are. To be frank, these people are often some of the most dangerous in the workplace.
4. The Valley of Self-Pity
After that horrifying moment when the fog cleared, our former expert Fred was left in a depressed state. His mind continually racing through all the times he fearlessly dispensed his advice, advice he now realizes was off base or often just completely wrong. What’s worse, he now realizes that anyone with any real knowledge could have identified him as a fraud based purely on that misguided advice. In short, he feels amazingly stupid.
He revises his resume, removes all words like “advanced” and “expert” and prays his ill formed advice doesn’t come back to haunt him. People who used to rely on Fred for unambiguous advice are completely mystified as to what happened. Where did his confidence go? They will speculate about what happened but most will never really realize the truth.
At this point in the learning process, there are two main risks. The first is that Fred gives up on economics altogether. In his depressed state, he feels like he is back at square one. He views his own skills as trivial and meaningless, while over valuing the skills of others. Many people will never exit the valley of self-pity for this reason.
The second risk is that, in this state, Fred (and people like him) begins to significantly undersell his expertise. He defers decision making to those around him, even though in many instances he will be much better placed to make decisions.
5. Exiting the Valley
After what feels like the world’s longest meal of humble pie, some strange things start happening to Fred.
Firstly, he will start bumping into people who are still standing on the peak of Mount Delusion. He will identify them, because, despite their claims of being experts, he knows significantly more than them. He will realize that they do not even realize what they do not know yet, exactly like he did, not so long ago. This provides comfort because he realizes he is unlikely to be the first or last person to fall from the top of Mount Delusion. In fact, compared to some of the people he is now meeting, he was amazingly restrained.
Secondly, Fred will meet people who didn’t study economics and realize that skills and knowledge that, in the Valley of Self-Pity, he assumed everyone had are, in fact, exceedingly rare. Fred will realize that many of the basic skills he has are actually not so basic and are quite valuable.
With each of these encounters, Fred’s confidence begins to recover. He will remain painfully conscious of how much he still has to learn, but for the first time since this journey began, his actual knowledge level and his assumed knowledge level will come into alignment.
6. The Never-ending Slope of True Mastery
Fred is finally on a sustainable path. He has acquired a large amount of knowledge and experience, but is fully aware of the limits of his knowledge. He has revised his resume again to include words like “advanced” and “expert”, but now seeks to play these down.
He continues to run into many people standing on the summit of Mount Delusion, but mostly just feels sorry for them – most have a large and embarrassing fall coming, and many will not recover from it. He attempts to coach these people where possible, to help lessen the pain from their fall. Some take his advice, some do not.
How I Can Relate to Fred
In my own life, I have taken the journey to the summit of Mount Delusion several times. With each subsequent visit I have learned to be more cautious, to pay more attention to people who have more experience than I do, but the scars of previous falls remain.
From SQL to Excel, writing blogs to learning Spanish, there has always been a specific depressing moment when the illusion of expertise disappeared and only a sense of inadequacy remained. I would always recover and continue to build knowledge (I have a reputation for being a little stubborn), but to this day, the words “expert” and “advanced user” continue to stick in the throat, the fear of being exposed as a fraud (again) always present.
So far I have been fortunate. Even my most reckless declarations and advice have only served to cause personal embarrassment rather than any significant damage to my career. It could have been so much worse.
To those that are beginning the journey, my only advice is to remain humble. To those that have already endured a fall or two, don’t give up. The world will be a better place for your continued contributions.