Is Expertise Overrated?

June 2017

Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki built his lessons on meditation and mindfulness around the idea that our minds have a tendency to corrupt our attitude towards activities as we become better at them. He uses the phrase “beginner’s mind” to illustrate the difference between how our mind functions when we are learning something new as opposed to repeating something that we have already learned in the past. The more we become an expert in something, the more likely it is that our beginner’s mind will erode, cutting us off from vast potential improvement and enjoyment. The context of his writing, of course, was to help people that were new to Zen get the most out of their practice and maintain that playful, curious beginner’s mind every time they meditate, but it is not difficult to see how this idea can be applied to almost anything that you take seriously.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” Shunryu Suzuki wrote in his 1970 book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

On every software implementation, we have vendor representatives who ostensibly know everything about their company’s products, we have employees of the client organization who carry great institutional knowledge, and we have consultants with the know-how and experience necessary to pull it all together. The organization constructs the best team of experts that they can afford and expect them to know what they are talking about. But even if one organization buys the same software and hires the same consulting firms as another, the core challenge is found in the fact that all of these experts are required to learn something new in order to deliver a great finished product for that particular client.

As consultants, vendor reps, and organizational leaders, we are all in the business of being experts, but our clients and employers are well-served when we keep an open mind and do not take ourselves too seriously. There are many traps that come with thinking of yourself as an expert. It can create unnecessary competitiveness that undermines the team. It can cause people to become defensive when their self-perceived expertise is challenged. It can prevent people from asking prudent questions and sparking rich conversation because they do not want others to think that they do not know what they are doing. Worst of all, it can cause people to give out misinformation because they are afraid to admit that they do not know something.

If more people carried a beginner’s mind and attitude towards their work and encouraged others to do the same we would achieve better outcomes because we would be asking better questions, having more meaningful conversations and – dare I say – having more fun.

About The Author: Jeff Smith is an implementation consultant who has worked for HealthNET Systems Consulting, Inc. for two years.  He is a certified Epic Bridges analyst and InterSystems Ensemble (HealthShare) programmer with over 4 years of experience integrating ancillary systems with Epic.  His primary area of focus has been with all related lab and blood bank interfaces, but has also worked extensively with radiology, cardiology and revenue cycle interfaces.