After Experts: Breaking out of our boxes

A couple of days ago I wrote here about how the “expert-ness” that often defines us in our mid-career and later years can actually work against us in developing solutions to tough new problems. So much of the world has changed around us, but our deeply-held (and maybe even invisible to us) assumptions...haven’t.  We find ourselves, as I’ve written elsewhere about myself, in a box. Even if we know the box is around us and that it’s limiting us, we don’t have the right tools to get out of it. ,

Too often, though, we conclude that it’s better off to stay in that box than to try to find our way out.  In the box may be limiting, but we know what it is. Out is scary.

My mother was a secretary in her young adult life.  Her particular talent was for taking shorthand - the note-taking method that allowed a pre-computer secretary to write down a dictated letter or memo almost verbatim while the boss talked. She left work to have a family, but by the time the family paint factory folded in the 1980s, and she needed to work, computers had made her shorthand obsolete.  She never learned to use a computer. She claimed she was scared of them. She chose to cut herself off from new opportunities rather than look outside the box into which she had folded herself. But she still took beautiful shorthand.

We like our feeling of competency, even when our competency may have lost its value.  As an adult, finding ourselves in a place where we don’t feel fully competent can be unsettling, fearful. Avoided.  Over the course of maturing, we got used to the idea that being competent was the adult solid status.

We forgot that when we’re not competent, that’s when we learn. And grow.  

My mother didn’t break out of her box, but we have little choice in the matter. Our world and careers and workplaces are changing too fast now to tolerate our ossified expertise for long.  But we usually need help getting out of those boxes -- most of us didn’t bring the tools to get out with us before that box got built around us.

How can we create work environments that equip us with the tools to get out of our boxes -- for ourselves and for others?  

  • We need to know that growing is valuable, and that we are still valuable while growing.  We need to deeply internalize that growing requires places where we are not competent and not comfortable, and that going through those phases is not a sign of a problem, but a necessary component of remaining relevant.  

  • We need to learn the skills and methods of breaking own assumptions. It’s a logical process. There are ways to do it systematically.  We don’t have to make it up as we go by the seat of our pants.

  • We need to practice those skills. Exploring new ideas or approaches is not part of most adults”routine experience. When we don’t get practice on that with small things, we don’t know how to use those skills and methods when we need them.  Watching a kid play soccer who missed the drills on passing will make that self evident.

Being ready for an unpredictable future requires a new stance, one that most of us weren’t taught.  We have to remain aware, on our toes, ready to move in a new direction. In some ways, that's working against our wiring - we’re taught to value Experts.  But as thoughtful people who are serious about making a meaningful impact on the world around us, it’s also what we are uniquely suited to do.