{ Rethinking Expertise, Part I } The Dangerous Seduction of “Yes, But…”

Lucy from Peanuts

My sister and I still laugh over something she said in passing, years ago. We were on the phone discussing the fact that our 60-something mom had just completed a long charity walk  — essentially a marathon and a half — over the weekend.

“I can’t believe she walked forty miles!” I marveled.
Thirty-nine,” my sister shot back.

Her retort — as though she couldn’t tolerate such imprecision — was hilarious to me. Through a self-effacing groan, she too laughed at her automatic correction. Ever since, it’s been something I’ve good-naturedly teased her about.

Fast-forward to this month. Three times, I’ve noticed myself doing something similar:

  • Talking to a friend about the possibility of moving to a new place, I say the location is a bit far from a commercial street.
    “Well, there’s Smith Street,” my friend accurately remarks.
    “But it’s two-and-a-half blocks away. Two-and-a-half long blocks.”
  • I’m leaving a birthday party on 21st Street in Manhattan with my five-year-old daughter Amelie. Another parent who is a relatively new acquaintance asks me what we’re planning to do next.
    “Not sure. I kind of want to wander around before we head home.” “You two could go check out some art galleries,” she suggests.
    “With Amelie, no. Maybe a playground.”
  • Amelie wants some help making doll’s shoes out of cardboard. I have traced and cut out a sole.
    “Now cut this and put it like this,” she says, holding up another piece at a perpendicular.
    “I don’t think that’s going to work. It’s not going to stay.”
    “But we’ll tape it!” she insists.
    “OK, but it’s probably not going to hold.”

It wasn’t until the third interaction that I noticed the similarities among them. When I nixed my daughter’s cardboard vision, she didn’t take it lying down. She threw herself down. In hysterics.

Her dramatic dejection, along with some insights from my husband, helped me see that my response to her shoe idea was fundamentally negative. Moreover, all of my responses were:

Yes, but those blocks are long.
Yes, but art galleries aren’t for kids.
Yes, but shoes aren’t made of cardboard.

Yes, but…

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Last night I attended a wonderful talk by someone you might call professionally curious.

Robert Krulwich is a longtime, award-winning science reporter and the co-creator of WNYC’s RadioLab. As I remember it, the last question of the Q&A session that followed his talk was, Where did you get your curiosity?  

Without hesitation, he answered, My mom. She was amazing: she could get anyone to open up about anything. Even a stranger on an escalator.

Though heartfelt and perfectly lovely, his response struck me as an oversimplification. Why? Because to embody profound curiosity throughout one’s life — openly, out loud, and particularly in one’s professional sphere — requires an intellectual humility that I’m not sure our prevailing sociocultural values reward.

Instead, expertise — knowing things, having the answers — is prized. Experts are sought out by business, media, and governments. In the west, expertise is a form of capital, quite literally. Experts are paid to provide answers to important questions. They aren’t paid to say, “Hunh, I don’t know” or “Gosh, I never thought of that.”

Exceptions to the primacy of expertise do of course exist. Several have crept into my consciousness recently. In graduate school, I encountered the view championed by Bruce Mau, Tim Brown, and other designers — and borne out by cognitive psychologists — that being a novice in a particular context can often boost one’s capacity to innovate in that context. At the same time, I was absorbing my now-colleague Elsa Fridman’s rethinked essays on shoshin (the beginner’s mind), and how it plays an important role in integrative thinking. And I was studying Japanese designer Kenya Hara’s concept of “exformation”: making the known unknown for the explicit purpose of seeing and interacting with it anew.

But outside of these specialized contexts, our culture generally views expertise as an unqualified good. And so, for the most part, it’s somewhat unusual to hear such phrases as “Hunh, I don’t know” and “Gosh, I never thought of that” — not to mention somewhat difficult (for many) to say them. 

And yet, Robert Krulwich has revolutionized his career (and some would say mainstream science journalism as a whole) in part by using those very phrases. In his talk yesterday he addressed this observation, comparing Walter Cronkite’s stentorian voice-of-God delivery to his own unmodulated voice, which often conveys sincerely perplexed reactions to Radiolab’s guests. (Check back for a link to the video of Krulwich’s talk, which took place at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.)

By design, Mr. Krulwich’s approach to Radiolab is not as an expert but instead as an engaged and curious novice. This approach, he said, makes him a faithful and effective proxy for the people he hopes the show will enlighten: his own listeners.

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So why is being an expert a problem?

Of course it’s not, per se.

The problem I think is being the kind of expert who can’t be anything else.

The kind of expert who — consciously or not — avoids saying, Hunh, I don’t know and Gosh, I never thought of that.

The kind of expert who reflexively responds, Yes, but… 

Yes, but those blocks are long.
Yes, but art galleries aren’t for kids.
Yes, but shoes aren’t made of cardboard. 

Here’s the thing. In those moments I didn’t perceive my responses as negative. I sincerely believed my responses were more precise reflections of an objective reality. And in the case of my daughter’s shoemaking, I thought I was being helpful by steering her away from a doomed experiment. I suppose I assumed that each Yes, but… reflected a clear-eyed assessment of the situation.

Now my Yes, but…s seem impulsive and strange. They fill me with questions: What is that chronic hole-poking about? What is that mental blip, that unthinking tic? Is it a short-circuit in my reasoning? Is it the cause of the Yes, but…? Or the effect? Or, somehow, both? Do the Yes, but…s stem from overuse of my critical function? Or from an overinflated value I place on my own sense of expertise?

Hunh, I don’t know. 

But I do know this: Each Yes, but… I’ve described to you very effectively closed me off from an attractive possibility and a fresh point of view.

I didn’t stop to consider that a longer walk to the store would be a boon to my health. I didn’t contemplate the unique perspective I would gain by visiting an art gallery with a five-year-old. I didn’t realize that if I had just allowed that five-year-old to play out her shoe experiment, she would have discovered the cardboard’s deficiencies herself — and experienced deeper learning than my prepackaged “expert knowledge”  could ever instill.

This leads me to wonder: If the impulse to pounce on the holes in others’ ideas is a side-effect of expertise (be it a scientist’s expertise or an educator’s), what can be done to offset it? 

Part II: Yes, and… — How Openness and Receptivity can be Reverse-Engineered 

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