Expert Bias

First written on July 12, 2013 & updated on August 25, 2014.

7 min. read

Craftsmanship is a fascinating thing. I’ve yearned for it for as long as I can remember.

Recently, I started becoming aware of a downside to increasing expertise in a specific domain and the attention to details it affords. I refer to it as “Expert Bias” and define it as follows: the inability for a person who has mastered a skill to understand how useful that skill can be to laypeople.

It’s rather broad, so let me clarify. As a computer programmer, I’m surrounded by scores of intelligent people with a knack for problem solving. They like to better themselves in order to improve their workflow and to create better, and more maintainable software for their customers and for themselves. They, and I, see this pursuit as something that can obviously benefit the end goal: solving people’s problems.

The problem I see lies in the inexorable erosion of empathy that seems to accompany the accumulation of expertise. Mastery requires perpetually increasing one’s standards in order to achieve better, faster, stronger work. In doing so, you disconnect yourself more and more from the common tastes and standards of the people who need your help most: business owners, creative minds, and customers. All of them who seek your expertise to help solve their problems.

That disconnection is pernicious. People in domains that require highly specialized knowledge often marvel at the illiteracy of others in that specific domain, especially if they’re expected to interact with those Others.

In my world, those Others are customers, although we like to refer to them as students. Those students give us money in exchange for knowledge. They need this knowledge and trust that we can provide it to them.

The proposition that we can teach them what we know in exchange for money holds as long as their skill level and ours are within the same order of magnitude. They have some knowledge. We have some other knowledge. They wish to acquire the knowledge which we have and they don’t. It is possible for us to have a mental image of the skills they currently possess and imagine a path from their existing knowledge to the set of knowledge we aim to impart on them.

An issue arises when the amount of knowledge we possess is radically different from our students. If operating a modern computer is already a tedious process for them, there’s a good chance it will be much more difficult for us to:

  1. Empathize with their current state of knowledge and what they currently struggle with.
  2. See a path between their current knowledge and the knowledge they wish to obtain from us.

Tim Van Damme once gave an excellent demonstration of this problem using the slope of a mountain. From the base of the mountain, the top seems unreachable. From the top of the mountain, it doesn’t seem like the climb was so hard after all.

Climbing to Knowledge

You, at the top of the mountain, tend to forget the fear, the confusion, the shame, the sweat, the impasses, and the temptation to give up you had up until the summit was within reach.

You are not the most suited to give advice to the people at the base of the mountain. Sure, this has a lot to do with emotions. If not everything. It’s much easier to empathize with people you know, or who are not so different from you. From the perspective of the beginners, it’s easy to develop an inferiority complex or find it aggravating when people who seem to have it all figured out try to help you.

But I think it’s not just about emotions. Human beings have an extremely selective memory. We’re great at remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.

To stay vaguely in the realm of mountaineering, think of a brick wall. To me that’s what getting started as a beginner feels like: standing in front of a two-story tall wall separating you from a fucking mountain of knowledge. Before you can even start to worry about the mountain, you’re left without a clue as to how to get past this wall.

Experts are masters at forgetting the wall even exists.

Can you blame them? If you spend your days miles high on a mountain top, what’s a two-story wall to you?

The base of that brick wall is littered with the hopes of people who were given advice by people standing on top of a fucking mountain.

Thanks to Tim’s metaphor, it’s easier to understand that the people best suited to give advice to the wall climbers are the people who just figured out how to get past it.

It’s true that expert climbers have better technique. They know how to deal with severe weather during a high altitude climb for instance. But all that knowledge is not going to help the bricketeers right now. At best it will confuse them.

What’s worse, the experts have probably forgot what it’s like to climb masonry. They don’t have to deal with that anymore. They have bigger fish to climb.

That last part gnaws at me perpetually. I obviously strive to become the best I can be at what I do, but I do care about the people climbing behind me. More importantly, since I love building products, I care about the people whose problems I’m trusted to solve. What if I’m climbing an ivory tower and my trophy will be to lose all empathy?

I need my students. They’re not a means to my end, they are my end. They fuel my passion, they provide me with an endless stream of problems to solve. What if in the process of becoming better at solving things I became unable to care about what I solve? If this sounds like the fiery pits of cynic hell to you then maybe we have a shared incentive to help each other re-focus on what matters.

The way I achieve that renewed focus is by running all the way to the bottom of the damned mountain. What does that mean? Well for once, you can try spending a whole day doing customer support instead of rushing to ship that new feature you’ve been working on for weeks and months. You might just realize that, in fact, most of your customer’s problems are much easier to solve than the overengineered solutions you like to challenge yourself with.

The breeze on the way down from the top of the mountain is quite refreshing. When I get back to the base, the scenery is always much nicer than I remember. Things are much clearer somehow, and it helps me remember what really matters. Yes, I can’t see miles ahead any longer, but the beautiful mountain of knowledge I was sitting on becomes apparent. It’s harder to take it for granted, or to feel like an impostor because it seems like you’re making it up as you go along.

The people at the base of the knowledge mountain aren’t simplistic barbarians kept away by the brick wall. They’re curious souls with simple problems that I might just have the ability to solve. They’ll be thankful and I will feel amazing having shipped simple and efficient solutions to simple and real problems.

I understand intelligent people — programmers especially — are attracted to hard problems. I’m not, or at least I try not to be. The simpler problems may not look like they amount to much when looked down upon, but they matter to many people. It’s easy to forget how much.

What’s the point in learning magic if you don’t use it to help and delight people?

PS: There’s apparently a phenomenon referred to in psychology as “The Expertise Bias” which I didn’t know about before writing this piece.

PPS: Kathy Sierra posted a great video entitled Expertise Induced Amnesia from a different domain — horse-riding. In it Mary Wanless explains the issue I’ve tried to surface in this post in a much more concise way. I highly recommend watching this.