I’ve never been an expert, and I don’t plan on ever becoming one. For me, it’s a bit of an unsettling idea.
Not that experts aren’t important. They obviously are—incredibly so. Not a minute passes that I don’t take advantage of a technology, an innovation made possible only because some brave soul’s entire life was spent studying one problem, one topic, with all the force of a singular mind.
Experts are impressive, but there are some trade-offs. First, there’s the obvious opportunity cost to hyper-specialization: all the other things you won’t be able to do.
But there’s another, more subtle cost that worries me more: the risk of losing the beginner’s mind. In my head, the progress goes something like this: the more I restrict my inquisitive nature, the more my sense of wonder fades. I become uncomfortable with ambiguity. I forget how to learn in new ways about new things. I might begin to start liking the idea that I’m an expert and slowly, unconsciously, start closing my mind to the opinions of non-experts. Then, to experts I disagree with. The process continues, and eventually I find myself artificially isolated, lost in my own ideas.
At least that’s how I imagine it could happen. I’ve certainly encountered people that seem to have undergone the transformation. You probably have, too.
It’s not just a hazardous mental state to be in: it has the potential to be economically disastrous. If you’ve specialized for the last 40 years in a skill that becomes irrelevant overnight, where does that leave you?
At this point, you may be thinking I’m a bit of a hypocrite. Well, yeah. I realize I’m typing on a machine that I would have no idea how to build, connected to an internet that in all honesty I don’t understand, and powered by a system of electrical generation and distribution that I know next to nothing about. Thank you, specialists. It just seems that for myself (and I presume for many other people), hyper-specialization tends to be more limiting than empowering.
Maybe the real point is to always be a novice in something, to learn a little about a lot. That means a conscious decision to discover more—not just about the things you’re familiar with, but particularly about those things that you don’t have a clue about. Constantly putting yourself in a beginner’s shoes knocks your pride down a few pegs. It teaches you to look at old things from new angles. It keeps life interesting and puts it in perspective.
Some people take it one step further and go full-on multipotentialite. It’s the old Renaissance ideal of seriously pursuing a number of different skills or fields of study, while at the same time being generally well-rounded. You might call it an expert-generalist. Just think of some of history’s most inspiring individuals: DaVinci, Averroes, Jefferson, Newton, Franklin, Einstein, Musk.
But you don’t need to be the next Einstein. Just make it a point to go outside your learned comfort zone. Read a book on a topic you’ve never encountered, pick up a new hobby, ply a new trade, learn a new skill, make friends beyond your self-imposed horizons. Along the way, you might become an expert. But you’ll become well-rounded, too.
About Trevor Stauffer
Trevor unites a passion for clarity with a love of beauty in his approach to writing.
His academic mastery of great writers gave him a strong foundation in classical writing skills, and his time teaching English in Spain taught him to strip language down to a basic, universal essence. For Trevor, writing isn’t just about communicating well – it’s about communicating beautifully.