Expertise Paralysis

It’s such a treat to find the right person to help us on a tough job.

Someone who has been there and has done that, who understands our context with all its nuances, who can insert herself seamlessly into this tricky situation and move us forward while making us better.

This expert might be a designer, a professional coach, or a mentor. She might be a software developer, a systems architect or a professor.

She accelerates our work, teaches us things, and moves us down our path.

And, if she’s good (and it sounds like she is), we grow by being in her presence. We learn more about what questions to ask, about how to see the whole playing field, about what’s is and isn’t important in making these kinds of decisions.

But let’s NOT let her excellence slow us down or, worse, stop us completely.

She’s here, right now, but she will be gone, sooner or later. And we can’t let her presence, and our understanding of her excellence (and the gap between what she knows and what we know), erode our confidence that we know enough to decide.

Not because we’re as skilled or experienced or as wise as she is. But because, after all, these are our decisions to make.

If we don’t make this decision and the next one and the one after that, no one will.

How Might This be True?

What do we do when we encounter an opinion or advice we find hard to digest or understand?

A proposal that doesn’t quite add up, yet.

A perspective that is hard for us to embrace.

A suggested course of action that feels unfamiliar.

To start, let’s ignore how these questions play out low trust environments, and instead imagine what we do when the counterintuitive advice comes someone we trust and respect deeply.

For example, I’m reminded the professional coach I worked with for many years.

I was completely convinced she had my back, and similarly convinced that I had a lot to learn from her.

What to do, then, when she would propose a set of things for me to do that felt whacky? A course of action to do that seemed just plain wrong?

In my head, I would kick and scream, convince myself this couldn’t quite be right.

In conversation with her, I would put on a brave face, ask a bunch of questions, and try to figure out why she was giving this crazy advice.

And, in action, I would take a deep breath and do what she suggested.

And, yes, sometimes things went sideways or blew up in my face.

But more often than not, and way more than I expected, things worked out swimmingly.

And, through these surprising outcomes, I’d learn a lot about my incorrect assumptions; the too-narrow field of options I thought were available to me; my many blind spots; my ladders of inference; the huge swaths of the playing field I wasn’t seeing.

Over time, as this cycle repeated itself, it broadened my skills and, eventually, my perspective.

Of course, not all relationships have this particular combination of extreme (trust + competence + benevolence) on the part of the advice-giver.

But surely many of our relationships have some appealing mix of trust / competence / benevolence, one that affords us the opportunity to react differently in the face of surprising advice.

Perhaps, in these cases, we have an option other than to dig in, retrench, fight back, argue our point of view, and cling to our limitations.

Instead, we might ask ourselves:

How might this (crazy idea) be true?

What am I not seeing that they see?

Where are my old patterns not serving me? 

Is this a situation in which, if I act as I always have, I’ll get the result I’ve always gotten?

Our opportunity is to embrace the strength of our relationship over our conviction in our own point of view. If the advice-giver is the person we know them to be, then there must be truth, goodness and insight in this surprising thing they’ve just shared.

We embrace these seemingly opposing forces—what our head wants us to do, what our heart is telling us to do—and then act accordingly.

That’s not what I’d do

You have two options when you hear this from someone you like and respect.

Either you decide that their wisdom, experience and perspective bring something to the decision that you didn’t see, and they are right.

Or you decide that there are things you know that they don’t know, things you can see that they cannot, and that even though it feels like 9 times out 10 you’d want to follow their advice, this time you won’t.

Either way, your job at this point is to hear the advice, process it, make adjustments, and take action with conviction. Getting stuck in between what both of you thought is almost never right, and moving forward tepidly is the worst outcome of all.

Mentors and allies

Mentor should always be spelled with a capital “M.”

At most of my big corporate jobs, I, along with all my peers, was inevitably set up with a mentor (lower-case ‘m’), meaning someone more senior in the firm who was supposed to talk to me a couple of times a year.  Sometimes these relationships were worthwhile, sometimes they weren’t, but they were always arranged marriages.

The long-term damage was the notion that mentorship could be a check-the-box exercise, as in, “make sure every junior employee has a more senior mentor.”

Mentorship in the true sense of the word is a very rare thing.  A Mentor is someone who, over a number of years, is a guiding light in your life, a person who transcends a given role or job and provides perspective on the distant horizons – and helps you figure out if you want to get there, and, if yes, how to do it.

