Why being an expert is a problem

Frustrated baby

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

Most of us are quite good at what we do for a living, basically because we do it almost every day. This knowledge and expertise comes with several problems. As agile practitioners, we know that one of the big problems with big, up front planning of projects, is that we don’t know what we don’t know – so our plans for the future can never be perfect. One of the big problems with being an expert, is that we’re not actively aware of what we do know either.

Who would you rather hire to solve some complex business problem – an expert in the field, or a young, inexperienced person with no domain knowledge? The truth is, they can both provide valuable contributions. Without preconceived judgement, the beginner may ask strikingly efficient questions, turning the problem (and maybe the solution) upside down.

But here you are. Unfortunately you’ve become an expert in your field – jumping to conclusions and solving problems at an impressive pace. Now what?

You need to practice having a beginner’s mind. Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot more fun. It’s also a bit scary. You’re used to coming across as the person who has all the answers. Now you will have to behave and feel like you don’t really know much at all. The interesting thing about asking questions, is that you tend to get answers. Even when you think you know the answer already, it often turns out that you don’t.

The thing about beginners, is that they fail a lot. Even the very feeling of not knowing can feel like failure. You’re the expert, right? The cold stare of a boss or a customer when you ask a question you’re supposed to know the answer to. I should know this. I do know this! This beginner’s mind bullshit is going to cost me my job. Then they answer. Perhaps with a sarcastic tone.

And the answer isn’t what you expected.

You’re immediately kicked behind the knee by the feeling of surprise and (yet again) failure that you actually didn’t know. A second later, your feet barely touch the ground as the consequences of this new information floods your brain, mixed with the baffling realisation that the you of 1 minute ago, knew far less than you do right now.

Suddenly you remember what learning feels like.

I know you’re an expert, but why would you want to stop learning? My youngest son is 7 months. He fails a lot. He learns even more.


Reference “Beginner’s mind”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoshin
Photo: Macrorain
Also posted at: www.revio.no


Posted on September 11, 2015, in Life, Management and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I’d suggest that “jumping to conclusions and solving problems at an impressive pace,” is counter to good engineering practices, especially Systems Engineering of Software Intensive System of Systems encountered in many domains.
    Iy may be common in Agile development, but where we work using Agile at Scale, that would be a poor way to produce a solution.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that this is counter to good engineering practices, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people behaving that way. I don’t think there’s a big difference between agile development and other methods in this regard. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the quick response. This is a challenge in some domains – ours for example where agile is being applied “engineered software products.” This is referred to a “Agile at Scale” in defense, space, and embedded systems. Or more broadly Software Intensive System of Systems – http://goo.gl/yxpBk7
    There are significant advantages to agile in this domain, but the engineering disciplines are still needed, starting with Systems Engineering as well as the speciality engineering disciplines – security, IV&V, performance management and of course overarching architecture – DoDAF.
    In other domains, it may be possible or maybe even desirable to avoid “engineering” the solution, but care is likely needed on the security side for sure.

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