Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to talk shop with fellow digital consultant Chris Dorr. As the business conversation wound down and talk turned to trivial bits of this and that, Chris mentioned that he has recently begun learning how to play the guitar. What he said next gave me one of those insights that sits at the intersection of a ha and but of course. Chris told me how valuable it has been for him to “be a beginner” at something. So much so that next he may teach himself how to write code.
We’re all expert at something. Some of you reading this may be marketing experts or — heaven forbid — social media experts. Others may be marketing novices with deep expertise in technology, engineering, analytics, manufacturing, accounting, law, medicine, or just about any other profession or business competency. Expertise is good. Expertise is necessary. When I choose a lawyer, doctor or accountant I expect them to be at the top of their game; I’d imagine you do too. When I bring a business analyst or web metrics guru into a client engagement, I expect that they have a firm grasp of current best practices — and can deliver the value my clients expect.
But being a beginner is necessary too.
Because with expertise, of course, comes the curse of knowledge – the inability to see the subject of our expertise from the perspective of less expert others; a jaded perspective that suffers from a deeply ingrained set of assumptions about how things are and how they are meant to be; a distorted view through an overused lens; a less-than-helpful lack of empathy for the novice.
I’ve noted this kind of thing before among so-called social media experts — the hyper-connected insiders always on the hunt for the next big thing, who often declare a tool, technology or platform “old news” long before the mainstream population has adopted it as their own. I’ve been guilty of this myself. And as someone with a 20+ year track record in marketing strategy, I can sometimes forget that the concepts, approaches and processes that seem obvious to me might be totally alien to an executive who hasn’t spent a career thinking about the nuances of building brands.
Becoming a beginner reminds you what it’s like to view something through a new lens. What it’s like to tackle a fresh challenge. How it feels to accomplish something for the first time. And frankly, how it feels to struggle with a concept, task or skill that you haven’t yet mastered. Becoming a beginner reminds you that expertise is a gift — and also a curse. A thing hard one over time and through a daunting amount of hard work. And a thing to keep in check by constantly reexamining it as if it were something truly new. Because to others, it probably is…
So what should you begin? Almost anything will do — pick up an instrument you’ve never played, a paint brush you’ve never held. Learn more about wine tasting or bookkeeping. Whatever suits your style. For certain, any of these things will open your eyes to new possibilities. Or — quite simply — remember that the world of business has never been so ripe with change. That just about every day brings new developments, disruptive changes, revolutionary or even just evolutionary ideas that bear consideration. Go through your work day with your blinders off and become a beginner at all the things that lie just outside your core area of expertise.
You just might become a better expert in the process.