It’s pretty hard to look for mentors, though we all should – with the knowledge that they’re few and far between….maybe you’ll have a handful of them over the course of your life.

The step between here and there are allies (thought partners, co-conspirators, smart friends…call them what you will).  These are active, two-way relationships where everyone is creating value for each other.  They can run hot and cold given what you’re both up to, and they can and should be nourishing to everyone involved.  They are dynamic, and often informal.

What ends up happening is that, carrying around a perverse notion of mentorship, we think the people who can give us the best “advice” (loosely defined) are supposed to be older and more senior and powerful and accomplished than we are, so we look in all the wrong places, and underinvest in finding the real allies we need, today.

The real role of mentors and coaches

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old one-liner.


But practice what?  Diligence and hard work aren’t enough – you have to know where to place your energy.

At first, the roadmap can seem pretty clear.  You want to get good grades?  The teachers will tell you what to study.  Want to be a good analyst at your first job?  Your boss and peers will tell you what to do, and it’s up to you to do it.

Most of this is about someone else setting up the rules of the game and you trying to win against that set of rules.  And as you progress in your career, you decide which the skills and behaviors you want to master and you work to improve them.

For example, here’s the illustrative chart for how you get better at public speaking:

Skills 2

So if you want to become a public speaker (Aptitude), there’s a set of identifiable Skills (e.g. projecting confidence, engaging the audience, having a good and varied speaking voice, being a storyteller, etc.) that matter, and you might be good (filled in circle) or not-so-good (empty circle) at these skills and at the behaviors that support these skills.  Simple enough, if you put in the effort.

And if you do put in this effort, if you’re a “sawgot” (someone who gets things done), you will over the years systematically pick off the skills and behaviors you need to work on to improve on the aptitudes you’d like to master.

This is likely a lifelong endeavor, and while it’s part of the answer it isn’t the whole story.  At a certain point you need to get underneath all of this and find new points for leverage.

The “underneath it all” are your attitude and assumptions – both about other people and about yourself.

Skills 3

I think of the top three levels (Aptitudes / Skills / Behaviors) as “What I do and How I Act” and Attitudes/Assumptions as “Who I am and How I See the Word.”  It’s Attitudes and Assumptions that are the the bigger leverage points if you can get to them; and these becomes increasingly important over the course of your life (since you’ve already come a long way at mastering behaviors and skills, right?).

More specifically, you’re carrying around a set of assumptions that colors your own sense of where you do and don’t excel, along with a story that explains why.  So for example you might have decided long ago “I’m not a good public speaker because I’m not a creative storyteller.”

For both parts of this sentence (“I’m not a good public speaker” and “because I’m not a creative storyteller.”) you could be 100% right or 100% wrong (or somewhere in between).  For example, maybe you’re only an OK public speaker but it has nothing to do with how well you tell stories (do people laugh at your jokes?).  The assumption about why will color where you put in effort, and you might be completely misdiagnosing what’s going on. So you might be putting in lots of effort into “storytelling skills” when what actually happened is that you’re carrying around the wrong mental model of what makes for a good presentation (stand up and present a bunch of boring slides).  It ain’t that you’re a below-average storyteller.

And this is where I think coaches and mentors come in.  I used to think that mentors were mostly for “what am I going to do with my life” conversations, but I’ve found out that that most people, other than you, are very poorly placed to answer that question (the best they can do is give you information about the different paths out there).

But if you can build relationships of trust and honesty with people who know and respect you and who know more than you about (at least) some things; and if over time you can develop a shared sense of who you want to become; then you have the opportunity to dig in to this conversation at the level of assumptions – the story you carry around about yourself that informs all the time and effort you’re putting in to your own development.

What this requires of you is cultivating these relationships of trust plus a willingness to go all the way to your assumptions about yourself when talking to these people.  This can be hard, because these stories, these assumptions we carry around, our personal narratives…these usually run straight to the core.

But imagine the impact if, in one conversation, someone is able to reflect back to you that just one assumption you’ve been carrying around for your whole life is plain wrong.  If someone were, in a single comment, able to show you that the circles you thought were empty were in fact filled in, and vice-versa…that it’s the story you’ve been telling yourself that needs adjusting, not the things you do (which are just tactics, after all).

If I were a betting man, I’d say the wrong assumptions you’re carrying around are about something you think you’re not good at…when in fact you already pretty good or even great.

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