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The Halo of Expertise
Befriending our Ignorance Might Just Make us Better Humans in the Post-Truth Era
We live in an era of post-truth, our brains flooded by tsunamis of information. Unless we actively seek to challenge our own beliefs, we’re likely trapped in social media bubbles that reflect our own biases and place us in echo chambers where all we hear are reflections of our own voices and convictions, while staying blissfully unaware of competing opinions and collectively growing more polarised by the day.
Telling apart what is objectively real from what is not has become almost impossible, and, with the advent of generative AI, our conundrum will only grow more painful. Ethan Mollick is one of the researchers at the forefront of AI exploration and writes compellingly about both its potential and its risks.
In many ways, what happens next, the actual Thing that all of this becomes in the near term, depends on our agency and decisions, it is not going to be imposed on us by machines (at least with our current generations of LLMs). With these new capabilities, AI can either serve to empower and simplify (“Fill out my expense reports”; “I am nervous about responding to this email, please help me;” “I don’t understand this confusing form, should I sign it?”) or to remove power (Who needs a human companion when you have an AI? What happens when everyone has a perfect facial tracking system? etc). Some of these consequences are knowable, and need regulation or responsible action by individuals, and some is going to fall unevenly across industries and societies. It is up to us to figure out how to use this new technology to empower and uplift, rather than harm.
One implication from this for all of us is that the knowledge we have is becoming increasingly commodified. Also, the collective body of knowledge is expanding at such a massive rate that it’s becoming virtually impossible to know everything, even within seemingly narrow fields. The half-life of knowledge - the speed with which what we do know becomes obsolete - is decreasing at a dizzyingly fast rate.
Our zones of competence are bound to get ever smaller and shrink ever faster unless we keep on learning.
This in turn means that the experts in any given topic might need to cultivate something even more precious than their deep knowledge of their field, and that is the capacity to hold their knowledge humbly, acknowledging their limitations and staying open to stepping into ever-expanding territories of not-knowing.
Ethan Mollick is, for me, a great example of how an expert can walk this talk. He writes in one of his LinkedIn posts:
A signal of how fast AI is moving is that I have to tweak my standard presentation I give at least once a week in order to have it be current (…) Honestly, the increasing pace is insane. I am an academic focused on this, working with other researchers who also focus on it, I talk to AI critics & executives & teachers & folks at the AI labs often, I am on Twitter too much and I read the latest papers... and I barely keep up.
Interestingly, reading this made me trust him more. Here is a man who invests all his time researching a topic that has massive implications for the future of humanity, a man with tens of thousands of followers on social media, an expert so many look up to as a reliable source of information (which he provides, consistently) and yet, who has the courage to say “I barely keep up” and to write freely about how much is an unknown in the field he studies. To me, that is a great example of pairing expertise with wisdom.
This made me reflect on my own relationship to my expertise and how hard it is to cultivate humbleness and courageously, constantly, stare in the face of your own ignorance without losing self-esteem or feeling your efforts to get really good at something have been in vain.
I take note of other experts I know, who seem to speak with a lot of certainty about things they have studied, but also, interestingly, about things they have not. I notice this vicious circle whereby the more recognised someone is in a field, the more people are likely to reverently listen to their opinion on most topics and treat them as facts, even when the opinion is on issues that have little connection to the expert’s zone of competence.
The Halo Effect of expertise means not only that others assume you know more (and about more topics) than you actually do, but it also makes you vulnerable to start believing your own bullshit (now less of a swear word and more of a philosophical concept, thanks to Harry Frankfurt) - all while, ironically, calling others out on theirs.
So, if expertise is precious, but knowing what we don’t know is equally important, if not more so, how do we stay away from the halo effect trap? I’d suggest we need to consider the role of wisdom, humbleness and curiosity as necessary companions of expertise. And these three qualities can, in fact, become practices we get to work on and get better at.
So, how might wisdom be an antidote to the Halo of Expertise?
On a practical level, defining wisdom as a capacity to sense when we are nearing our zone of competence might mean cultivating the general ability to hold our knowledge lightly and assuming there is always something you have no idea about, even within your own field of expertise.
Case in point, my friendhas recently introduced me to the work of the Centre for Applied Dialectics - a group of brilliant researchers and practitioners in the field of adult development I was completely unaware of. I’ve been loving diving into their website and discovering people in the broader developmental community I’ve got a lot to learn from.
But to do that, I first had to feel the pang of shame at having missed such a big chunk of work in my own field and remind myself that whatever I don’t know yet is a gift I can celebrate. I noticed the impulse to reject or dismiss new information - particularly if it contradicts my current worldview. And then I noticed that there is no rigid line between what I know and what I don’t know.
