Conquering The Curse Of Being An Expert

When you know more than anyone else in your field, how do you keep learning? History explains.

Conquering The Curse Of Being An Expert
Daniel Ellsberg, in a portrait for Life taken in 1954 while he was a young Marine officer. Ellsberg later earned a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard, concentrating on decision theory. He used that expertise to advise the DoD on nuclear strategy.

Here’s a great story from a thread on Quora about intellectual honesty, excerpted from Secrets, the memoir of famed antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg was a DoD consultant at the time, watching Henry Kissinger climb the ladder of power. Kissinger was about to receive access to a new level of information that was more secret than top secret. Keep in mind, Ellsberg was an ex-Marine who was against war while working for the military. He made the unprecedented decision to leak the Pentagon Papers, which helped end the Vietnam War and ushered in a new era of thinking about warfare and government secrecy. Ellsberg offered Kissinger a bit of advice:


Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all–so much! incredible!–suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

Over a longer period of time–not too long, but a matter of two or three years–you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.

….Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning. As I’ve said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.

Kissinger ultimately failed Ellsberg’s wisdom. Here’s to hoping none of us do. What’s so fantastic about this passage is that it’s relevant in a myriad of applications beyond the scope of the military–any expert in any field can probably empathize with the sentiments. There are lessons about keeping humility, despite access to premium resources (which could just as easily be something like funding as something like wisdom). There are lessons in becoming comfortable working in the realm of the unknowable. And, maybe best of all, there are lessons in how to keep learning from the people around you, even when they may seem naive from lack of all that knowledge you have.

In domestic life, we sort of have this naiveté issue figured out. When we play board games with a child, most of us attenuate our talents a bit. Rather than playing to win, we play for the experience, and in doing so, we get to see the world, for just a few minutes, through their eyes. Of course, when that child grows up into a snotty teenager who thinks they know more than you do in every aspect of life–that may be the better analog for dealing with your ladder-climbing intellectual peers.

[Hat tip: Quora]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach