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Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Trouble with Experts

I have been thinking a lot lately about experts and expertise. Malcolm Gladwell has researched this topic in his book Outliers. Good book, I highly recommend. 

And this is probably a post that I should use for the organizational development blog I need to start just to get all these posts out of my brain. But it applies here because anyone in our situation has to deal with the so called "experts" all the time.  They come in all shapes and sizes from the obvious ones called doctors to therapists to school psychologists and on and on. The more issues your kid has the more experts you will have telling you want to do and what you can't do and more importantly what your kid can and can't do.

The trouble is that if Gladwell is right, expertise has its limitations. It takes roughly 5 years of practicing the same thing 8 hours a day to become an expert in it. Throw in all the differences in human functioning in each different human and then add in the differences in injuries, well you can see where this is leading. It's really hard to apply all that expertise.  Doctors have a hard road when it comes to this. And don't get me wrong they have helped us loads. They have also hurt Ellie irrevocably so just as much as they have saved her life.

There is a saying in OD that I heard from a woman I was training to do a leadership intervention. It is this:

"One size fits one."

It has stuck with me. It speaks to the need to take each case you come across and treat it like it's unique - because it bloody well is!

The problem with this approach is that if an expert does not continue to keep the same attitude of learning and humbleness that they probably had when they were training, they miss a lot of differences and uniqueness. Which leaves them open to being very wrong. Certain things that have been suggested for Ellie that have clearly been wrong and one look at Ellie would tell you that. But that is the problem with expertise. It can blind a person as much as it can lead them. 

And someone who relies on being an expert to hang their identity on will surely fail to have that questioned in any way. They will reject any data that was beyond their reckoning and that may contradict their expert opinion. This is dangerous at worst and a big waste of time at best. 

The trouble with expertise is that it can make us stuck. It feeds the ego. It comes cloaked in prestige. It tells us who we are and who we can have power over. It's so ingrained in our society that I have found when I don't take this role when I am teaching my students it makes them really uncomfortable and they may doubt my competence. They don't like it when I don't spoon feed them or if I question something that they think should be an absolute. I can tell you there are very few absolutes I have found to hold true.  Other roles like helping ones or collaborative ones have strict definitions for use and context as well as where they are allowed in hierarchy. And that is really sad. Sometimes life feels like it's about power shifts and control versus learning and discovery and accomplishment. As if controlling others was the task as opposed to actually creating something useful, like an assistive technology set up so a kid can find her voice. 

I am having some trouble with experts these days. I am having trouble with them not listening to me and not allowing me to collaborate with them. It's hard. It's prevalent in our society. 

But if there is one bit of advice I could give anyone with any expertise it's this:

"One size fits one."