When I step outside my zone of competence I don’t just stumble into a void. I actually tap into a very murky territory where the things I know really well meet the things I know less well and all that gets mixed up with stuff I know nothing about. In this murky territory, humbleness is a real asset.
The humbleness I’m talking about is more akin to what researchers call ‘intellectual humility’ - being open to being proven wrong and capable of staying out of defensiveness when that happens. Practising it, for me, means seeking the people whom I can learn from, being honest about what I don’t know and trust that not having all the answers is in fact a quality, not a flaw.
Humbleness helps keep me honest (to myself and others) and allows me to embrace that it’s great to know some things and perfectly acceptable to not know others.
Intellectual humility should not be confused with meekness or an invitation to suppress your voice when you do have something to say. I actually found the opposite to be true - the more I could be honest about what I’ve got to learn still (and the more I put in the work to fill my gaps), the more I can trust the knowledge I do have and own my voice when I need to, while still staying open to seeking that next layer of learning.
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In this process, I also noticed how hard it is to stay curious when you’ve just been shown your own blind spots around something you thought you knew a lot about.
I’ve learnt that when I ‘pour’ curiosity over the embarrassment of not knowing or the anxiety that I’m missing something, I often feel them turning into motivation to explore and excitement that I’ve got another opportunity to learn something.
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you’ll know that the transformative power of curiosity has been the biggest finding of my research into vertical development. I have come to believe that curiosity is not merely an emotion to be experienced, but a skill to be cultivated.
I purposefully choose to be curious about my nastiest feelings, about moments when I feel triggered and out of breath with outrage, about my need to be right or to prove others wrong. I also choose to be curious about my impulses to dismiss views that challenge my own or my propensity to judge people who are too different from me and force me to perhaps confront aspects of myself I don’t like to look at. I have found curiosity to be the most reliable compass through the murky land between what I know and what I don’t.
I use curiosity as both a life skill and a core skill in my work. Good coaching is, at its very core, a tribute to the incredible value of curiosity. Being generally curious has been an invaluable gift in my practice as a coach and facilitator.
I remember someone asking me once, after a particularly challenging workshop with a group of leaders who had leaned into some really difficult conversations with each other, with plenty of emotions spilling all over the place - how come I had managed to not be triggered or caught up in the drama, but hold the space so they could find their way again. I had not realised until I heard that question, that it is curiosity that helps me tap into a wiser self in those contexts.
I choose to be fascinated by all the ‘difficult behaviours’ one can see in a group setting - like resistance, cynicism, sarcasm - because I’m always wondering what might be happening in the background to cause those behaviours and what might there be to learn from that for everyone in the room.
I contrast this version of ‘me at my best’ with the much less curious version of me that comes out when I do get triggered in my family or friendships and can see very well how judgment creeps in when curiosity goes out of the room.
I catch myself not walking my own talk and I notice that always happens when I just think I know better. The Greeks used to call this affliction ‘hubris’ - excessive pride or self-confidence - best reflected in the story of Dedalus and Icarus.
Brilliant inventor Dedalus designed a cunning plan to escape, together with his son, Icarus, from Crete, where he was being kept prisoner by King Minos. He crafted two pairs of wings using feathers and wax. Before they took flight, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as the wax on the wings would melt, and also not to fly too low, as the sea's moisture would weigh them down.
However, once in the air, Icarus, filled with the exhilaration of flight, ignored his father's warnings. He soared higher and higher, drawn to the warmth of the sun. As Daedalus had cautioned, the wax on Icarus's wings melted, causing the feathers to come loose. Icarus plunged into the sea and drowned.
I loved this story as a child, and still often reflect on it when calibrating my own ‘flight’ - am I too high or too low? I don’t always get it right but simply asking the question helps.
I’d love to invite you to reflect on your own relationship to your expertise - or to others’ expertise for that matter. What do you do to help yourself stay open, learn, and allow yourself to change your mind when contrary evidence comes your way?
Vertical Development is, at the core, the process by which our minds (and hearts) expand, taking in new perspectives, and seeing that which we hadn’t seen before so that we become someone we hadn’t been before. That kind of transformation rarely (if ever) happens within our zone of competence. And yet stepping outside of it can be terrifying. How are you cultivating that courage in yourself? How do you balance owning your voice with staying curious to hear others’?
As always, I’m keen to read your nerdy thoughts and learn from some of your own experiences with the ‘murky space’, beyond the halo of expertise.
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