The Perils of Expertise

Most of us strive to be good at something (or two things, or more). Some of us strive to be great. Being very good at something can be fun and rewarding. Yet there are perils.

Regardless of natural ability, achieving any measure of expertise requires training over a long period of time. Some say 10,000 hours, though in my opinion it depends on how you use them. After so much time, you develop certain mental habits, unconscious tendencies, which are a critical part of the foundation of your expertise.

Ironically, though, these same habits can make you unhappy when applied in other aspects of your life, and it can be extremely difficult to turn these habits off when you’re not conducting the activity that requires them. As a result, you end up with a list of traits that can make you both good at your expertise and unhappy in life.

These traits vary, depending on the type of expert (athlete, surgeon, marketer, physicist, musician, etc.) Take, for example, the business lawyer—an expert (one hopes) at negotiating deals and reviewing and drafting legal contracts . . .

How To Be a Great Business Lawyer and an Unhappy Human

  1. Dwell on the unknowable future (“What if this happens? Or this? Or this?”)
  2. Assume the worst, in all its hypothetical permutations (“Are we protected if things go bad in this way? Or in this way?”)
  3. Constantly worry over the details.
  4. Be defensive.
  5. Second-guess yourself and others.
  6. Focus on pitfalls, vulnerabilities and flaws, rather than on what is good.

2 Responses to “The Perils of Expertise”

  1. friend of grover Says:

    Lawyering and mothering sound like they have the same pitfalls. Hopefully we moms can free ourselves from these perceived requirements, unlike you lawyers.

  2. The Perils of Expertise – Vol. 2 | Massless Particles Says:

    […] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . picture one « The Perils of Expertise […]

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