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Try Not Telling People You're An Expert (Newsletter 038)

The high expectations of others are valuable if we force ourselves to live up to them. But beware of giving in to the temptation to believe others' expectations without doing the hard work necessary to earn them.
Try Not Telling People You're An Expert (Newsletter 038)

Greetings friends.

Have you ever noticed how often we answer the question "What do you do?" with a statement of what we are? As in, "I'm a teacher," "I'm a nurse," or "I'm a lawyer." This no doubt conveys important information, which is why we do it. But I can think of at least three reasons why you might not want to identify yourself by your profession:

  1. It creates the potential for unreasonable expectations of you.
  2. It may distort your self-image.
  3. It can cause others to make unwarranted assumptions about you.

Ironically, these are among the same reasons why people are usually proud to tout their professional credentials. Let's explore the dichotomy, after which you can decide how you'll refer to yourself (and think of others) from now on.

Unreasonable expectations

Here's something I've observed happens to many recent law school graduates. Have you experienced something similar? That is, upon hearing that you've passed your qualification exams, a friend or relative asks you a ridiculously specific question about a narrow area of tax or inheritance law. When you say you don't know the answer and they are better off talking to a specialist, they say with some puzzlement and possibly suspicion "But you're a lawyer, aren't you?"

I suppose compared to the layperson, the chances are much higher that you, the lawyer, would know the answer to a specific legal question. But because of the breadth of the legal field, the chances are not at all high that the average lawyer will retain detailed knowledge about many areas beyond those they regularly use.

Or consider the poor soul who rashly identifies themselves as a doctor in a social gathering. All too often they must field similar questions about a strange itch or recurrent dizziness, because after all, they're a doctor, aren't they?

This is more than just irritating to both parties in the conversation. Over time I think such exchanges can be corrosive to clear thinking. If the people you interact with routinely come to you expecting that you know the answers to lots of hard questions, you may be tempted not to disappoint them. Indeed, most lawyers and doctors profess a self-confidence that seems all out of proportion to their actual track record. This is because compared to the layperson, the professional knows a lot. They certainly know enough to spout BS alongside good advice without anyone knowing the difference.

The high expectations of others are valuable if we force ourselves to live up to them. But beware of giving in to the temptation to believe others' expectations without doing the hard work necessary to earn them.

I discuss the value of being a lifelong student in this week's Moral Letter 076 On Continuing Education. Among other things, by setting yourself the task of regularly learning new things, you are much more likely to deserve being considered an expert than if you rely on qualifications earned long ago.

076 - On Continuing Education - Moral Letters for Modern Times
I myself try to be an earnest student. Though I am far removed from my formal school days, I am never far from a book or an idea.

Clouded self-image

A related risk to identifying ourselves by what we say we are, rather than what we in fact know or do, is that we get a false sense of what we are. This is because others' expectations of us shape how we see ourselves. Take surgeons, whose self-image sometimes becomes greatly distorted over time. Not all surgeons are brain surgeons. Much of surgery is reassuringly repetitive and routine, making its practitioners more akin to experienced mechanics.

True, much of surgery beyond brain surgery is also difficult. But do we value the difficulty of the task itself, or the fact that human lives hang in the balance? And does the fact that lives hang in the balance reflect solely the difficulty of the task, or also the fact that hospitals make mistakes at distressingly high rates? Depending on whom you ask, the figures for preventable deaths in hospitals the United States range from 50,000 per year, to 100,000, to 250,000.

Now I don't want to pick on doctors. We could talk about mistakes made by any professional group and find that they are not at all rare, even if they are less likely to be fatal. My point with this discussion is to suggest that professionals are people too. It is therefore risky for us to put too much stock in our own favorable press when it comes to assessing our actual performance.

Placing too much stock in others' expectations is just one of the many threats to clear-thinking that we face. I discuss other threats in Moral Letter 075 On Mind Viruses. We explore ways to protect ourselves and preserve the clear thinking that is the hallmark of a well-ordered mind.

075 - On Mind Viruses - Moral Letters for Modern Times
The mind viruses are vices such as jealousy, greed, ambition, spite, fear – all things that we know of and have been trying to put in their proper place.

Unwarranted assumptions

Professionals are presumed to be experts in their field, and as laypeople we give them great deference. Professionals know this and come to rely upon it, even when some humility would be in order. Think of Dr. Fauci saying that people who criticize him are "criticizing science." This mindset has allowed charlatans to hawk fraudulent products and cures on the gullible public for much of human history.

But even assuming no ill-will, and let's give Dr. Fauci the benefit of the doubt, the history of many professions is filled with cautionary tales of well-meaning but misguided individuals who were utterly wrong about vital topics. Medicine, psychology, economics, and even the annals of physics, are littered with the errors of our forebears.

Again, this is not to criticize any particular profession. It is to observe that professionals are people too. They are the same fallible, biased, opinionated, emotional creatures that we are. I am reminded of the meditation practice called "Just like me." As a way of developing compassion, the practitioner calls to mind the fact that everyone has fears, dreams, and desires "just like me."

There is a further benefit to remembering that even professional experts are "just like us" in being fallible humans. Knowing that we are talking with a person who is just like us in most respects, we are less likely to be duped by credible-sounding experts trying to trick us. We are more likely to apply our own critical thinking to a situation and seek out additional information.

I described a while back (Don't Mistake Certainty For Correctness) how helpful it is to remind ourselves that we are fallible by adding "... but I could be wrong" to the end of our statements of belief. My suggestion today is that when listening to the advice of an expert, any expert, add "... but they could be wrong" to the end of their statement.

If you want adulation, for your assumptions to go unchallenged, and to enjoy the deference reflexively awarded to experts, by all means continue to introduce yourself as a lawyer, a doctor, or similar expert.

But if you truly want to get better and to be recognized for your actual contributions, try saying instead something like the following:

Hi! I'm a person, just like you. I studied _______ in school. I spend a lot of my time now working on _______. I sometimes make mistakes, even in areas of my expertise, although I try hard to learn from them.

I wonder which version of you people will come to respect and appreciate more over time.

Be well.