Living in the Penthouse Called Expertise.Aug 09, 2023
More than a decade ago, at a tech organization I worked with, the benefits team asked their CEO to record a video in support of their wellness programs. The CEO, a handsome man in his late 50’s, was happy to oblige. He fulfilled their request in a polished video, declaring to employees that “if a busy executive like me can run five miles before work, so can everyone!”
While his intention was to share enthusiasm for fitness, the message rang hollow. It seemed he had not realized (or somehow forgotten) that most workers do not have drivers, personal assistants, or nannies like he does. One employee—a single mother of two middle school kids, with a long commute, an unreliable car, and a salary less than one one-hundredth of the CEO’s recent bonus—felt demeaned and insulted.
Of course, she would like to workout every day. But that wasn’t easy in her life’s circumstances.
I was reminded of that debacle recently when a lead data scientist asserted that every employee in his organization, regardless of position, education or background, could—and should!—be successfully trained in data analytics.
“It’s easy,” he shrugged. At the very least, he insisted, everyone MUST grasp the basics of likelihood and probability. Then, he proceeded to give a talk using multiple acronyms I didn’t understand.
He seemed unaware that other people might have vastly different levels of knowledge of or interest in his topic.
In my work as an Analytic Translator, I often encounter situations where two people cannot understand each other. Usually, it’s an expert (or two from different fields) who:
- Presumes everyone knows their language.
- Forgets that their expertise is not shared by others.
- Skips over important background and focuses on the conclusion.
- Overuses acronyms and jargon.
- Fails to realize that others are lost.
- Becomes irritated by the need to cover basics.
- Stops listening because they assume they know the answer already.
- Expert-splains as if no one else has valuable input.
Rather than assuming that these behaviors show intentional disrespect, my perspective is that at higher and higher levels of expertise, we lose touch with what beginners experience.
We can think about it like arriving in the penthouse.
The view from the top floor of tall buildings provides a wonderful perspective. There, we see ourselves in relation to other important landmarks. We identify incoming storms, invisible to those on the ground. We literally rise above congestion and noise endured by those living beneath.
Some penthouses have their own elevators and security, lessening exposure to those in floors below, and avoiding unnecessary stops. They may come with unique features, such as taller windows, outdoor gardens, private services (concierges, drivers, delivery, cleaning) that others don’t have.
The penthouse is a symbol of achievement, earned—by many—from a life of hard work; every higher level reached incrementally through effort and experience. It is a sign of success, inviting the respect and admiration of others. We may find ourselves spending more time in the company of other penthouse owners.
Yes, for many reasons, the penthouse is a great place to be.
Unless you forget what it was like before you were at the pinnacle.
You see, expertise has its drawbacks.
It makes you less likely to listen, more likely to jump to conclusions, and prone to rely on specialized language. When we’ve “seen it all,” it’s easy to make assumptions and jump ahead to an assumed solution.
I’ve certainly done this. For example, after being part of program evaluation for the better part of three decades, when someone describes their project my mind drifts to common pitfalls and typical goals. Rather than listening for what might be unique and important for this person in this setting, it’s tempting to recite criteria for best practices, describe my previous projects, or provide a checklist.
When we have done something many times before, we presume we know the answer before we have heard all the details. Instead of having an authentic curiosity and a “beginners’ mind,” where we truly pay attention, we jump to our usual process or automatic answer.
Instead of slipping into expert mode, focus on the other person.
Expertise is inherently self-centered; it’s all about what I know, what I think, or what I advise. But even the most specialized, experienced solutions will only help when applied to the right problems. And each situation has unique circumstances that we can only understand by listening and learning from others.
I find that by learning as much as I can about the current situation helps the other person figure out what matters right here, right now. This might seem like it will take an excessive amount of your valuable time, but as they share, the issue becomes clearer. Often, it becomes obvious that my “expert” answer would not have fit their needs. They usually have their own best answer, one they own and fits their needs best. When I do offer a suggestion, I try to use plain, non-technical language.
Expertise is valuable, in the right instances.
To be clear, sharing one’s experience at the right time can be extremely valuable, helping others avoid potential problems or offering alternatives to consider. But when we switch to expert mode too quickly, we miss out on their unique knowledge of the situation, and quite possibly misinterpret what the conversation is really about.
Certainly, enjoy your penthouse. Just remember what it was like when you started out in the basement.